|10 March 2009
Experts try to decipher ancient Iberian language
When archaeologists on a dig in southern Portugal last year flipped over a heavy chunk of slate and saw writing not used for more than 2,500 years, they were elated. The enigmatic pattern of inscribed symbols curled symmetrically around the upper part of the rough-edged, yellowish stone tablet and coiled into the middle in a decorative style typical of an extinct Iberian language called Southwest Script.
For more than two centuries, scientists have tried to decipher Southwest Script, believed to be the peninsula's oldest written tongue and, along with Etruscan from modern-day Italy, one of Europe's first. The stone tablet features 86 characters and provides the longest-running text of the Iron Age language ever found. About 90 slate tablets bearing the ancient inscriptions have been recovered, most of them incomplete. Almost all were scattered across southern Portugal, though a handful turned up in the neighboring Spanish region of Andalucia.
Though the evidence is gradually building as new tablets are found, researchers are handicapped because they are peering deep into a period of history about which they know little, says professor Pierre Swiggers, a Southwest Script specialist at the University of Leuven, Belgium. Scientists have few original documents and hardly any parallel texts from the same time and place in readable languages. "We hardly know anything about (the people's) daily habits or religious beliefs," he says.
Southwest Script is one of just a handful of ancient languages about which little is known, according to Swiggers. The obscurity has provided fertile ground for competing theories about who wrote these words. It is generally agreed the texts date from between 2,500 and 2,800 years ago. Most experts have concluded they were authored by a people called Tartessians, a tribe of Mediterranean traders who mined for metal in these parts - one of Europe's largest copper mines is nearby - but disappeared after a few centuries. Some scientists have proposed that the composers were other pre-Roman tribes, such as the Conii or Cynetes, or maybe even Celts who roamed this far south.
Another translation difficulty is that the writing is not standardized. It seems certain that it was adapted from the Phoenician and Greek alphabets because it copied some of their written conventions. However, it also tweaked some of those rules and invented new ones. There's also the problem of figuring out what messages the slate tablets are intended to convey. Even when they can read portions of text, scientists don't really understand what it is saying - like a child mouthing the words of a Shakespeare play.
The lower part of the rectangular stones is left blank as if intended to be stuck in the ground. That has led experts to a supposition: The tablets were gravestones for elite members of local Iron Age society. Repeated sequences of words perhaps mean "Here lies..." or "Son of...". Since most people probably couldn't read, the ornamental elements lent distinction. If all the Southwest Script found so far were transcribed onto paper, it would still barely fill a single sheet. Without an equivalent of the Rosetta stone, which helped unlock the secrets of hieroglyphic writing, efforts to reconstruct the ancient language are doomed to slow progress.
Source: International Herald Tribune (1 March 2009)
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