Tales that Ancienct Letters Tell
(appeared on 25th Dec 2013)

(link to main website)

Inscriptions on an ancient clay object have brought Persian history to life for citizens of Mumbai, says S.Ananthanarayanan.

The Cyrus Cylinder, an artifact dating to the sixth century BCE and in the possession of the British Museum, is on display at the Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalay, Mumbai. The exhibition is curated by Dr John Curtis, Keeper of the Special Middle East Projects, British Museum, who explained the history and the importance of the artifact at a public lecture at the Mumbai museum premises on Saturday.

The Cylinder is about eight inches long and three inches in diameter and is covered with writing in the Akkadian, or the Assyro-Babylonian cuneiform script, which describes the acts of Cyrus, the Persian king who captured Babylon from Nabonidus and brought Babylon into the Persian Empire. The writing on the Cylinder, which was placed in the foundation, as was customary, of a wall that Cyrus rebuilt in Babylon, records that king Cyrus did not sack and destroy the city after its capture, but let the citizens live in freedom, returned idols of other temples in the region and repatriated displaced people. The document has hence been described as the ‘earliest charter of Human Rights’, but the view has been contested by some as typical of history recorded by a monarch consolidating his victory. Dr John Curtis, however, drew attention to the corroboration of the Cylinder in other records, particularly some of the books of the Bible, which speak of repatriation of the Jews. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, in fact, has described the Cylinder as the “the first attempt we know about running a society, a state with different nationalities and faiths — a new kind of statecraft.”

Cuneiform script

Ancient inscriptions were written in clay using a stylus made of reed, which left a wedge shaped impression – hence the word, cuneiform, which means ‘wedge shaped’. The earliest instances are of the Sumerian settlements in the Babylon region, dating to the 4th millennium BCE and these were pictograms, or writing with symbols which pictorially resembled objects. Over the next millennium, the script was improved and abstracted, with the number of symbols used being reduced from about a thousand to about four hundred, by the second millennium BCE. The authoritative study of the script by Rüster and Neu lists 375 cuneiform signs that replaced over 600 signs used earlier, and about half of these had syllabic or sound values, the remaining being ideograms or logograms, which are like the signs, “%” , “&” or “@”, as opposed to the letters of thee alphabet, in modern English.

An example of refinement of a pictogram, which means, “head,” to a cuneiform symbol can be seen in the panel:

Scripts have progressed, in this way, to lead to forms of rudimentary alphabetic script and all the important primitive scripts, with the exception of the Indus Valley inscriptions, have been deciphered. The cuneiform of the Cyrus Cylinder is thus well understood and in some other tablet inscriptions, where passages from the Cylinder have been repeated, scholars have even been able to recognize similarity of the handwriting!


Deciphering of scripts is carried out by identifying symbols that appear the most frequently, finding patterns in the use of symbols and then through imaginative interpretation. When a symbol appears frequently at the start of writing, which may be royal edicts, for instance, the symbol could mean, ‘the king’. Once this symbol is identified, another symbol that often, or always, appears with the first symbol may mean, ‘great’. The same word appearing in another text that seems to describe a hunting trip may indicate a ‘great lion’, which provides the word for lion, and so on. In a similar fashion, where there is information about the pronunciation of words, through derived languages that are in use, the phonetic import of symbols can be made out.

While reconstruction of the ancient language from the fragmented records available has been possible in many cases, this is not so with the Indus Valley script (3300 to 1300 BCE), mainly because the available material is sparse and also that we have little knowledge of how the words sounded. There are conjectures about the Indus Valley script – one that it is not really a script, another that it belongs to the Indo-European language family and yet another that it belongs to Dravidian languages, which were perhaps once current in north India.

While deciphering the script thus presents great challenge, there are some features that can be made out. One, from inspection of samples of Indus Valley seals, is the direction of writing. The inscription on some seals seems to get crowded to the left, which would suggest that the inscriber found that he or she was running out of space towards the left. This would indicate right to left writing on the seal, which may be left to right when the seal was used to make an impression, but in any case, it shows the progression of the writing, and also directionality, which is a characteristic of scripts.

Another feature is whether there are patterns. For instance, in the English script, we know that the letter ‘q’ is always followed by the letter, ‘u’. And the next letter must be one of the vowels. It turns out that the Indus Valley script also shows pattern like this. For instance, the diamond shape, as shown in the picture, is often followed by the two parallel lines symbol and then there could be the fish shape and other signs. But never the man shape or the arrow shape, shown in the lower part of the picture. And then, there were signs that often appeared at the end of the text, like the jar shape shown in the picture.

All this data can be fed to a computer, which can use statistical principles to evaluate the sign that is most likely to follow a string of other signs. The computer can then be tested by erasing a few signs from an existing string and asking the computer to say what signs there should have been. The tests showed that the computer was right about 75% of the time. On the one hand, this indicates that there is a clear pattern in the symbols and they are a real script. And then, this can be used to fill in the signs that are missing in a damaged seal, thus generating more real data as bases for analysis.

On way of analysing the inscriptions is to assess the level of order or disorder in the series of signs. For instance, a random series of alphabets like this: adhesuucwmopdrh – represents disorder. But a series like this: dddddddddddddd, is highly ordered. A real sentence, like, “thirty days hath September”, is an instance of the second example. Nature tends increase the level of disorder, which is the same thing as energy getting expended, or water seeking its own level. This means a meaningful series of symbols, like a real sentence, needs energy to create and represents order. Analysis of the signs in the Indus Valley scripts shows a level of order that compares with real language sentences, which shows that they are real scripts. In fact, Dr Rajesh Rao, a researcher in the field says, certain unusual patterns in this script have been found as far afield as in Mesapotamia. As the Indus Valley people were known to have wide trade contacts, the unusual patterns probably represent foreign words spelt by visiting traders!

Having found that the Indus Valley script is a real writing, the question is to find out what it means. A suggestion has arisen from the observation that many of the symbols are like humans, insects or animals. Now, many ancient scripts use the Rebus principle, or the idea that pictures could represent sounds, without reference to the meaning. For instance, the pictures of an eye and a house could build a sentence as shown in the box,


                                                 to stand for, “may I see you home?”

Using this idea, some of the Indus valley seals have been interpreted to mean names of important constellations, in Dravidian languages, to support the theory of Dravidian origin.

But we really do not know. We only know, from the fascinating display of artifacts and their meaning, in the exhibition of the Cyrus Cylinder, on at Mumbai, that ancient scripts have much to tell us of how our ancestors thought and lived.

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