Education & Family

'Crowd-sourcing' website to decipher ancient writing

Proto-Elamite script
Image caption The ancient writing system has defeated previous attempts at decipherment

The Oxford academic trying to crack an ancient undeciphered writing system has set up a website to "crowd-source" help from the public.

Jacob Dahl was so overwhelmed by offers of help from BBC News website readers that he has made a website to harness their code-breaking skills.

Dr Dahl wants to decipher proto-Elamite texts on 5,000-year-old clay tablets.

Among those offering help is the grandson of one of the archaeologists who unearthed them over a century ago.

Nicolas Jequier, living in Switzerland, is the grandson of Gustave Jequier, an archaeologist who explored the sites in south-west Iran where the tablets were found.

He says he wants to help in the latest efforts to understand this writing, saying that his grandfather "must have brought back to the Louvre several of these tablets from his digs in Susa in 1897-1902".

Susa - near the modern Iranian town of Shush - was a very early settlement in this region, possibly dating back to more than 6,000 years ago. French archaeologists carried out major excavations before World War I.

Harnessing the crowd

The biggest collection of these tablets with proto-Elamite writing, dating from about 3,000BC, were brought to the Louvre in Paris. But no-one has ever managed to decipher them.

Image caption Jacob Dahl says he has been overwhelmed by the level of offers of help

Dr Dahl and the Oxford academics have been using new imaging technology in a bid to become the first to understand the symbols and signs on these clay tablets.

Previous attempts have failed - partly because the writing system is so dissimilar to any other and, he suspects, because there are many mistakes in the writing, which have disrupted attempts to identify a coherent pattern.

The process of deciphering the thousands of signs on thousands of tablets is a painstaking one - and Dr Dahl wants to accelerate this by getting help from other experts and the public, who will be able to share ideas and look at images of the writing.

Astronomy projects, such as mapping stars, have successfully used such a crowd-sourcing approach.

The website he has set up includes the signs that have been deciphered and provides information about the historical context of the writing and the tools that have been applied to try to understand it.

Images of the tablets will be published, drawing on the high-quality computer images being made by the Oxford research project.

The story published by the BBC News website on Monday drew a very big response from readers wanting to help out - many from experts in related fields around the world.

There have been offers of collaboration from language experts, code breakers, mathematicians, historians, archaeologists, anthropologists and interested and informed amateurs.

They have suggested many different types of ideas, including references to gods, the seasons, the cycle of farming, payments, astronomical observations, mathematical symbols and links to many different ancient cultures and peoples.

There is an email address for people wanting to get in touch with the project:

Dr Dahl, from Wolfson College, Oxford, said: "I am overwhelmed by the positive response to our work and hope that the renewed focus on this ancient writing system may help us towards a decipherment."

One of the suggestions "coming closest", he added, came from a father and son in California, who thought that the example of writing shown with the article was about the harvest.

There will also be free-to-download information on the website about the writing and research data.

Dr Dahl has said that he believes that with sufficient support the entire writing system could be decoded in two years.

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