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HOT ANCIENT NEWS: Uncracked codes of the distant past, Cowboy Books reports!

Updated: Jan 18

You can really find whimsy in the most unexpected places, y’all — when I cracked open Silvia Ferrera’s The Greatest Invention: The History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts, I didn’t expect to encounter so much of it, but encounter it I did!

I’m inclined to ask amongst those I know: “What even is language?” It’s a pertinent question, especially when you tend to stumble on your words like I do. Sometimes it’s worth contemplating how these arbitrary sounds we make with our mouths and throats connect to the symbols we put on the page, and this is where Ferrera seems to eat, sleep and breathe. The impulse to create a connection between spoken language and artistically rendered symbols is something we take for granted, but in terms of the development of humanity and the ancients, it’s kind of a wondrous thing, and something I found rather special to think about — it is sometimes hard to define why we need art, but we do need it, don’t we? and the proof is in its connection to our most basic modes of communication.

I must say I couldn’t tell you what the nine mysterious scripts are, since Ferrara breezes through several, uses others for comparison, and the entire composition of the book is almost goofily colloquial. Though I understood this to be intentional, it could be a bit distracting from the seriousness of her mission; at the same time one does appreciate a little levity when it comes to heady subjects.

A jasper seal stone, carved with Cretan hieroglyphs, including a cat.Credit...Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete

Cats made an important contribution to decoding ancient scripts, since ma was the sound a cat made in the ancient script Linear B, as discovered by the chain-smoking researcher Alice Kober, who would file her diagrammed notecards in old Lucky Strike cartons. The general sound a cat makes, Ferrara illuminates, is the same in almost every language in the world (meow, mau, etc). I was especially in awe of Chinese, whose script is the longest in continuous use, originating in ancient times, the earliest examples found on large tortoise shells and related to fortune telling. Then there’s quipu, the Incan writing system that was encoded in knots worn on one’s person, a system lost in the throes of colonial conquest. In Mesopotamia, sigils that would be considered business logos were key developments in writing, as well as the tokens that would become money — language and bureaucracy are intimately connected, scripts were necessary to control large kingdoms, otherwise the lines of communication would simply fall apart. The Mayan sigils were considered sacred and alive, and chocolate, I was amused to discover, was the drink of the gods (understandable), its symbol a godhead gobbling up the sweet drink.

The reduction of the symbols into easier and simpler streamlined shapes poses an interesting challenge for those trying to decode the scripts. The concept of handwriting, calligraphy, even fonts being applied to a writing system yet to be cracked filled me with a strange sense of head-scratching brain noise. But one of the most interesting sections Ferrara includes covers a study of people who are forced to try and communicate without a writing system or spoken language, thus devising a written code on the spot. The study demonstrates how pictograms become simpler and simpler, even in the span of a few exchanges.

Walking around New York City, you are surrounded by the constant emergence of sigils: brands and logos that come and go, and especially the graffiti that peppers the city. Graffiti tags are sigils that deliberately take language back to its pictographic roots, a kind of ingenious reversal of the alphabet that one feels, in the looking, stems from the ancient urge to leave a mark on this world. One feels a sense of forgiveness for all the children ‘building their brands’, for, as it turns out, we’ve been building brands since the dawn of time: logos, tags, language, cave paintings. What fun! What whimsy!

—Cowboy Books


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