In the ancient world, learning to write was one of the most important keys to success. If you were not born into royalty, becoming a scribe represented a path to wealth and power. It was not an easy trek. Learning to write involved copying and recopying texts. It took years of work and discipline. Very few even tried to master the craft.

In more modern times, scholars have often found that they have a lot of texts from the ancient world, but also that there is no way to actually read them. Some of the documents offer a remarkable window into the ancient world.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a great example. The most ancient story that we have, it was likely committed to clay sometime between 2750 and 2500 B.C.E.. The saga involves the transformation of a bad king into a good one, a friendship between two men, relationships between gods and humans, and even the timeless human struggle with mortality. The text contains bits and pieces of mythology that also appear in other ancient texts. The Biblical flood story is perhaps the most famous example. In short, the Epic is gripping stuff.

The story offers a remarkable window onto one of the very first civilizations, but reading it was a bit of a headache for scholars. What we know as the Epic of Gilgamesh was contained on hundreds of fragmentary tablets, found across the Middle East. While the Cuneiform script is the same, the languages used are different. Some are Akkadian, Sumerian, or other languages altogether.

Scholars did manage to translate Gilgamesh, but other languages remain mysterious. Consider, for example, the writing utilized by the Harrappan Civilization, which inhabited the Indus River Valley between roughly 3,000 and 1,000 B.C.E.. It was a remarkable society—affluent, massive, and astoundingly standardized across vast geographic space and in terms of city design and products produced. The problem for modern scholars is that relatively few Harrappan texts remain. What does exist is fragmentary, contained on a few tiny pieces of clay that are just inches long. Is there any way to accurately translate a few mysterious characters? What strategies make sense?

Translating Ancient Languages

So how does one translate an ancient language? It’s a fair question with multiple answers. Sometimes a good guess and a lot of talent are the key. Take the story of Michael Ventris, a clever linguist, architect, and superbly adept code-breaker. From an early age he was obsessed with a language called Linear B that was used by an early Greek civilization called the Mycenaeans (1600 B.C.E.-1100 B.C.E.).

The Mycenaeans ceased to rule the Aegean region after natural disaster and foreign invasion crushed their society. The result was a period called the "Greek Dark Ages," (1100-750 B.C.E.) when the Greeks did something that nobody else ever has: they collectively forgot how to read. Thus, when writing redeveloped it was based upon an entirely different alphabet. Nobody could read the old texts.

Enter Ventris. Scholars long assumed that Linear B represented an as-yet unknown Greek language. Ventris guessed otherwise. In 1952, the rank amateur suggested that Linear B was actually Greek in a different written form. From there, it was not easy sailing, but the work of breaking the Mycenaean code eventually fell into place.

The story is more complicated that that and the Michael Ventris story is a fascinating one. This video tells the whole tale.

Of course, the classic story combines great skill and more than a little luck. Today, the Rosetta Stone is a popular tourist attraction at the British Museum in London.

Historically, it was the key to reading Egyptian hieroglyphics. Before the Rosetta Stone, everyone from the days of the Roman Empire was obsessed with the remarkable civilization behind the pyramids and the Sphinx. Yet nobody could read the language.

Discovered by a French soldier on July 15, 1799, the Rosetta Stone was the key. There were three types of writing on it: Coptic (a more modern form of Egyptian writing), ancient Greek, and hieroglyphics. A French linguist named Jean-François Champollion realized its significance when he recognized that the Coptic and Greek texts said exactly the same thing. From there, the task was relatively easy. Simply work from the two comprehensible languages to triangulate the meanings of the various ancient Egyptian symbols.

Translation Activity

Or was it “relatively easy?” Here are three texts. Each one says exactly the same thing in a major modern language. Can you workout the meaning of the unfamiliar alphabet using the other two?

What challenges do you face while attempting this? Some languages are read bottom-right to top-left, others top-left to bottom-right. Can you tell which is which? Two of the unfamiliar alphabets are the same, but the languages are different. Can you tell which is which?