Writing systems have been in place for several thousands of years. There are many undeciphered ancient writing systems that remain as a mystery even today. These writing systems have become undecipherable because of language isolation, no known links to other known languages and not enough textual evidence. Some of these writing systems were recorded using stone carvings, monumental carvings, wooden and clay carvings during the ancient era. Few of them were even recorded by papers. Still, these writing systems ranging from the Bronze Age to Medieval and modern age have been undecipherable. Even the advanced and powerful civilizations like the Indus Valley civilizations had languages and scripts not known to the world now. These writing systems have left a hole in the history of civilization.
Let’s check the 10 most mysterious ancient writing systems from the ancient world (undeciphered scripts from ancient history):
10. Voynich Manuscript (1404–1438)
Voynich manuscript is one of the most mysterious writing systems in the world. It is from the 15th century. It is a codex hand-written in an unknown writing system. The origin of the manuscript and its content is unknown. The manuscript may be from Italy. Voynich manuscript gets its name after Wilfrid Voynich who bought it in 1912. The manuscript contains 240 pages of illustrations or diagrams, texts or fold-able sheets. Several pages of the manuscript are missing. Many professionals, cryptographers, and codebreakers from WWI and WWII have tried to decode unsuccessfully. It is one of the biggest mysteries in the history of cryptography. Several decipherment attempts have been unsuccessful.
9. Zapotec Writing (300 BC to 700 AD)
Another earliest writing system of Mesoamerica is Zapotec writing. It belongs to the Zapotec culture or civilization. The Zapotec civilization dates back to 2,500 years ago. Monte Alban is an important site of the Zapotec culture. Monuments at this site reveal several glyphic scripts which belong to the Zapotec writing. The undecipherable Zapotec writings have columns from top to bottom. These scripts are somewhat cruder than the Classic Maya texts. Hence, it is speculative that these scripts are less phonetic than the largely syllabic Maya script. The earliest known monument of Zapotec writing is the “Danzante” stone which is at in San Jose Mogote, Oaxaca. Nothing is certain regarding the texts and scripts of Zapotec.
8. Cretan Hieroglyphs (2100–1700 BC)
Cretan hieroglyphs are another writing system from ancient Greece that hasn’t been deciphered yet. It is perhaps another Minoan language, but nothing is known about it. These hieroglyphs are from the early Bronze Age Crete from the Minoan era. Linear A and Cretan hieroglyphs might have some correlation between them but this may be untrue. Cretan hieroglyphs predate Linear A by almost a century. These two writing systems were used in parallel for most of their history. Cretan hieroglyphs are perhaps a type of ideographic, possibly with a syllabic component. The time period (2100–1700 BC) of these scripts makes it hard to decode and solve the mystery.
7. Isthmian Script (ca. 500 BCE to ca. 500 CE)
The Isthmian script is an early Mesoamerican writing system from perhaps 500 BCE to 500 CE. There is disagreement on these dates. It was in use in Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico. Epi-Olmec script (“post-Olmec script”) is the other name of Isthmian script. Structurally, these scripts have similarity to the Maya script. Today, these scripts remain undecipherable and are an assumption of it to be logographic. In 1993, a partial decipherment attempt by John Justeson and Terrence Kaufman claimed that the language represented was a member of the Zoquean language family. The next year, Stephen D. Houston and Michael D. Coe tried to apply unsuccessfully the Justeson-Kaufman decipherment-system on the Isthmian scripts leaving the script in dispute.
6. Linear A (2500–1450 BC)
Linear A is a writing system from Ancient Greece. It is one of the two undeciphered writing systems from ancient Greece. Linear A was the primary script in use by the mysterious Minoan civilization. These scripts were found on palaces and in religious writings. This led to the origin of another script – Linear B, which were in use by the Mycenaean civilization. Though, Linear B has similar signs and symbols (a language derived/dubbed from/as “Minoan”) against the Linear A, researchers couldn’t draw a direct relation. It is uncertain where these two scripts link to. Is it the Minoan language or an independent language not known to the world?
5. Proto-Elamite & Linear Elamite Scripts (3400 BC to 2000 BC)
Linear Elamite and Proto-Elamite are two Bronze Age writing systems of the Elams. Whether or not these two mysterious writing systems are relatives is uncertain. These scripts are from the present day Iran.
Proto-Elamite was in use around 5,000 years ago. These scripts were found in the important Proto-Elamite sites of Susa and Anshan. Proto-Elamites were thought to be Elamite speakers. Due to many cultural similarities between the Elamite speakers and Proto-Elamites, this was a conclusion. But, this theory is uncertain as the Proto-Elamite scripts are undecipherable. There are several theories to postulate a relationship between the Proto-Elamite and its direct successor – Linear Elamite.
Linear Elamite was in use around 4000 years ago after Proto-Elamite. Only a few monumental inscriptions contain these scripts. It was in use for a brief period of last quarter of the 3rd millennium BC. There are claims that the Linear Elamite scripts are a syllabic writing system from Proto-Elamite scripts. Decipherment of the script has been unsuccessful.
4. Byblos Syllabary (1800 BC to 1400 BC)
The Byblos syllabary is an ancient writing system found in Byblos, a coastal city in Lebanon. The undecipherable writing system is known from ten inscriptions which were found. The items where the inscriptions were present are stones, spatulas and bronze plates. An estimation of the time-zone of this syllabary is around 1800 BC and 1400 BC. These scripts were also discovered in Egypt, Italy, and Megiddo. An attempt to decipher the mysterious script by various people, Orientalists and researchers were unsuccessful. Decoding the script began from 1946 by Dhorme, a renowned orientalist & cryptanalyst from Paris.
3. Khitan Scripts (10-12th Century)
Khitan scripts are a proto-writing system for the Para-Mongolic Khitan language. This system was in use during the 10-12th century by the Khitan people. Khitan people were the ones to establish the Liao dynasty in Northeast China. There were two types of scripts – small Khitan scripts and large Khitan scripts. Though the scripts have great similarities with the Chinese scripts, they are not fully decipherable. More discoveries and researches are necessary to fully decipher the scripts. Khitan language, on the other hand, is thought to have similarities with the Mongolian languages but is not one. The clues regarding the Khitan scripts point to a different direction and the mystery continues.
2. Cypro-Minoan Syllabary (ca. 1550–1050 BC)
Cypro-Minoan syllabary is an unknown syllabary from the Bronze Age (1550–1050 BC). Several inscriptions bearing the Cypro-Minoan syllabary were discovered around Cyprus and in the ancient city of Ugarit on the Syrian coast. After recovering around 250 objects consisting of clay balls, cylinders, and tablets and votive stands, the script remains a mystery There remains the only speculation that the syllabary was a language similar to Minoan or Eteocypriot (with just 15-20 signs in similarity). There is clearly no evidence of a Minoan invasion in the area, colonization or influence. Today, nothing regarding the syllabary is certain, we do not know its origin, language behind it nor do we know its meaning.
1. Indus Script (3500–1900 BCE)
The most mysterious Indus script is a script from the lost and even more mysterious Indus Valley civilization. We know so much about the Indus Valley civilization yet we know little. The Harappan script is another name for the Indus script. The script was the creation of the people of Indus and was in existence 4,000 years ago. Archaeologists have found around 1,500 unique inscriptions. The longest inscriptions out of the 1,500 inscriptions are just 27 signs long. Since most of these signs and symbols are short, it has been a difficult task to judge whether the scripts depict a writing system or a language.
The people of Indus Valley had their own mysterious language and the scripts found are even more mysterious. Several attempts by researchers and scientists to decipher the scripts have been unfruitful, even computers have tried their luck. It has been way too difficult to crack the mystery from an ancient time-zone of 3500 to 1900 BCE when the civilization flourished.