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PORTUGAL - Experts trying to decipher ancient language - HISTORY

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« on: March 03, 2009, 07:42:15 pm »

                                   Squiggles in stone reveal old words to modern scholars

The New Zealand Herald
Mar 03, 2009

- When archaeologists on a dig in southern Portugal last year flipped over a heavy chunk of slate and saw writing not used for more than 2500 years, they nearly broke into applause.

The enigmatic pattern of inscribed symbols curled symmetrically around the upper part of the rough-edged, yellowish stone tablet and coiled into the middle in a decorative style typical of an extinct Iberian language called southwest script.

"We didn't break into applause, but almost," says Amilcar Guerra, a University of Lisbon lecturer overseeing the excavation. "It's an extraordinary thing."

For more than two centuries, scientists have tried to decipher southwest script, believed to be the peninsula's oldest written tongue and, with Etruscan from modern-day Italy, one of Europe's first.

The stone tablet has 86 characters and is the longest-running text of the Iron Age language found.

About 90 slate tablets bearing the ancient inscriptions have been discovered, most incomplete.

Almost all were scattered across southern Portugal, though a handful turned up in the neighbouring Spanish region of Andalucia.

Some of the letters look like squiggles. Others are like crossed sticks. One resembles the number four and another recalls a bow-tie. They were carefully scored into the slate. The text is always a running script of unseparated words, usually reading from right to left.

The first attempts to interpret this writing date were made in the 18th century. It aroused the curiosity of a bishop whose diocese encompassed this region where the earth keeps coughing up new fragments.

Almodovar, a rural town of about 3500 people amid a gentle landscape of meadows, is at the heart of the Southwest Script region. It created a museum two years ago where 20 of the engraved tablets are on show.

Though the evidence is gradually building as new tablets are found, researchers are handicapped because they are peering deep into a period of history about which they know little, says Professor Pierre Swiggers, a southwest script specialist at the University of Leuven in Belgium.

Scientists have few original documents and hardly any parallel texts from the same time and place.

"We hardly know anything about [the people's] daily habits or religious beliefs," he says.

Southwest script is one of just a handful of ancient languages about which little is known, says Swiggers. The obscurity has provided fertile ground for competing theories about who wrote these words.

It is generally agreed the texts date from between 2500 and 2800 years ago. Most experts have concluded they were written by a people called the Tartessians, a tribe of Mediterranean traders who mined for metal in these parts - one of Europe's largest copper mines is nearby - but disappeared after a few centuries.
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