Clues to Lost Prehistoric Code Discovered in Mesopotamia
Anna Ressman/Courtesy Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
Archaeologists are using CT scanning and 3D modelling to crack a lost prehistoric code hidden inside clay balls, dating to some 5,500 years ago, found in Mesopotamia.
Oct. 31, 2011 --
Known as the Copiale Cipher, the mysterious text seen here was the work of a secretive 18th-century society. Discovered in East Germany and first examined in the 1970s, the 75,000-character cipher details the operations and rituals of this 300-year-old group. The cipher was cracked by a team of U.S. and Swedish researchers led by University of Southern California computer scientist Kevin Knight. Interestingly enough, the code revealed the political leanings of the organization and its curious fascination with eye surgery. Although a combination of human ingenuity and computing power solved this centuries-old text, there are still other codes, both modern and ancient, whose meanings have eluded even the most skilled cryptographers. Explore other texts whose meanings are still hidden to history.
BLOG: FINALLY! MYSTERIOUS CIPHER CODE CRACKED
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale
The Voynich manuscript, a 15th-century parchment containing both a coded script and mysterious drawings, was discovered in 1912 in the Villa Mondragone near Rome. Even since its discovery, it has confounded cryptographers. Only this year did researchers even determine how old the text is. Even the true author of the text is something of a mystery. Theories range from a 13th-century friar named Roger Bacon to a religious sect hiding their customs and rituals in the pages of the manuscript. Although the book contains nearly a quarter of a million characters, they are of such variety as to further complicate deciphering the text. Some resemble Latin letters and Roman numerals, while others are completely unique. The drawings only serve to further confuse anyone looking to see through to the meaning of the text.
NEWS: MYSTERIOUS MANUSCRIPT'S AGE DETERMINED
Discovered in 1908 in Crete, the Phaistos Disk is a Bronze-Age relic containing a script that dates back about 4,000 years. Measuring around 16 centimeters (6.3 inches) in diameter and containing some 45 symbols repeated throughout the artifact, the pottery disk contains a mix of figures resembling humans, plants, weapons and animals. Since its discovery, the authenticity of the Phaistos Disk has been questioned by some archaeologists who argue it's a forgery. But most scholars accept it as a genuine product of its time.
J. M. Kenoyer / harappa.com via ScienceDaily.
Thousands of artifacts bearing Indus Script, a more than 4,000-year-old writing form tied to the prehistoric Indus Valley Civilization, have been discovered over the past century. However, the meaning of these ancient hieroglyphics has remained a mystery to anyone looking to decipher them. Although a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences identified patterns in the symbols taken from different artifacts bearing this text, the language remains a mystery. In fact, some archaeologists have questioned whether the script represents a language at all, or "merely pictograms of political or religious icons," as reported in a related release from Science Daily. With the discovery of sequences and patterns in the script, however, those looking to decode these ancient texts are more confident that the codes reflect an underlying logic of a verbal system.
Discovered on Easter Island in the 19th century, Rongorongo is a text found only on fragments of wooden objects. It consists of glyphs resembling human, animal and plant figures as well as abstract, geometric symbols. Dating the text has proven tricky, since researchers can only radiocarbon-date the wood, not necessarily the text itself. Evidence suggests, however, that the text couldn't date much further back than around 700 years ago.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the San Francisco area was terrorized by a serial killer who called himself "The Zodiac." He sent many letters to the San Francisco Chronicle documenting his crimes over the years. The letters the Zodiac killer sent also included a code in the form a cipher, only one of which has ever been deciphered. However, rather than providing any insight into the identity of the killer, the solution to the cryptogram is instead a vulgar statement about what motivates the killer.
PHOTOS: MOST INFAMOUS COLD CASES
Central Intelligence Agency
You'd think it would take a world-class cryptographer to create the four hidden messages embedded in Kryptos, a sculpture that resides on the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency. Generations of codebreakers haven't been able to crack the full message concealed within this artwork. In fact, the message is the creation of artist Jim Sanborn, who is allegedly the only one who knows the final solution. The sculpture is made up of four sections, three of which have been solved. (To view the original text of the puzzle, click here.) The fourth section of the piece has confounded both professional and amateur cryptographers. Since the sculpture's dedication, Sanborn has released a few clues about the pieces, including that the first three sections contain the keys to solving the fourth.
Researchers studying clay balls from Mesopotamia have discovered clues to a lost code that was used for record-keeping about 200 years before writing was invented.
The clay balls may represent the world's "very first data storage system," at least the first that scientists know of, said Christopher Woods, a professor at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, in a lecture at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum, where he presented initial findings.
The balls, often called "envelopes" by researchers, were sealed and contain tokens in a variety of geometric shapes — the balls varying from golf ball-size to baseball-size. Only about 150 intact examples survive worldwide today. [See Photos of the Clay Balls & Lost Code]
PHOTOS: Cryptic Codes Yet to Be Cracked
The researchers used high-resolution CT scans and 3D modeling to look inside more than 20 examples that were excavated at the site of Choga Mish, in western Iran, in the late 1960s. They were created about 5,500 years ago at a time when early cities were flourishing in Mesopotamia.
Researchers have long believed these clay balls were used to record economic transactions. That interpretation is based on an analysis of a 3,300-year-old clay ball found at a site in Mesopotamia named Nuzi that had 49 pebbles and a cuneiform text containing a contract commanding a shepherd to care for 49 sheep and goats.
How these devices would have worked in prehistoric times, before the invention of writing, is a mystery. Researchers now face the question of how people recorded the number and type of a commodity being exchanged without the help of writing.
The CT scans revealed that some of the balls have tiny channels, 1-2 millimeters (less than one-tenth of an inch) across, crisscrossing them. Woods said he's not certain what they were used for, but speculates the balls contained fine threads that connected together on the outside. These threads could have held labels, perhaps made out of wax, which reflected the tokens within the clay balls.
The tokens within the balls come in 14 different shapes, including spheres, pyramids, ovoids, lenses and cones, the researchers found. Rather than representing whole words, these shapes would have conveyed numbers connected to a variety of metrological systems used in counting different types of commodities, Woods suggested. One ovoid, for instance, might mean a certain unit, say 10, which was used while counting a certain type of commodity.
The researchers, however, were perplexed when their CT scans found one clay ball containing tokens made of a low-density material, likely bitumen, a petroleum substance. "When we make a three-dimensional model of the cavity you get this very strange amoeba like-looking shape," Woods said during the lecture.
The information researchers have obtained about clay balls found in Mesopotamia may make it possible, in time, to crack the prehistoric code hidden inside.Photo by Anna Ressman/Courtesy Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
The tokens, in this instance, had air bubbles around them, suggesting they were wrapped in cloth before being put in the ball, the cloth disintegrating over time. In addition, it appears that a liquid, likely liquid bitumen, was poured over the tokens after they were inserted into the balls. What someone was trying to communicate by creating such tokens is unknown.
"That's a mystery," Woods told LiveScience in an interview. "I don't really have a good answer for that," he said, adding that the bitumen tokens may represent a divergent accounting practice, or, perhaps even, that the transaction recorded involved bitumen.
In ancient Mesopotamia bitumen was used as an adhesive and to waterproof things like baskets, boats and the foundations of buildings, Woods said. (In Photos: Treasures from Mesopotamia)
Cracking the prehistoric code
All of the clay balls contain, on the outside, one "equatorial" seal (running through the middle) and quite often two "polar" seals, running above and below.
The equatorial seals tend to be unique and more complex containing what appear to be mythological motifs; for instance a ball from the Louvre Museum shows human figures fighting what appear to be serpents. The polar seals, on the other hand, are repeated more often and tend to have simpler geometric motifs.
Based on this evidence, Woods hypothesizes the seal in the middle represents the "buyer" or recipient; the polar seals would represent the "seller" or distributor and perhaps third parties who would have participated in the transaction or acted as witnesses.
Many people would have acted as the buyers, but only a limited number of sellers or distributors would have been around to transact business with, explaining why the polar seals are repeated more often.
After a transaction of some importance was complete, one of these clay devices was created to serve as a "receipt" of sorts for the seller, as a record of what was expended. "There's a greater necessity to keep track of things that have been expended than things that are on hand," Woods said in the lecture.
Deciphering what transaction each clay ball represented is a trickier problem. Woods suspects the tokens represent numbers and metrical units. It's possible that, through the different token shapes, people in prehistoric times communicated numbers and units in a way similar to how the first scribes did 200 years later when writing was invented. If that's the case, Woods and other scientists may be able, in time, to crack the code by uncovering how token types cluster and vary.
"If they are, then there is at least some hope of deciphering the envelopes and with it uncovering the earliest evidence for complex numerical literacy," Woods said.
The amount of detail the scientists gleaned from the CT scans and 3D modeling was extraordinary, Woods said during the lecture. "We can learn more about these artifacts by non-destructive testing than we could by physically opening the envelopes," he said.
Woods will publish the full research results in the future and plans to put the images and 3D models online.
To peer inside the balls Woods worked with Jeffrey Diehm, who arranged for them to be CT scanned on a state-of-the-art industrial scanner (which is better suited for this work than a medical version), and Jim Topich, who had the CT images converted into detailed, dissectible, 3D models. Diehm was with North Star Imaging in Minnesota at the time the scans were done in 2011 (he is now the managing director of Avonix Imaging) and Topich is director of engineering and design at Kinetic Vision in Cincinnati.
The Royal Ontario Museum has a special exhibition on Mesopotamia that runs to Jan. 5, 2014. Woods' presentation is part of a lecture series that is appearing along with it.
This article originally appeared on LiveScience.com. More from LiveScience.com:
The Holy Land: 7 Amazing Archaeological Finds
Gallery: Aerial Photos Reveal Mysterious Stone Structures
10 Modern Tools for Indiana Jones
Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.