Lost in translation: the Ancient books that we can’t decode

In 1908, archaeologist Luigi Pernier was poking around the ruins of an ancient palace in Crete when he unearthed a smallish clay disc that featured a series of mysterious symbols set in a spiral on both sides.

Neither its layout, nor the symbols themselves, had been seen before – and neither have they been seen again since. The artifact is known as the Phaistos Disc. To this day, and despite many attempts, no one has a clue what the symbols mean, or what language they record.

The best guess among scholars has the Disc being inscribed about 3800 years ago. Perhaps whoever did it was intent on recording some grand creation myth, or the lineage of a king now lost to history. Then again, perhaps it notes the dry accounting of a wheat harvest, or a fish haul.

Or maybe it’s just a doodle: the meaningless scrawl of a bloke bored out of his wits with only a stick and a bit of clay to amuse himself.

No one knows. And that’s the allure of the world’s small but fascinating collection of undeciphered texts, which include not only things written in extinct languages but also much more recent documents from Freemasons, spies and, in one case, a serial killer.

If any of the puzzles are ever cracked, we could end up with the seeds of a tale that would make Dan Brown green with envy. Or we could end up with a note to remember to buy milk on the way home.

Interest in undeciphered texts can be expected to spike in coming months, and not just because Brown has a new novel on the way. Mostly it will be because of the news this week that a Spanish publisher, Siloe, has won the right to reproduce perhaps the most enigmatic book of them all, known as the Voynich manuscript.

Read more: The Sydney Morning Herald

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