Grim Writing – the Indus Script and Computer Science

Found some interesting stuff on and sized it down a little for you guys:

The Indus civilization, which flourished throughout much of the third millennium B.C., was the most extensive civilization of its time. At its height, it encompassed an area of more than half a million square miles centered on what is today the India-Pakistan border. Remnants of the Indus have been found as far north as the Himalayas and as far south as Mumbai. It was the earliest known urban culture of the subcontinent and it boasted two large cities, one at Harappa and one at Mohenjo-daro. Yet despite its size and longevity, and despite nearly a century of archaeological investigations, much about the Indus remains shrouded in mystery. (…) Over the decades, archaeologists have turned up a great many artifacts, including stamp sealings, amulets and small tablets. Many of these artifacts bear what appear to be specimens of writing—engraved figures resembling, among other things, winged horseshoes, spoked wheels, and upright fish. What exactly those symbols might mean, though, remains one of the most famous unsolved riddles in the scholarship of ancient civilizations. (…)

As attempt after attempt failed at deciphering the script, some experts began to lose hope that it could be decoded. In 2004, three scholars argued in a controversial paper that the Indus symbols didn’t have linguistic content at all. Instead, the symbols may have been little more than pictograms representing political or religious figures. The authors went so far as to suggest that the Indus was not a literate civilization at all. For some in the field, the whole quest of trying to find language behind those Indus etchings began to resemble an exercise in futility. A few years later, Rao entered the fray. He teaches computer science at the University of Washington in Seattle. Until then, people studying the script were archaeologists, historians, linguists or cryptologists. But Rao decided to coax out the secrets of the Indus script using the tool he knew best—computer science.(…)

Rao and his colleagues didn’t seek to work miracles—they knew that they didn’t have enough information to decipher the ancient script—but they hypothesized that by using computational methods, they could at least begin to establish what sort of writing the Indus script was: did it encode language, or not? They did this using a concept called “conditional entropy.” Despite the imposing name, conditional entropy is a fairly simple concept: it is a measure of the amount of randomness in a sequence. Consider our alphabet. If you were to take Scrabble tiles and toss them in the air, you might find any old letter turning up after any other. But in actual English words, certain letters are more likely to occur after others. A q in English is almost always followed by a u. A t may be followed by an r or e, but is less likely to be followed by an n or a b. (…) When they compared the amount of randomness in the Indus script with that of the other systems, they found that it most closely resembled the rates found in the natural languages. They published their findings in May in the journal Science.(…)

Rao and his colleagues are now looking at longer strings of characters than they analyzed in the Science paper. “If there are patterns,” says Rao, “we could come up with grammatical rules. That would in turn give constraints to what kinds of language families” the script might belong to.

Click here to read the full story!


Taken from: Can Computers Decipher a 5,000-Year-Old Language? — A computer scientist is helping to uncover the secrets of the inscribed symbols of the Indus

By David Zax for, July 19, 2009


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: