'Earliest writing' found


The fragments of pottery are about 5,500 years old

Exclusive by BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

The first known examples of writing may have been unearthed at an archaeological dig in Pakistan.

So-called 'plant-like' and 'trident-shaped' markings have been found on fragments of pottery dating back 5500 years. They were found at a site called Harappa in the region where the great Harappan or Indus civilisation flourished four and a half thousand years ago. Harappa was originally a small settlement in 3500 BC but by 2600 BC it had developed into a major urban centre.

The earliest known writing was etched onto jars before and after firing. Experts believe they may have indicated the contents of the jar or be signs associated with a deity. According to Dr Richard Meadow of Harvard University, the director of the Harappa Archaeological Research Project, these primitive inscriptions found on pottery may pre-date all other known writing. Last year it was suggested that the oldest writing might have come from Egypt.

Clay tablets containing primitive words were uncovered in southern Egypt at the tomb of a king named Scorpion. They were carbon-dated to 3300-3200 BC. This is about the same time, or slightly earlier, to the primitive writing developed by the Sumerians of the Mesopotamian civilisation around 3100 BC. "It's a big question as to if we can call what we have found true writing," he told BBC News Online, "but we have found symbols that have similarities to what became Indus script.

"One of our research aims is to find more examples of these ancient symbols and follow them as they changed and became a writing system," he added. One major problem in determining what the symbols mean is that no one understands the Indus language. It was unique and is now dead. Dr Meadow points out that nothing similar to the 'Rosetta Stone' exists for the Harappan text. The Rosetta Stone, housed in the British museum since 1802, is a large slab of black basalt uniquely inscribed with the same text in both Egyptian hieroglyphs and Greek. Its discovery allowed researchers to decipher the ancient Egyptian script for the first time. The Harappan language died out and did not form the basis of other languages. "So probably we will never know what the symbols mean," Dr Meadow told BBC News Online from Harappa.

What historians know of the Harappan civilisation makes them unique. Their society did not like great differences between social classes or the display of wealth by rulers. They did not leave behind large monuments or rich graves. They appear to be a peaceful people who displayed their art in smaller works of stone. Their society seems to have petered out. Around 1900 BC Harappa and other urban centres started to decline as people left them to move east to what is now India and the Ganges. This discovery will add to the debate about the origins of the written word. It probably suggests that writing developed independently in at least three places - Egypt, Mesopotamia and Harappa between 3500 BC and 3100 BC.


Indian Civilisation '9,000 Years Old'

FROM BBC NEWS
ENGLAND, Jan 17 (VNN) — By Rajyasri Rao in Delhi

Marine scientists in India say an archaeological site off India's western coast may be up to 9,000 years old.

The revelation comes about 8 months after acoustic images from the sea-bed suggested the presence of built-up structures resembling the ancient Harappan civilisation, which dates back around 4,000 years.
The area has been subject to a great deal of archaeological interest due to its proximity to another ancient submerged site - Dwaraka.

The Harappan civilisation is the oldest in the subcontinent.

Although Palaeolithic sites dating back around 20,000 years have been found on the coast of India's western state of Gujarat before, this is the first time there are indications of man-made structures as old as 9,500 years found deep beneath the sea surface.

Search impeded

Known as the Gulf of Cambay, the area has been subject to a great deal of archaeological interest due to its proximity to another ancient submerged site - Dwaraka - in the nearby Gulf of Kutch.

Harappan remains have been found in India and Pakistan

But investigations in the Cambay region have been made more difficult by strong tidal currents running at around two to three metres per second.
They impede any sustained underwater studies.
Marine scientists led by the Madras-based National Institute of Ocean Technology said they got around this problem by taking acoustic images off the sea-bed and using dredging equipment to extract artefacts.
A second round of investigations was conducted about three months ago.

'Glorious past'

The Indian Minister for Ocean Technology, Murli Manohar Joshi, told journalists the images indicated not only symmetrical man-made structures but also a paleo-river, running for around nine kilometres, on whose banks all the artefacts were discovered.

Experts say submerged pottery may offer a clue

Carbon dating carried out on one of these artefacts - a block of wood bearing the signs of deep fissures - suggested it had been around since about 7,595 BC.
Mr Joshi said his ministry planned to set up a multi-disciplinary group to look into what this discovery really meant and what relation it might have to other ancient sites in the area.

Critics say the minister, who has been in the eye of a storm recently for attempts to Hinduise school history textbooks, may well be presenting these archaeological discoveries as proof of India's glorious and ancient past.
But others say only further scientific studies can tell whether such a claim can be made at all.

Story URL: {http://news.bbc.co.uk/}
99/05/04

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