Lost language stumps Portuguese scientists

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Mon Mar 2 19:28:06 UTC 2009

-- Lost language stumps Portuguese scientists

Associated Press

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
2,500 years, they were elated. 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, along with Etruscan from modern-day Italy, one of Europe's first.
The stone tablet features 86 characters and provides the
longest-running text of the Iron Age language ever found. About 90
slate tablets bearing the ancient inscriptions have been recovered,
most of them incomplete. Almost all were scattered across southern
Portugal, though a handful turned up in the neighboring 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, with unseparated words which usually read from right
to left. The first attempts to interpret this writing date from the
18th century. It aroused the curiosity of a bishop whose diocese
encompassed this region where the earth keeps coughing up new
fragments. 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, Belgium.

"We hardly know anything about (the people's) daily habits or
religious beliefs," he says. It is generally agreed the texts date
from between 2,500 and 2,800 years ago. Most experts have concluded
they were authored by a people called 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

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