Friday, July 23, 2010

Computer Deciphers Ancient Language

From National Geographic:

A new computer program has quickly deciphered a written language last used in Biblical times—possibly opening the door to "resurrecting" ancient texts that are no longer understood, scientists announced last week.

Created by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the program automatically translates written Ugaritic, which consists of dots and wedge-shaped stylus marks on clay tablets. The script was last used around 1200 B.C. in western Syria.

[...]

"Traditionally, decipherment has been viewed as a sort of scholarly detective game, and computers weren't thought to be of much use," study co-author and MIT computer science professor Regina Barzilay said in an email.

"Our aim is to bring to bear the full power of modern machine learning and statistics to this problem."

The next step should be to see whether the program can help crack the handful of ancient scripts that remain largely incomprehensible.

Etruscan, for example, is a script that was used in northern and central Italy around 700 B.C. but was displaced by Latin by about A.D. 100. Few written examples of Etruscan survive, and the language has no known relations, so it continues to baffle archaeologists.

The full story is here and links to other stories can be found via Google.  The academic paper on which these stories are based is available at the MIT website (pdf).

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