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 2500 years, they nearly broke into applause. 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 anextraordinary thing." For more than two centuries, scientists have tried to decipher southwest script, believed to be the peninsula's oldest written tongue and, with Etruscan from modern-day Italy, one of Europe's first.The stone tablet has 86 characters and is the longest-running text of the Iron Age language found. About 90 slate tablets bearing the ancient inscriptions have been discovered, most incomplete.
Almost all were scattered across southern Portugal, though a handful turned up in the neighbouring Spanish region of Andalucia.
Some of the letters look
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 of unseparated
words, usually readingfrom right to left.
The first attempts to
interpret this writing date were made in the 18th century. It aroused
the curiosity of a bishop whose diocese encompassed this region where
the earth keeps coughing up new fragments.
Almodovar, a rural town of
about 3500 people amid a gentle landscape of meadows, is at the heart
of the Southwest Script region. It created a museum two years ago where
20 of the engraved tablets are on show.
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 in Belgium.
Scientists have few original documents and hardly any parallel texts from the same time andplace.......
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