Lost Languages
The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts

Andrew Robinson

“Robinson’s enthusiasm for the subject is so infectious that you might find yourself trying to crack Etruscan in your spare time.”

Mayan glyphs.

It is hard to pin down what is so intrinsically fascinating about the scripts of long vanished civilizations. Hidden in them seems to be the key to exotic lost civilizations. Or perhaps like a cryptogram in an Edgar Allen Poe story, they provide the clue to a fabulous treasure like King Solomon's. This century has seen the decipherment of two major scripts: the Mayan glyphs and the "Linear B" associated with the Minoans of Crete. Yuri Knorosov's decipherment of the Mayan script revealed a world of dynastic intrigue and conquest and a vibrant civilization regulated by ritual based on complex astronomical calculations. Michael Ventris’ decipherment of the Linear B tablets, while an intellectual achievement of the highest order, disclosed the bookkeeping records of a thriving mercantile society.

Using an account of the decipherment Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Mayan glyphs. and Linear B as a starting point, Robinson lays out the major still undeciphered scripts. Of these, that of the Indus River Civilization is perhaps the most tantalizing. Found on about 3,700 brief inscriptions on seal stones, they are the only written record of the most extensive and long-lived of four great early civilizations. While there are literally thousands of Etruscan inscriptions, scholars are still uncertain as to the language on which they are based, so a narrative history of this pre-Roman society remains just beyond reach. Written some 500 years before Linear B, Linear A clay tablets were used to write Minoan (rather than the archaic Greek of Linear B), an extinct language which scholars are just beginning to unravel. As enigmatic as its monumental stone faces, Easter Island script has puzzled scholars for over 300 years. The progress made in decipherment of these and such other scripts as the Proto-Elamite of Iran, the controversial Phaistos Disc, Meroïtic of Sudan, and La Mojarra of Mesoamerica is described in this archeological mystery book.

Rights available: World except North America and U.K.

Indus River Civilization script.


352 pages
266 charts and diagrams
17 maps
67 photogrpahs
Dimensions: 9.1 x 7.4 x 1.3 inches
Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds

Andrew Robinson is the author of author of more than fifteen books, including the bestselling The Story of Writing, which has been translated into nine languages, The Man Who Deciphered Linear B, The Story of Measurement, and The Shape of the World: The Mapping and Discovery of the Earth, which accompanied a six-part television series shown all over the world. Formerly the Literary Editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement, he is now a visiting fellow of the Wolfson College, Cambridge.

Reviews and endorsements

“It is baffling and humbling to confront an incomprehensible form of writing, such as Chinese for most Westerners. People who try to decipher scripts of lost languages face an even sterner challenge, because there are no contemporary speakers or writers to help. That is the challenge depicted learnedly and fascinatingly by Robinson…. The book’s many illustrations of the enigmatic scripts make vivid the difficulty of the decipherer’s task.”
Scientific American

The Phaistos disk.

"A masterly book. Andrew Robinson takes us on a fascinating journey....Clearly written, dispassionate and entertaining, this archaeological and linguistic detective story will appeal to anyone interested in ancient civilizations and the intricacies of languages and scripts."
Brian Fagan, Professor of Anthropology,                     University of California at Santa Barbara

“Robinson’s accounts of both successful and unsuccessful decoding attempts are clear, provocative and stimulating.”
American Scientist

“Andrew Robinson has followed up his wonderful earlier book, The Story of Writing, with an equally successful sequel, Lost Languages. This new book greatly expands the few pages of the earlier one dealing with decipherment, showing how successful ones work, and explaining the degrees of success achieved in decipherments in …. Like its predecessor, this book is beautifully illustrated with examples of the ‘real stuff’ of archaeology, but here one has the sense not only of a well-written and accessible exposition but also of a real contribution to critical scholarship by someone who is in love with his subject.”
Philip W. Anderson, Nobel laureate                     Professor of Physics Princeton University

“Writing is among the greatest inventions in human history—perhaps the greatest invention, because it made history possible. The process of deciphering ancient scripts is an intellectual and imaginative challenge to both archaeological scholars and amateurs alike. Each script is unique, so decipherment is akin to invention. These ancient writing systems provide a window to past civilizations, and help us understand how our modern writing systems functions. Andrew Robinson, in his new book Lost Languages tells the fascinating stories of deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mayan glyphs and Linear B. He then surveys the important scripts still awaiting decipherment, including the Indus script and the Phaistos disc of Crete, believed to be the oldest ‘printed’ document, dating back to before 1600 B.C.”

"Andrew Robinson has now followed up his beautifully illustrated The Story of Writing with a highly appropriate sequel Lost Languages, on undeciphered scripts. Many, it seems likely, will never be deciphered—which raises an interesting question. If we cannot always understand messages from our fellow humans—how successful will we be when we receive the first communication from Outer Space?”
Sir Arthur C. Clarke, C.B.E.

“This intriguing, generously illustrated account of the history of writing helps unlock our past while shedding light on the fundamental question of what makes us human.”

"With verve and insight, Andrew Robinson...does a great service to scholars and general readers with his lucid and valuable book."
Stephen D. Houston, author of Maya                     Glyphs, Professor of Anthropology Brigham Young University

“This richly illustrated book, which highlights the thrills of archeological sleuthing, re-counts the many attempts at understanding ancient civilizations through the decipherment of their long-lost writing. Major breakthroughs, such as the Rosetta Stone and its key to Egyptian hieroglyphs, and continuing enigmas—such as the undeciphered scripts of the Etruscans and Easter Islanders—are explored with all the fervor of a contemporary news story. Whether conveying the gradual discoveries in cracking Minoan writing and Mayan glyphs or the ongoing frustrations with the mysterious texts of ancient Sudan, Crete, Iran and India, Robinson is always careful to address the lay reader in clear prose, and to offer relevant photos, drawings, charts and maps.”
Publishers Weekly

"Andrew Robinson is a savvy and sure-footed Sherpa taking us just below the summits of the remaining Everests among the undeciphered scripts of the world.... Lost Languages is written with the clarity of a Michael Ventris and with wise respect for fools and geniuses alike...."
Thomas G. Palaima, Professor of                     Classics Director, Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory                     University of Texas, Austin

“The writings left on tombs and tablets by the great civilisations of the ancient past have mostly now been read. This intriguing book on the strange art of ‘decipherment’ focuses on those scripts that remain mysterious. It is a potent mix of academic esoterica, codecracking and controversy—the same giddy cocktail that made The Da Vinci Code such a success, but with much greater scholarship. (And splendid illustrations: the pages crawl with jaguar heads, ox’s feet and curlicues.)…. Telling the story of Linear B, Robinson describes how the ‘mute signs’ were suddenly ‘compelled to speak after more than three millenniums of silence’. He makes it sound as if Ventris’s solution were a spell—as if writing were some kind of magic. Which, this book elegantly reminds us, it is.”
The Sunday Times (London)

“Andrew Robinson has forged a two-pronged goad to incite new interest in the recovery of mankind's forgotten past. [An] absorbing account.”
Asko Parpola author of Deciphering the                     Indus Script, Professor of South Asian Studies University of                     Helsinki

”Robinson is an enthusiast for decipherment, to the extent of claiming Ventris's achievement as the equal of that of Crick and Watson at much the same time in unravelling the structure of the Double Helix…. Ventris's purely intellectual achievement…is summarised at just the right length, and extremely clearly, in Robinson's Lost Languages, which has chapters on the 'Three Great Decipherments' of hieroglyphs, Linear B and Mayan glyphs and eight further chapters on scripts whose decipherment is either incomplete or has barely started….. The most intriguing is the one known as rongorongo, found only on Easter Island, which is written, alarmingly for anyone wondering whether to have a go at it, in a 'reverse-boustrophedon', whereby alternate lines are written not only back to front but upside down. “
London Review of Books


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