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An ancient mystery that is carved in stone

A slab discovered last year in Portugal offers the longest stretch of

March 22, 2009|Barry Hatton | Hatton writes for the Associated Press.

ALMODOVAR, PORTUGAL — 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 Andalusia.

Some of the letters look like squiggles. Others are like crossed sticks. One resembles the number 4 and another recalls a bow tie. They were carefully scored into the slate. The text is always a running script, with unseparated words that 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.

Almodovar, a town of about 3,500 people amid a gentle landscape of meadows, sits at the heart of the Southwest Script region. It created a museum two years ago where 20 of the engraved tablets are on display.

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. Scientists have few original documents and hardly any parallel texts from the same time and place in readable languages.

"We hardly know anything about daily habits or religious beliefs," he says.

It is generally agreed that the texts date from between 2,500 and 2,800 years ago. Most experts have concluded that they were written by Tartessians, a tribe of Mediterranean traders who mined metal in these parts -- one of Europe's largest copper mines is nearby -- but disappeared after a few centuries. Some scientists have proposed that the composers were other pre-Roman tribes, such as the Conii or Cynetes, or maybe even Celts who roamed this far south.

Another translation difficulty is that the writing is not standardized. It seems certain it was adapted from the Phoenician and Greek alphabets because it copied some of their written conventions. However, it also tweaked some of those rules and invented new ones.

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