Lots of artefacts left by an urban civilization living on what is now the border between Pakistan and India, have been discovered. Now a team of Indian and American researchers are using mathematics and computer science to try to piece together information about the still-unknown script.
The team used computers to extract patterns in ancient Indus symbols. The study shows distinct patterns in the symbols’ placement in sequences and creates a statistical model for the unknown language.
Despite dozens of attempts, nobody has yet interpreted the Indus script. The symbols are found on tiny seals, tablets and amulets, left by people inhabiting the Indus Valley from about 2600 to 1900 B.C. Each artefact is inscribed with a sequence that is typically five to six symbols long.
The new study shows that the order of symbols is meaningful; taking one symbol from a sequence found on an artefact and changing its position produces a new sequence that has a much lower probability of belonging to the hypothetical language.
Seals with sequences of Indus symbols have been found as far away as West Asia, specifically Mesopotamia and site of modern-day Iraq. The statistical results showed that the West-Asian sequences are ordered differently from sequences on artifacts found in the Indus valley. This supports earlier theories that the script may have been used by Indus traders in West Asia to represent different information compared to the Indus region.
They used a Markov model, a statistical method that estimates the likelihood of a future event based on past patterns.
One application described in the paper uses the statistical model to fill in missing symbols on damaged archaeological artifacts. Such filled-in texts can increase the pool of data available for deciphering the writings of ancient civilizations.