2,800-Year-Old Stone Tablet’s Code Cannot Be Deciphered By Anyone

When it comes to archaeology, little is more tantalizing than a mysterious language, picture, or engraving. Without having any solid understanding of the original “authors” or “artists”, or any idea what any of the separate symbols mean, it’s certain that the true meaning of some of these glyphs will be forever lost to time.

One such example may be the “stela of Montoro”, an engraving in a stone slab found in a farmer’s field near Cordoba, Spain, in 2002. Researchers have been trying to decipher it ever since, and a new study in the journal Antiquity suggests that a breakthrough has been made.

It’s a bit of a linguistic mess. Along with a few engravings of potentially abstract images, elements of Spanish, Greek, Iberian, South Arabian, and Canaanite – a Semitic-speaking region of the Near East – can all be identified on the stela to varying degrees. This makes it a little like the famous Rosetta stone, whose mixture of Egyptian hieroglyphs, Ancient Greek, and Demotic paved the way for a groundbreaking translation of the former.

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The stela, as seen on its side. The scale bar here is 50cm. Photograph: Marta Diaz-Guardamino. Sanjuan et al./Antiquity

The problem is that it isn’t clear what the glyphs actually mean in isolation. Despite using identifiable language symbols, they are – unlike the Rosetta stone – arranged without any discernible pattern, so it’s not clear if there’s a common word or repeating “phrase” or symbol that could connect up the dots and provide some meaning.

Now, based on a program of “chemical characterization, digital imaging, and geo-lithological and epigraphic analyses,” along with additional “archaeological investigations,” a team from the University of Seville have put forward two hypotheses.

The team dated the slab, and found it was created as far back as the Iron Age – specifically between the 9th and 3rd Centuries BCE. Based on what we know of human migration at the time, an earlier date implies that a group of fairly illiterate people were the creators of the stela, and that the glyph arrangements are depictions of things they literally saw on their journey.

This was probably initiated by the meeting of Canaan peoples – often referred to as Phoenicians – and those already living in the south of the Iberian Peninsula. The Phoenicians are arguably the inventors of the first “alphabet”, and the illiterate locals used what they saw as unusual language symbols to form pictures.

Alternatively, based on the inclusion of plenty of later linguistic elements, the tablet could date to the Late Iron Age, around the time the Roman Empire was dramatically expanding through Europe and North Africa. They were battling for territory with the Carthaginians, who were essentially Phoenician descendants.

Both were present in southern Spain and both were conglomerations of various tribes and peoples, all with their own languages and cultures. This melting pot would explain why the tablet has so many different linguistic symbols on it.

It’s difficult to say which hypothesis is more correct at this point, but both are perfectly plausible. What you really need, however, is a collection of similar artifacts, so any inherent code or ancient conversation engraved into the tablet can be eked out.

The stela – about the height of a short European man or woman – had been sitting in the Montoro Archaeological Museum for eight years after two rangers rescued it from a disinterested farmer’s trash heap. Only in 2012 was a serious effort made to unravel the mysteries behind it.

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The creation of the slab, and the additions of the engravings, over time. Sanjuan et al. 2017/Antiquity

Although this study represents the best advance to date, there’s a good chance that we’ll never truly find out what the point of the stela was. Right now, it could be anything: a story passed down from generation to generation, recalling an epic adventure – or perhaps just a collection of ancient graffiti.

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