Undeciphered writing systems

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A few tablets with Indus script, an ancient undeciphered writing system
Page 32 of the Voynich manuscript, a medieval manuscript written with an undeciphered writing system

An undeciphered writing system is a written form of language that is not currently understood.

Many undeciphered writing systems date from several thousand years BC, though some more modern examples do exist. The term "writing systems" is used here loosely to refer to groups of glyphs which appear to have representational symbolic meaning, but which may include "systems" that are largely artistic in nature and are thus not examples of actual writing.

The difficulty in deciphering these systems can arise from a lack of known language descendants or from the languages being entirely isolated, from insufficient examples of text having been found and even (such as in the case of Vinča) from the question of whether the symbols actually constitute a writing system at all. Some researchers have claimed to be able to decipher certain writing systems, such as those of Epi-Olmec, Phaistos and Indus texts; but to date, these claims have not been widely accepted within the scientific community, or confirmed by independent researchers, for the writing systems listed here (unless otherwise specified).


Certain forms of proto-writing remain undeciphered and, because of a lack of evidence and linguistic descendants, it is quite likely that they will never be deciphered.

Neolithic signs in China[edit]

Yellow River civilization

Yangtze civilization

Other areas

Neolithic signs in Europe[edit]

Asian scripts[edit]

South Asia[edit]

West Asia[edit]

East Asia[edit]

Southeast Asia[edit]

Central Asia[edit]

European scripts[edit]

American scripts[edit]

Andean South America[edit]


  • Olmec (Cascajal Block) – Olmec civilization, c. 900 BC, possibly the oldest Mesoamerican script, if proven authentic.
  • Isthmian, c. 500 BC–500 AD, apparently logosyllabic. Possible ancestor of the Maya script.
  • ZapotecZapotec. Possibly logosyllabic, c. 500 BC–700 AD.
  • Teotihuacan. Possibly descended from the zapotec script, and itself being the probable ancestor of the Post-classic mixtec and aztec scripts, c. 100 BC - 700 AD.
  • MixtecMixtec, 14th century, pictographic, perhaps with linguistic tonal determiners for the mixtec language. Many of the pictographic elements of the script are well-understood, but semantic and linguistic components are less well known.

African scripts[edit]

North Africa[edit]

Sub-Saharan Africa[edit]

Pacific scripts[edit]

Related concepts: texts that are not writing systems[edit]

One very similar concept is that of false writing systems, which appear to be writing but are not. False writing cannot be deciphered because it has no semantic meaning. These particularly include asemic writing created for artistic purposes. One prominent example is the Codex Seraphinianus.

Another similar concept is that of undeciphered cryptograms, or cipher messages. These are not writing systems per se, but a disguised form of another text. Of course any cryptogram is intended to be undecipherable by anyone except the intended recipient so vast numbers of these exist, but a few examples have become famous and are listed in list of ciphertexts.


  1. ^ "From the Harvard Art Museums' collections Cast of an Inscribed Marble Stele from the Sardis Synagogue". Harvardartmuseums.org. Retrieved 13 September 2018.
  2. ^ "MS 73525". Retrieved 2021-09-18.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  3. ^ "Mysterious Voynich manuscript is genuine, scientists find". Archived from the original on 2009-12-07. Retrieved 2009-12-07.
  4. ^ Macalister, R.A.S. (December 1935). "The Newton Stone". Antiquity. 9 (36): 389–398. doi:10.1017/s0003598x00010863. ISSN 0003-598X. S2CID 162434378.
  5. ^ Lee, Rob; Jonathan, Philip; Ziman, Pauline (2010-09-08). "Pictish symbols revealed as a written language through application of Shannon entropy". Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences. 466 (2121): 2545–2560. Bibcode:2010RSPSA.466.2545L. doi:10.1098/rspa.2010.0041. ISSN 1364-5021.
  6. ^ Ministry of Information and National Guidance, Somalia, The writing of the Somali language: A Great Landmark in Our Revolutionary History, (Ministry of Information and National Guidance: 1974)

External links[edit]