In 1928 French archaeologist Maurice Dunand began excavating the ancient coastal city of Byblos, located in what is now Lebanon. Byblos was an important Phoenician city whose origin dates back to around 5000 BC and had a long history of trade and cultural exchanges with neighboring civilizations such as Egypt and Mesopotamia.

During four excavation seasons between 1928 and 1932, Dunand unearthed a treasure trove of objects that provided new insights into Byblos’ past. Among the most intriguing findings were inscriptions engraved on various bronze and stone artifacts, revealing an unknown writing system.

In total, 14 inscriptions were discovered: ten main texts labeled with letters from “a” to “j” based on their discovery order, and four additional inscriptions from “k” to “n,” published later in 1978.

The inscriptions used different signs arranged from right to left without word dividers. Dunand carefully documented each inscription, taking photos and creating illustrations of the texts. Two inscriptions, labeled as c and d, stood out for their length, containing over 225 and 459 characters, respectively, written on both sides of bronze plates.

Other inscriptions adorned triangular bronze “spatulas” and fragments of stone stelae. Carbon dating of associated ceramics and artifacts placed the age of the inscriptions between the 18th and 15th centuries B.C. during the Bronze Age.

In 1945, Dunand published his monumental work Byblia Grammata, introducing these mysterious inscriptions to the world. He named the writing system the “Byblos Syllabary” due to its similarities with other Bronze Age scripts known for representing syllables rather than individual letters.

The syllabary comprised 90 to 114 unique signs, with variants indicating its use in both a formal monumental style and a more casual linear style. Dunand hypothesized that the inscriptions represented labels attached to votive offerings or records listing temple donations and construction details, though he couldn’t decipher their meaning.

In the following decades, as additional inscriptions using the Byblos Syllabary appeared in places like Egypt and Megiddo, scholars took on the challenge of deciphering it. In 1946, just a year after Dunand’s publication, Edouard Dhorme identified possible Phoenician letters and numerical symbols on the reverse side of one of the plates, interpreting it as a date.

Early researchers like Harvey Sobelman focused on studying syntactic patterns without assuming phonetic values, hoping to learn more about the underlying language structure.

A significant breakthrough occurred in the 1960s thanks to the meticulous analysis of priest and cryptologist Malachi Martin, who discovered new, barely visible signs on artifacts where later Phoenician inscriptions had been carved, providing valuable clues. Martin published corrections to Dunand’s readings and a systematic categorization of the 90 signs into 27 classes based on similarities. Although Martin refrained from direct translations, he hinted that the writing could have been alphabetical rather than purely syllabic.

In the 1980s, renowned scholar George Mendenhall built upon Martin’s work by assigning probable Phoenician phonetic values to recurring signs based on similarities with later Phoenician letters.

Mendenhall dated the texts to 2400 B.C. and identified the language as a very ancient Northwest Semitic dialect predating the linguistic divergence into Phoenician/Hebrew and Southern Semitic. However, his translations remain cryptic, such as Adze that Yipuyu and Hagara make binding. Verily, in accordance with that which Sara and Ti.pu established we will be surety. Further: with Miku is the pledge.

Dutch historian Jan Best offered an interpretation of the Byblos inscriptions in 2008, assigning Linear A values to the signs based on parallels with the early Minoan system of Crete influenced by the Greeks.

By identifying sequences that possibly represented words, Best found recurrent patterns in the extensive c and d tablets. Combining this with contextual clues, he proposed that the tablets documented the construction of temples in Byblos for the solar deity Šuraya, the Indo-Aryan equivalent of the Egyptian god Amun-Ra.

More recently, in 2017, Ihor Rassokha proposed the opposite view, suggesting that the writing derived from a primitive Indo-European source. He interpreted the signs as representations of the Brahmi alphabet, with inscriptions like the Ashoka Edicts in central-northern India dating back to the 3rd century B.C. Rassokha proposed that the texts should be read in Sanskrit, as part of the theorized Indo-Aryan influence in the region.

After nearly a century of research, a consensus decipherment has not been achieved, leaving the Byblos inscriptions to continue inspiring new hypotheses and fascinating unanswered questions. Who created them? In what language are they written, and where does the employed writing system originate?

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on January 10, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en El Silabario de Biblos, un sistema de escritura de hace 3800 años cuyas inscripciones aun no han sido descifradas


Jan Best, How to Decipher the Byblos Script | Jean Leclant, Le déchiffrement des écritures et des langues: Essai | Steven Roger Fischer, A History of Writing | George E. Mendenhall, The Syllabic Inscriptions from Byblos | Martin, M. (1961). A Preliminary Report after Re-Examination of the Byblian Inscriptions. Orientalia, 30(1), 46–78. | Wikipedia

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