Sunday, October 23, 2011

Word of the Day: Boustrophedon

I want to start a new series of blogs to talk about words that I frequently use in Ancient Scripts but sometimes ended up poorly defined because I don't want to make the pages go on too many tangents. Ultimately when I have enough of these "Word of the Day" posts I will collate them into a glossary in Ancient Scripts.

Anyway, here goes the first one.

Back in the day (yes I am THAT old) when we had books and computer screens of only 80 columns by 25 rows, I've never lost my place in a long paragraph. However, now that we have wide displays with high resolution, texts can span for 15 inches! When I reach the end of a line and move my eyes back to the left of the screen to the beginning of the next line, I lose my position in the text! It'd take me a few seconds to get context back and find the right line. It's extremely annoying.

My solution? Bring back boustrophedon!

What is this boustrophedon thing you ask? It's not some high-tech fancy gadget, but instead an ancient way of alternating the direction of writing. In the history of the Greek alphabet, there was a transitional period between the right-to-left direction inherited from Phoenician and the better known left-to-right direction where texts were written in both directions, alternating every line. The letters themselves appeared mirrored depending on the direction of writing.

In the example above, the grey dotted arrows indicate the direction of reading. The first line of the text starts on the left and goes to the right, then continues immediately on the right and goes back to the left. You can imagine a farmer plowing a field with an ox, and when he gets to one end of the field, he turns his ox around and goes in the opposite direction to plow the next row of his field. This is in fact the meaning of boustrophedon, which means "turning of the ox" in Greek.

Rongorongo tablets employed an even more extreme for of boustrophedon called reverse boustrophedon. The glyphs are mirrored both horizontally and vertically, or in other words, rotated 180° every line. The idea, perhaps, was to read one line, turn the tablet 180° upside-down and read the next line. On the example to the left, you can see that the brown glyphs are the same on both line, but they are upside down and mirrored. If anything, this style of boustrophedon fits the meaning of the name much better because the ox and the farmer really do turn 180° each time.

If we take this analogy of "ox turning" to ridiculous heights, then perhaps the most efficient kind of plowing (and writing) would to continuously turn in a circular surface. You might think this is contrived but I have seen verdant circular fields when flying over agricultural heartlands of America. Granted these fields are plowed and irrigated by machines, but the same logic of efficiency holds for writing as well. There is no interruption when the scribe arrives at the end of the line to move down one line. Instead he/she continuously turns the circular surface until he/she runs out of space.

And somebody precisely thought of this principle 3700 years ago. The Phaistos Disc (pictured to the right) is a one-of-a-kind artifact, the only example of a stamped text starting from the outside of the disc and spirals inward in a counterclockwise direction until the text terminates at the very center of the disc. Actually the disc is still undeciphered. The direction of writing is inferred from physical characteristics of the signs themselves.

I just noticed that this Blogger layout I chose is quite narrow. You probably read this whole post without losing your place in the text even once. I guess I've self-defeated my arguments to bring boustrophedon back. Oh well! Next time let's try to bring back logograms.

Monday, September 5, 2011

This Old Building

Alhambra Theater, circa 1906
Courtesy of Martins West GP
It is not often that we have very old buildings in the West Coast of USA. California is a young state with a short architectural and a vigorous geological history. The earliest buildings were the Spanish missions which established the western-most edge of the Spanish Empire in the 18th century. Many other buildings have been torn down for new constructions or destroyed in earthquakes famous in this state. So it is fairly difficult to find an honestly old building, and that is why I've decided to write a quick blog post about my office building, the (former) Alhambra Theater.

One city that time forgot is Redwood City, the seat of the San Mateo county. Years ago the only reason to go to Redwood City was to go to court. Plethora of bail bond shops still dot the downtown area. In fact we jokingly call it "Deadwood City". As a result, many old buildings were left alone and were not demolished for shiny new ones.

However, during the 19th century, Redwood City was a major center for shipping California coastal redwood lumber (hence the name) and a place for wealthy San Franciscans to buy property for estates. It practically went from ranchos owned by old Spanish/Mexican families into a business center overnight.

Although not to the extent of the southerly neighbor Palo Alto or San Mateo to the north, in the past two years the town has picked up steam again and now it is a pretty happening place. It is nice enough (despite the junkies loitering a block away) that the tech startup I work for has moved downtown. In fact we moved into one of the most historical and famous buildings in Redwood City.

Wyatt Earp
My office building, originally called the Alhambra Theater, was built in 1895 and miraculously survived the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. It was billed as the finest theater south of San Francisco. It also included a bar and a restaurant that entertained fine ladies and gentlemen.

One such "gentleman" was none other than the famous lawman/outlaw Wyatt Earp. He was known to frequent the Alhambra quite a bit. His wife, Josie Earp, sang in the Alhambra and he would come to see her perform and have some whiskey later at the saloon.

What the 1906 earthquake couldn't do, the Prohibition did. The Alhambra closed it doors as a saloon in 1920 and it became the meeting hall of the local chapter of Freemasons. It remains so until 1950 when it fell into disrepair. An attempt in 2001 to fix up the building resulted in a catastrophic fire that left only the bricks. In fact, currently the bricks are fully exposed on the inside of the building, and you can easily see the smoke marks on the walls. It adds quite a lot of charm to the place.

Exposed brick walls and fire damage
Finally a few years ago the project restarted and now the entire building is occupied. On the ground floor is a very good gastropub called Martins West with a huge collection of scotch whiskey. Once again a saloon occupies the Alhambra. My company has some of the first floor and all of the second. Even our side reflects the history of the place. The staircase to the second floor is a narrow but beautiful marble staircase. It feels like going to the opera going up those stairs. Then it opens up to an airy 30-feet high ceiling with skylights and exposed brick walls. Perfect for musical theater.

I have a soft heart for stories of the West and it is quite amusing for me to know that everyday I sit in a place where one of the most famous characters of the West used to hang out. I like it when history flows forward.


Saturday, August 13, 2011

Fasting Coyote

Sorry, Wile E. Coyote, I think you're in the wrong post. This is indeed about a certain "Fasting Coyote", but it's somebody else. In the meantime, go chase after the Roadrunner.

Anyway, I've been puzzled for quite some time by the name glyphs of Nezahualcoyotl and Nezahualpilli, successive kings of the city of Texcoco in 15th and 16th century Central Mexico. Their names literally mean "Fasting Coyote" and "Fasting Prince" in Nahuatl, respectively. Their name glyphs do contain logograms for coyotl "coyote" and pilli "prince". The common part of their name, nezahual is derived from the verb zahua, meaning "to fast". However, I couldn't say what is the glyph for zahua. It looks like a colorful vertical band, topped by two or more vertical colorful bars. In fact at one point I called it "inverted rainbow Π" (as in the Greek letter pi).

In the case of Nezahualpilli, the band is actually bent, like a road around a corner. This proves to be important.

My next step was visiting various Nahuatl dictionary. My usual suspects are AULEX Diccionario náhuatl - español and Nahuatl Dictionary at University of Oregon. I was able to confirm the meaning of zahua as "to fast" but not much else until I did the reverse search in English and discovered the word for "fast", moçaua. In the 16th century Spanish orthography was transitory. Sometimes they used ç instead of z, and also h was becoming silent, thus the inconsistent use of it. Therefore moçaua is really mozahua, which contains the zahua root again.

However, more important was that the entry for moçaua contains a small little picture for a fasting enclosure from Codex Borgia. It looks like this:

The rounded rectangle is presumably the enclosure. While not as colorful, it looks like the zahua glyphs. In fact the version in Nezahualpilli captures the rounded corner of the full structure. I am not really sure about the actual function of this fasting enclosure in context to Aztec rituals and ceremonies, as it's difficult to find more information online. However, at least I think I've figured what the "inverted rainbow Π" is. It is a part of the enclosure that represents the entire structure.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Software and Hard Shell

I recently discovered an interesting translation. Being ethnic Chinese and living and working in the Silicon Valley, I am constantly exposed to technology news in both English and Chinese. One night on the Cantonese news hour I saw the reporter referring to Oracle Corporation as 甲骨 in Chinese. Now, 甲 literally means "shell" and 骨 means "bone". Why would a high-tech software company be translated to this strange name (other than being reduced to bones after paying for their software and services (but I digress))?

Turns out an ancient Chinese script is the intermediary in this strange relationship. The earliest Chinese text were divinations carved on animal bones and turtle shells. These bones and shells were then subjected to heat to form cracks, which a priest would interpret to foretell the future. Because of this usage, Western scholars called this highly pictorial script Oracle Bone Script. However, in China the name of the script was instead 甲骨文, which translates as "shell (and) bone script".

This essentially created an equivalence between English "oracle bone" and Chinese 甲骨, despite the fact that the Chinese word doesn't really imply any kind of ritual divinatory function. Then by semantic shift, 甲骨 came to just mean "oracle" in the mind of the reporter who wrote the first Chinese news article on Oracle Corporation. From there on it entered common usage and eventually onto the news program I saw on television.

Semantic shifts like this happen quite frequently in the history of languages. For example, the word "kleenex" now practically means "soft paper tissue" but obviously it originated from the brand "Kleenex". What other such semantic shifts can you think of?

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Long Walk and Marathon

Pruned fennel at Shoreline Park, Mountain ViewThe weather in the San Francisco Bay Area has turned hot again and I like to take long walks with my family around parks near the shore. One thing I noticed consistently was how many wild fennel plants were growing in the marshy area right next to the bay (as you can see in the picture to the left, which ironically was taken in winter). I've also seen patches after patches of wild fennel growing right on the freeway. I even had one in my front yard, and it was quite a lovely sight until it grew too big and I had to cut it down.

Fennel is not native to North America, being an import from the Mediterranean brought by early European immigrants, but they grow really well here because the Bay Area has a Mediterranean climate. They could be considered an invasive species but they're already pretty much integrated into the landscapes of Northern California.

Fennel is quite a culinary chameleon in that you can use its root (or bulb), its fronds (the frilly leaves), its "seeds" (which are actually fruits) and even its pollen. And it is used in cooking from France to China and anywhere else in between, as also increasingly in regional American cooking. There is even anecdotes of restaurants using fennel in their parking lots when their stock in the walk-in runs out. It has also been used extensively as medicine. It has carminative (gas-relieving) properties that would alleviate stomach ailments. It is also an anticoagulant (prevents blood clots) and a diuretic (makes you want to pee but also lowers blood pressure). It also has low-level contraception properties, and in fact the famous contraceptive of the Classical world, silphium, might have been a relative of fennel.

Fennel is also attested quite early in ancient texts (indeed this is related to Ancient Scripts) and indirectly is quite important to world history. One very famous place in Greece is Marathon, literally meaning "Place of Fennels". In Mycenaean Greek it was marathwon, written as ma-ra-tu-wo. The modern word "marathon", which means a really long run (42 km or 26 miles), came from the semi-legendary feat of a Greek soldier who ran that distance from Marathon to Athens after the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE) to transmit the message that the Greeks had prevailed over the Persians. According to the story, the messenger died of exhaustion after delivering his verbal message.

The Hittites, the Mycenaean's eastern neighbors in Anatolia, also wrote about fennel. Coincidentally, among the Hittites fennel also has a martial connotation, but one associated with defeat. According to Durnford and Akeroyd, the Hittites had a ritual of cursing a conquered town to mark it as uninhabitable by planting the seeds of a particular plant commonly written in sumerogram ZÀ.AḪ.LI. Sumerogram is a cuneiform logogram directly borrowed from Sumerian, and as such does not provide any clue to actual pronunciation of the word in Hittite.

However, the recent discovery of a partially preserved "dictionary" of useful plants between Akkadian and Hittite revealed ZÀ.AḪ.LI to be marašḫanḫaš. Through process of elimination and contextual evidence, the authors identified marašḫanḫaš to be fennel.

Why would the planting of fennel seeds be considered to curse a city so it cannot be populated again, especially since fennel has so many beneficial uses? This goes back to my observation of how common fennel is in Northern California only after two centuries of European settlement. The plant grows extremely quickly in rocky or poor soil. When a city falls into disrepair, fennel is likely the first plant to take over the ruins. In other words, the prolific nature of fennel is a symbol of the abandonment of civilized life. Quick ironic to me.

One interesting linguistic observation is that the Mycenaean Greek marathwon and Hittite marašḫanḫaš seem to share a common root, namely *mara(s/t). Since both Greeks and Hittites were Indo-European whose ancestors came from the Central Asian steppes, it is quite likely they adopted the local name for fennel, a securely Mediterranean plant. Hence this common root could be part of a pre-Indo-European linguistic continuum stretching across both sides of the Aegean Sea.

My son loves curry, and I make it pretty much every weekend. I grind my own garam masala, a "warm" spice blend used in Indian cooking. My basic recipe is 3 parts cumin, 2 parts cardamom, 1 part cinnamon, 1 part caraway seeds, 1 part coriander seeds, and 1 part fennel seeds. Not only fennel but all these spices appear in ancient texts. This recipe I'm using could be 5,000 years old.


Saturday, May 28, 2011

Answer to Mystery Archaeology Picture

Many of you guessed it is one of Cleopatra's Needles but only Bob McChesney figured it out it's the one in Manhattan's Central Park. Bravo!

In reality Cleopatra's Needles didn't belong to Cleopatra or even carved during her reign. They're actually 1000 years older than Cleopatra and erected by order of Thutmose III in 1450 BCE.

When I saw it a few years ago I was struck by how faded the hieroglyphs were on it. I have also seen the one in Paris and it was substantially in better shape than the one in New York. It was in such bad condition that Zahi Hawass, Egypt's Chief Antiquities Bulldog, issued one of his numerous rants that if New York doesn't take care of the obelisk he'd taken action.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Another mystery archaeology picture

After a hard week at work, it's time to catch up on my non-professional life. That means it's time for mystery archaeology picture again.

Anyway, here it is. What and where is it? It might be a bit tricky so remember, context is everything. OK! Guess away!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Olmec Exhibit at De Young

Last week I went to Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico in San Francisco's De Young Museum. It was a splendid exhibition of the staggering artistic achievement of the Olmecs.

A little background first. The Olmecs are often called the mother culture of Mesoamerica, its florescence between 1800 and 400 BCE in the swampy areas of the Gulf Coast of Mexico, in particular the states of Veracruz and Tabasco. They were the first people of North America to really experiment with creating large monument works, both architectural and sculptural. And their view of the cosmos and the iconography to represent it became so pervasive in Mesoamerica that it even could be found as far away as Costa Rica.

The special exhibition area of the museum is entered via a tunnel. As I turned the corner I was immediately greeted by the impassive face of a colossal head, the massive stone carving of an Olmec ruler from the first site of San Lorenzo made between 1200 and 900 BCE. It was 6 feet by 4.7 feet by 4 feet (1.86m by 1.44m by 1.25m), and made quite an impression on me. Even the name is enigmatic, simply called Colossal Head 5 by archaeologists.


Obviously I could not take picture due to the exhibit's policy but professional photographers can and are willing to share, which is what you see above.

In addition to Colossal Head 5 there were many other large stone sculptures at the exhibit. Many were in the form of Olmec shamans in kneeling poses captured in the middle of a ritual, such as Monument 9 of El Azuzul. There were also fantastic zoomorphs, fierce combinations of different animals and humans, such as Monument 7 of El Azuzul, a fierce jaguar-human supernatural being. More over, what is really interesting is that Monument 9 and its twin Monument 8 were discovered facing Monument 7, the jaguar supernatural. Perhaps they were supplicating themselves in front of the jaguar deity.

A few of the great monuments contain some of the earliest writing in Mesoamerica. I was very happy to finally see Stela C of Tres Zapotes, which contains a Long Count date corresponding to 32 BCE. It is one of the few examples of the epi-Olmec writing system.

(Note image is not from the exhibit but from the Smithsonian Institute)

They also had the Stela 3 of Chiapa de Corzo, with an even older date of 36 BCE. I was amazed that they even call it a stela because it was quite small. The one fragment was no bigger than an iPad! One exciting thing about this "stela" is that there is currently a very active excavation at this ancient city, and just last year the team discovered the oldest royal burial inside a pyramid, and I expect in upcoming years to hear of discoveries of new epi-Olmec texts.

There were also other examples of monumental writing, like Monument 13 of La Venta, also called "Ambassador Relief". Its dating is very controversial, ranging from 1000 to 400 BCE. Its glyphs are also much different than epi-Olmec glyphs. Perhaps it is an older writing system that we know nothing about.


The last inscribed monument was the Chapultepec Stone. Although of unknown provenance, it is thought to be from the Late Classic period, between 500 and 800 CE, almost a thousand years after the Olmecs. Its inscriptions are completely unknown and unlike anything else, although given its location is it might be a late form of the epi-Olmec script. It is certainly another enigma to be tackled by future archaeologists.

While the colossal heads, full-size sculptures, stelae carved with text, and other stone works truly embody the "colossal" character of the exhibit, a substantial portion was dedicated to small-scale, portable objects as well. In particular, green stones like jade were prized by the Olmecs (and Mesoamericans in general) for its brilliant blue green hue and symbolic of life. It was carved into myriads of shapes and forms, from simply ceremonial axe heads to human portraits.

The jade piece on the left is called the Kunz Axe (after its discoverer) and depicts the so-called "werejaguar", originally thought to be a combination of human and jaguar aspects but more recently thought to be a human-reptilian conflation.

The piece on the right is a "celt", a ceremonial axe, and likely hung from a lord's belt (note the hole on the bottom that rope possibly went through). The carvings on it are very hard to discern but they represent the Olmec maize god, as identified by cruciform maize sprouting from its cleft head. The downturned mouth, also present in the Kunz Axe, is a prominent motive in Olmec art to mark deities, and even later Zapotec and Maya cultures continued this tradition. In fact compare the Olmec maize god to the Maya maize god on the San Bartolo murals and you'll see that they are basically the same.

It would seem that all the Olmecs ever carved were formal, rigid works displaying political and religious iconography. While certainly quite true for a majority of the artifacts, there is a small number of Olmec carvings that display remarkable humanity.

Take, for instance, my wife's favorite piece of the exhibition, very simply titled "Fragmentary Figure". As you can see in the picture above, it is quite broken, but fortunately the head is intact and one can almost feel a serious tension emanating from the character's face. There is also remarkable refinement and individualism in its facial features.

A jade statuette from La Venta depicts a woman with a hematite mirror on her chest. Sexist jokes aside, the mirror was in fact a symbol of power. This piece was found in a burial, and while the bones did not survive the acidic soil of La Venta, it means that the statuette was possibly buried with an elite lady who held some sway in Olmec politics. However, what intrigued me the most is her enigmatic smile, quite different than the typical scowl of Olmec sculptures.

However, this lady has nothing on the biggest smile of them all. There was a second colossal head in the exhibition, Colossal Head 9 of La Venta, who stood at the last room of the exhibition.


Who knows why this colossal head is smiling while its companion at the entrance showed a poker face? Maybe there was a reason or maybe the ruler who commissioned the work just felt like it. One thing we tend to forget about ancient people is that they have the same cacophony of emotions, needs, and opinions as we do. I think even the stone-faced Olmecs sometimes have to let loose a bit.

PS. Even though the Olmecs lived thousands of years ago, they left a legacy that permeated into later times and even into modern Mexico. After spending the morning staring at impressive stone sculptures my wife and I decided to go to our favorite Mexican restaurant in San Francisco, Nopalito. (No I am not turning this into a food blog. There is a point to this.) One dish we got was their excellent enchiladas de mole con pollo, the chocolate nicely prominent in this most Mexican of sauces. However, did you know that the other word for chocolate, cacao, originally came from the ancient Zoque language, the language most likely spoken by Olmecs? Say "cacao"...You just spoke Olmec! See, there is a point to this tangent.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Answer to Mystery Archaeology Picture #2

Work heated up again and two weeks passed before I realized that I didn't post the answer to the last mystery archaeology picture. To recap, here is the picture.

It's a carved panel in the doorway of the temple at the top of the Pyramid of Kukulcan, aka El Castillo, in Chichen Itza. Note the paint is still visible after a thousand years due to the arid conditions of the Yucatan peninsula.

Many of you were confused as to whether it's Maya or Aztec. That's because I threw a tricky curve ball at you. Many of the works of art in Chichen Itza display a highly cosmopolitan flavor, often with Central Mexican styles thrown in. To explain this similarity, archaeologists and historians proposed that the semi-historical Toltec king Topiltzin Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl was exiled from Tula, the capital of the Toltec state in Central Mexico, traveled across the Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatan Peninsula, and took over Chichen Itza. However, recent research into Chichen Itza proved that it thrived during the Late and Terminal Classic (600-1000 CE) whereas Tula was a Post-Classic city (1000-1200 CE). It is more likely that both cities adopted an inter-regional artistic style that was prevalent throughout Mesoamerica and even to a small extent the American Southwest.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Mystery Archaeology Picture #2

It's time for another mystery archaeology picture. Actually, this one is not much of a mystery, as it is from a fairly well-known site. Make sure you tell me your guess in the comments.

And if you can't comment on Blogspot for some reason as one reader has said, you can always do it on the Facebook page ( or Twitter (!/ancientscripts).

Once again, have fun guessing!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Answer to Mystery Archaeology Picture #1

I know that a good number of readers looked at the mystery archaeology picture but I only got two guesses. Oh well. Maybe next time I ought to post something more eye-catching.

Anyway, here is the picture from last time.

I had some good guesses actually. Serapis got it pretty close in terms of geographical location. This is a petroglyph from the American Southwest, specifically from the Petroglyphs National Monument just outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

As far as the petroglyphs, they are in fact macaws. The macaw in the lower left is actually in a rectangular cage or pen. This is because macaws are not native to the American Southwest. The closest natural habitat is tropical regions of Mexico and Central America. However, bones and egg shells of macaws have been found throughout the Southwest, meaning that they were traded from distant parts of Mesoamerica and then bred locally. The famous city of Paquimé (aka Casas Grandes) of the Mogollon culture in northern Chihuahua had pens where macaws were kept and bred. No doubt through them these beautiful birds were traded into the Southwest.

Macaws were imported luxury items for the people of the Southwest. Recently, chocolate has also been found in the Southwest (see Prehistoric Americans Traded Chocolate for Turquoise? ). In return they exported turquoise into Mesoamerica, whose cultures revered the blue-green color as symbolic of the nature world.

Cultural exchange likely occurred as well. Balls courts are found in Hohokam sites like Wupatki pueblo. Feathered serpents appear in some Hopi stories. On the other hand, it is less clear what cultural import Mesoamerica got from the Southwest. However, regardless of the exact types of exchange, there was nevertheless a lot of interaction between the two regions.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Mystery Archaeology Picture #1

Over at the Eruptions blog they have a mystery volcano of the month and I thought it might be a good idea over here in Ancient Scripts but I decided to change it up into Mystery Archaeology Picture of the week.

The game is pretty simple. You comment on what you think is the content of the picture and where it was taken. It shouldn't be too hard since I haven't been to too many exotic locations.

Anyway, this is the inaugural post of mystery picture. What do you think it is (that should be easy) and where do you think this is located.


Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Last night my wife made an enchilada lasagna/casserole, essentially alternating layers of tortillas and stewed chicken and vegetables. Interestingly enough, the tortillas were made with corn and chia seeds. Yes, chia as in Chia Pet, that little 80's ornament that grew green "fur" which were in fact chia sprout. It was actually an important pre-Columbian food source and it's coming into vogue in recent times due to the world's appetite for ancient, supposedly-exotic, nearly-lost grains. Tell that to Mexicans who've been eating it for hundreds of years.

The word chia came directly from its Nahuatl equivalent, namely chian, according to an online Nahuat dictionary. Wikipedia claims it's derived from chian "oily" but according to the dictionary, chiahuac is "oily", which feel like compounds with additional suffixes on top of the chia root. As chia seeds produces 25% to 30% oil, I think words with "oily" meaning in Nahuatl were actually derived from the root meaning the chia plant.

The Nahuatl glyph for chia looks like either a brown triangle or a half circle with dots inside, no doubt representing the dark grey chia seeds. However, there is also a variant in which the dots are replaced by conventional symbols of soil, such as the name Chiapan, which corresponds to Chiapas in modern times. Chiapas in fact means "above the river of chias" ( However, a similar toponym, Teochiapan, does use the regular dotted variant (

The chia glyph can also be used as a phonetic sign to write the chi syllable. One example of this usage comes from the Codex Xolotl, a book from the Texcoco region of Central Mexico written right after the Spanish conquest. It details the history of the Aztecs and especially the city of Texcoco, one of the three "allies" that made up the Triple Alliance aka the Aztec Empire. Like most Nahuatl manuscripts it is highly pictorial but a surprising amount of texts with phonetic spelling is used. A character named Achitometl, who was the king of the Tepanecs, has his name spelled out nearly phonetically as a-chi-(to)-me-e. For some reason the to syllable is missing, possibly because it served no grammatical function.

Also, take note of the syllabic glyph e, which is the black oval with a white smaller oval inside. Here it serves as a phonetic complement to reinforce the vowel of the last syllable. However, of interest is the fact that the syllabic glyph e is also the bean glyph, as "bean" in Nahuatl is etl. In fact, my wife said that's what's for dinner tomorrow, our approximation of the Costa Rican gallo pinto. However, instead of going into the wonderful world of beans, I shall stop here, and leave the exploration of another ancient staple for another day.


Sunday, March 20, 2011

Fun with Akkadian

UPDATE: After this was posted on March 20th, a long-time reader argued that my final result is in fact incorrect. Scroll to bottom to see the debate and the new translation.

Recently a reader asked me how to translate "heart of lion" into Akkadian. More often than not I have to refuse requests to translate something into an ancient script because frankly (a) I can't possibly know every ancient language, and (b) I don't have the time to look it up and translate as a I learn. In this case I really knew little-to-nothing of Akkadian but since the phrase was fairly simple I took it on as a way to learn a bit more about Akkadian.

First, I looked up the words in the expression, namely "heart" and "lion". I also know that Akkadian was an inflectional language which means that the words change form depending on their function in a sentence. In particular, "of lion" is what is called the genitive case, and unlike English where this concept is expressed as a phrase, Akkadian would have it as a derivation of the root of "lion". In other words, I need to find the word for "lion" in Akkadian and then figure out how to modify it into the equivalent of "of lion".

I found this online dictionary which seems to be pretty good.

From this, I found libbu to be "heart; belly, tummy; wish, mind; center, inside". Since the first definition is "heart", my guess is that the rest are metaphoric extensions of the original meaning. Next I found lābu to be "lion". This seems to be pretty straightforward.

Now there is an extra wrinkle in that the Akkadian dictionary states that "mimmation is omitted". This reflects a historical change in the Akkadian language itself that during the Old Babylonian period (20th to 16th century BCE) many words ended in -m, so "heart" would've been libbum. However, the last -m is lost after that time, and the word would be libbu in later dialects like Assyrian. You can see for more information. I personally prefer to use mimmation form.

Next we want to create the construction "heart of a lion". Naively, we can see that "heart" is the main subject of the phase, the so called nominative case, which would be libbum in Old Babylonian. The expression "of a lion" is the genitive case that we discussed earlier, which would be lābim in Akkadian. So the entire translation should be libbum lābim, right? Wrong!

Turns out that when putting two nouns together in Akkadian there's a special case called the construct state in which the nominative case is shortened down to the bone. The entire nominative ending of -um is omitted, and in this case the double consonant -bb- is reduced to a single consonant, so the final form becomes lib lābim.

See for more details.

Next we move onto how to write the translated expression in Akkadian cuneiform. To write lib, we use the signs li-ib, so that we can indicate the final -b consonant. . Next up is lābim, where ā is a long vowel, and so we double the vowel [a] like so la-a-bi-im.

And here it is:

And yes, in a geeky way, it was fun.

I highly recommend the Akkadian Language site ( which touches on Mesopotamian history, cuneiform script, Akkadian grammar, and sample texts. Sometimes I've gotten lost in it for hours!

UPDATE: A friend Twitter disagreed with this conclusion of mine. This was followed by much tweeting back and forth and some more research on my part.

Specifically I found "A structural grammar of Babylonian" by Giorgio Buccellati on Google Books and it provided example of what I am looking for. Particularly I found the phrase libbi ālim which means "heart of the city" which is similarly enough to what I'm looking for, although lib ālim might still be correct in a more obscure way.

Here is the new translation in cuneiform:

Don't you just love this new social network thingy?


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A grab bag of wiggling thoughts

It's March 2011 already? My last post was in November 2010 and to be honest I haven't had any ideas on what to talk about. There are, however, updates over at the very Web 1.0 Ancient Scripts website, including new page on Cretan Hieroglyphs and an update on Linear A.

For the next writing system I am going to jump across the globe and work on Rongo Rongo, the mysterious scripts of Easter Island. It's going to be fun to read about all the looney crackpot theories about this script. However, aside from dubious claims with the aliens, supernatural beings, and even wandering Greeks/Egyptians/Phoenicians, there are actually solid research but with various degrees of convincibility. I've done a bit of reading already and it's quite fascinating!

Another subproject that I really want to get started is bibliography on each page. Right now all my sources are available on the Reference page (, and I meticulously keep that updated. However, what would be really nice is to have each page lists its own source materials. It would be a bit of an undertaking, but it will really help one of my goals of Ancient Scripts which is to enable readers to go deeper (pardon the Inception reference) into a subject by providing both online and offline resources.