Dozens of ancient writing systems are still undeciphered. My question is: Which of them has the largest number of known inscriptions (and might thus be most accessible to future decipherment, though that is not part of my question)?

For example, the Phaistos Disc, whose inscription is in a unknown writing system, has only 241 symbols in total, and no other specimens of that writing system are known.

On the other hand, in the early 19th century, both Akkadian cuneiform and the Egyptian hieroglyphs, for each of which thousands of inscriptions comprising millions of tokens were known, were still undeciphered (of course, they have both been deciphered since).


2 Answers 2


That's a very interesting question, and the result does not only evolve when one deciphers a text, but also when new inscriptions are found.

Thus, even though only one tablet was found outside of Crete before 1973, I would say the answer to your question is Linear A: there are 1427 Linear A documents with a total occurrence of 7362-7396 signs.

The linear A is a religious writing of the Minoan civilization. It is believed to be the origin of the Linear B, the most ancient written form of written Greek, used until the arrival of the alphabet. The main difference with Linear B is that

  • Linear A is not deciphered while Linear B is.
  • If Linear A is pronounced similarly as Linear B, then it is unlikely to be Greek and could in fact be a language with different origins (possibly semitic).

I am giving this answer considering that, on the contrary to Mayan — previously given, Linear A is completely undeciphered while Maya script is actually deciphered although many inscriptions remain a mystery.

Of course you need to keep in mind that Linear A may answer your question only because many searches were made in ancient Greece (same goes with Egypt for instance), while there could be some unknown script, or one for which only a few tablets was found, for which we might find a much bigger corpus after all. I am aware that you asked about the largest known corpus of text, and I only mean to say that you might have bigger chances deciphering a mysterious script language by actually looking for more inscriptions of it, than you would have by studying the script that has the biggest corpus of text.

  • 1
    The last point is very good: if it's still undeciphrad, it's not very likely staring intensely at the already known scripts will yield results...
    – o0'.
    Apr 17, 2014 at 13:44
  • @Lohoris Who knows? Maybe the next one to be undeciphered will be one for which we have only one text, for instance the Olmec script. Apr 17, 2014 at 13:48

Probably the Mayan writings and inscriptions are the largest body of undecipered writings with the most historical importance.

Also, do not blithely assume ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics are well understood. Many of the "translations" of hieroglyphics, especially those found in royal tombs, are highly conjectural, and we cannot really be certain what they say.

  • 1
    Good answer - sources & references would make it an excellent answer and worthy of an upvote.
    – MCW
    Apr 16, 2014 at 21:07
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    Mayan script isn't an undeciphered writing system. It has parts of it that are undeciphered just as Egyptian hieroglyphics.
    – Razie Mah
    Apr 16, 2014 at 22:35
  • Mayan, with the exception of the dating and numeral system, is more or less not known. Questions are not supposed to ask for references. This is not the Wikipedia. Apr 17, 2014 at 16:09
  • 3
    @TylerDurden Well, answers should have references, on every stackexchange network. Apr 18, 2014 at 10:53
  • 2
    @TylerDurden OP didn't ask for reference material, doesn't mean you shouldn't point to good references in your answers. How to answer states that links to external resources are encouraged. I see nothing wrong with that. Apr 18, 2014 at 15:12

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