How old is the oldest written work where we have translated what is written on it in correctly that is verified?

Sigh. I've tried writing that sentence in a way that is understandable and am having trouble, which is fairly ironic. I guess I'm looking for the current demarcation of prehistory to history, but from the standpoint of writing that we have successfully translated beyond "we know someone wrote these symbols, but don't know what they were trying to say."

I've read the wiki page on prehistory and it says while in the past prehistory was 'that time before writing,' many historical scholars are moving beyond the writing and into artifacts. I'm currently interested in the oldest translated written works.

  • 5
    you need to define "correctly" first. Absent the thoughts of the original writer, there's not a good way to tell.
    – Oldcat
    Jan 26, 2016 at 21:50

4 Answers 4


Writing emerged from indecipherable protowriting in the 4th millennium BC. Here's a really cool graph of the earliest dates we can ascribe to writing systems, from a long analysis of the question:

enter image description here

The oldest "written work", in the sense of visual symbols with a modicum of abstraction from being mere pictograms, is from Egypt circa 3400 BC. "Oldest writings, and inventory tags of Egypt". (simple write-up here) There are tablets of similar age in Sumer. We can "translate" both, but it's not too hard as they are just one or two words.

The oldest grammatical works, meaning documents with sentences on them, are the Kesh temple hymn and the Instructions of Shuruppak, written on clay tablets in 2600 BC. (details)

Various other 3rd millennium BC literatures are listed on Wikipedia.

  • Just to add this: Proto-Cuneifrom and Proto-Elamite have not as yet been deciphered. The question was specifically about the "oldest verifiably correctly translated" writing.
    – fdb
    Jan 26, 2016 at 17:01
  • 1
    I linked to a deciphered proto-cuneiform tablet in the second paragraph.
    – Avery
    Jan 26, 2016 at 17:05
  • I think you should look for things by professional linguists, not by "accounting historians".
    – fdb
    Jan 26, 2016 at 17:15
  • I dunno, the blog is by a Near Eastern Studies grad, and he probably does know a lot of cuneiform experts.
    – Avery
    Jan 26, 2016 at 17:30
  • What are the X and Y axis on this chart? They are not clear.... Jan 26, 2016 at 19:10

The oldest texts that have been successfully deciphered are from Sumer (Southern Iraq) and Egypt. In both countries decipherable writing begins around 2700 BC.

  • 1
    There are no Chinese documents dated earlier?
    – CGCampbell
    Feb 13, 2015 at 3:12
  • 4
    @CGCampbell. No. Written records in Chinese start around 1200 BC.
    – fdb
    Feb 13, 2015 at 9:07

Avery documents some of the oldest documents known, however, it should be noted that those examples have conjectural dates because it is hard to date the contexts accurately and the documents themselves are vague. The Pyramid Texts (circa 2400 BC) are in many ways the most notable old written texts, not only because they are in a datable context (the Old Kingdom pyramids themselves), but because the texts are extensive. Unfortunately the Pyramid Texts are of a mystical character, not historical, but nevertheless the use of sophisticated words and terms has given scientists much information about the earliest forms of Egyptian language. There are many ambiguities and question marks in the translation of both the Pyramid Texts and the Elamite/Akkadian texts, but the gist of them is known.

There have been attempts to translate neolithic inscriptions (see for example "Ice Age Language: Translations, Grammar, and Vocabulary" by Dr. Robert Duncan Enzmann), but that would probably fall into the category of "unverifiable translations".


I forgot the museum (maybe the Metropolitan of NY) where I saw a written text that claimed to be the oldest known. It was just a piece of archaic cuneiform that said something like " has given to me X amount of grain". Quite boring, but most oldest text are just for accountants.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.