Chicken Scratch

The mystery is not why some people cannot read.

The marvel is that any of us can.

To illustrate this, put your fingers in your ears and look at this picture.

This stone niche located at the Citadel of Van is a canvas for scrawlers.

Are your fingers still in your ears? Good. That will keep your brain from exploding.

As an explorer, imagine finding yourself face to face with this wall. It is located in a niche beside a “sacrificial platform” on the Citadel of Van (Van Kelesi). Faced with this wall of puzzles, could you read it? Would you even try? Would you guess that all these marks are just decoration? Silly graffiti? The work of vandals?

Look again. More closely this time. Can you make out the oldest marks? They are geometric, like little triangles.

A closer look.

In the midst of all these scratches is a message from antiquity. Figuring it out though, is a demanding exercise. Imagine what is needed to either encode or decode a message like this.

First, you need a spoken system of communication. It must have enough wheels to freight an idea. The more abstract the thought, the more sophisticated the system. Assyrian, Old Persian, Babylonian, Elamite, Armenian, Turkish, Russian, Kurdish, and, of course, Urartian (of Urartu, morphed into Hebrew as “Ararat”) are among the tongues, old and new, spoken on this very spot. It is no tower per se, but it is a virtual Babel!

Second, you need a way to represent the spoken word in symbol. The prominence of the Citadel makes it a magnet for graffiti artists. The ancient ones obviously did not use spray paint, but one of the oldest writing technologies in the world. It is called “wedge writing” or cuneiform (from the latin, cunis, for “wedge”). This technology was a carrier for Sumerian, a language spoken at the dawn of history. In time, the technique of “wedge writing” was picked up and used as a vehicle by other specialists to carry their own language systems. This included the Iron Age folk responsible for the platform, remembered as Urartians.

The niche on the right is where the inscription above was photographed. Notice the dark colored blocks on the ground. These too have inscribed faces.

Third, to encode or decode a message like this you need a canvas that allows for the expression and preservation of the message. It might be a chip or scratch in a stone, a bit of color on a surface, a shape pressed in clay, or some other mark.

Notice the little triangles or wedges cut into the face of the dark block. These are clearer than those in the wall. Constellations of these wedges were easily pressed into tablets of soft clay. Tattooing basalt with a chisel would have been a far more difficult task (not that I’ve tried. I’m just guessing!). I run my hand over the inscribed face of the block. Some of the wedge shapes are longer than others, but most are the same size. All are cut to about the same depth. All are oriented perpendicularly. It is fascinating.

The inscribed face of one of the blocks.

And fourth, to encode or decode a message like this you need opportunity. There must be a prompt to write, an encoder who has the education and time to execute it. Likewise, there must be a decoder who has given himself/herself to the task and has the mind and the countless hours needed to develop proficiency.

Complicating matters in this case is the gap between the past and the present. The tradition of encoding and decoding cuneiform was lost along the way. Centuries and centuries separated the code-makers from the code-breakers. The art of reading this stuff had to be discovered anew.

Schulz knew, as did Layard after him, that these inscriptions were not just chicken scratch but a communiqué from the distant past. It would be left to other men to crack the code of ancient Urartian. Two names cannot be missed in this: Guyard and Sayce. Their story, however, must be saved for another day.

An inscribed stone block located at the Citadel of Van.