A slate tablet bearing the longest inscription yet found in the enigmatic Southwest Script has been found in southern Portugal, as reported by the Associated Press today. Although it’s only 86 characters long, it represents a major expansion in the corpus of Southwest Script inscriptions, which all come from southwestern Iberia (hence the name) and date from the 7th-5th centuries BCE. Southwest Script is one of the world’s more obscure semi-deciphered scripts; one can get a sense of this by the fact that about half of the top 20 hits on Google are to today’s news article (although the label ‘Tartessian’ is somewhat more common).
The Southwest Script is typologically complex. As discussed in the article, some of the signs are alphabetic (roughly, one sign = one phoneme, either a consonant or vowel), others are syllabic (one sign = one consonant + vowel combination), and others are of unknown signification – possibly representing whole words (logograms) or something else entirely. The sound-symbol correspondences can be established because the signs are related to several other Iberian scripts and ultimately to a Phoenician ancestor – so it is possible to read some parts of some of the inscriptions phonetically. But this is far outweighed by what we don’t know (yet).
An awful lot of scripts have some such typological complexities; Egyptian and Japanese are well-known examples, but even the modern Latin alphabet has logographic components like @, &, $, and % which would make a script-decipherer’s job much harder. But with the Southwest Script, where there are so few inscriptions (and the ones we have are so short), the problem becomes nearly unsurmountable. The fact that we can’t even reliably associate the script with a language, even though Phoenician has been fully deciphered for centuries, says quite a lot about the state of the decipherment.
One of the real challenges in Southwest Script studies is that the texts found are all extremely short, making computational decipherments effectively impossible. This new find will not eliminate this methodological difficulty, but it will at least make it more plausible to find repeated sequences of signs that occur in other Southwest Script tablets, one of the key aspects of archaeological decipherment. This might allow us eventually to say more about the linguistic context of the tablets and ultimately work, over the next several decades, towards what might be reasonably called a new archaeological decipherment.