These enigmatic documents have kept their secrets for centuries
Published September 20, 2022
11 min read
One would think an ancient object covered in text–or symbols–would be an archaeologist’s dream. How better to learn about the past than through the words of the ancients? The groundbreaking discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 and its decoding in 1822, for example, unlocked the intricate details of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. Sometimes, archaeologists stumble upon ancient texts that, despite being fascinating, refuse to reveal their secrets. Here are some, including a symbol-stamped clay disk, the Easter Island tablets, and a 16th-century world map depicting landmasses allegedly unknown at the time it was charted, that still grip onto their ancient mysteries. What secrets are they hiding?
Symbols of the Phaistos Disk
The Minoan kingdom flourished on the Greek island of Crete between 3000 B.C. and 1100 B.C. They were one of the first urban societies to build elaborate palaces and use sophisticated plumbing, heating and sewage systems. They also may have left behind a mysterious six-inch, fired-clay disk, which Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier discovered in 1908 in the ruins of the ancient palace of Phaistos. Dating from perhaps 1700 B.C., this amazing find bears a spiral of 242 stamped symbols. Many of the symbols are easily identifiable, including a tattooed head or arrow, a cat, a plane tree, or a beehive. They could be phonetic groups or syllables but there are not enough of them to be deciphered. The same symbols have never been found in any other artifact. Its mystery is still unsolved. Foreign? Syllabic reading inward Reading alphabetic outward?–are as diverse as its interpreters. Although no other evidence supports this, the fact that symbols are stamped could indicate a potential for mass production.
While some experts believe that the disk is fake or a hoax, most people accept it as authentic. It continues to be a secretive remnant of the mysterious early Minoan culture.
The Voynich Manuscript’s unbroken code
The Voynich Manuscript is both a code breaker’s delight and bane. The 240-page illustrated work is written in an unknown language and contains hundreds of inked illustrations of astrological symbols, unidentifiable plants, and bizarre human figures. It is divided into six sections based on the illustrated work: botany and astronomy, biology, cosmology and pharmaceutical. A section of continuous text with decorative markings completes the document. Numerous cryptographers have attempted and failed to decipher its lettering. Is it an herbal manual? Is it an alchemical guide? A researcher in 2019 claimed it is a female gynecology guide written by Dominican nuns.
(Did codebreakers crack this mysterious Medieval manuscript? )
Written on vellum (animal skin), the manuscript named after the Polish-American bookseller, Wilfrid Voynich, who bought it in 1912, but its provenance is much older. The work dates back at least to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II of Germany (1576-1612), who acquired it for 600 gold ducats–though recent tests show it dates from the early 15th century. The manuscript was then passed to several European owners, but none of them could understand it. Despite claims of decipherment continuing to this day, none have been resolved.
Easter Island’s wooden tablets
Easter Island–Rapa Nui in the language of its people–in the South Pacific is well known for its mysterious, multi-ton monolithic statues, known as moai, but no one knows their purpose. The answer may lie in two dozen wooden tablets (and objects, including a chieftain’s staff) found at the site where they’re located. They contain an undeciphered rongorongo script, running left to right, then right to left when the tablet is upended. The glyphs depict the outline of animals, plants and humans.
(Easter Islanders’ weapons were deliberately not lethal. )
It’s not clear when the writing system appeared. Some believe it developed long before the first Europeans arrived in the 1700s; though others argue it emerged after the Rapanui people first saw European writing. Whatever the case, the language was used until the 1860s, when most of the Rapanui died of European illnesses, and knowledge of the script went with them. The writing may have been used for religious purposes, possibly to tell stories about the creation and destruction of the universe. Only the elite could understand it according to oral history, but that is not certain.
Lands on the Piri Reis map
Hajji Ahmed Muhiddin Piri, better known now as Piri Reis (Captain Piri), was an accomplished Turkish admiral and mapmaker of the 16th century, known primarily as the creator of a beautiful 1513 map of the world. Lost for many years, a remnant of the map, drawn on gazelle skin parchment, was rediscovered in the 20th century and is now held in Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace.
Showing the western coasts of Europe, North Africa, and the Brazil coast, the map is remarkable for its depiction of South America’s coast in its proper longitudinal position in relation to Africa, only two decades after European discovery. This is not the only surprise.
PiriReis notes on the map, that he compiled it using many sources, including Portuguese explorers as well as Christopher Columbus’s recent travels. But that doesn’t mean that everything is possible. The map also contains information about a mountain range in South America, which was, theoretically, unknown at the time. Even more puzzling, the document is said to show Antarctica with great topographical detail–although its first sighting wasn’t until centuries later, in 1820–and without ice. Antarctica has been covered in ice for about 6,000 years. Some researchers believe that the map was created thousands of years ago by an advanced civilization. It is still unknown who created these details and why did history forget these early explorers.
The Jamestown Slate
In 2009, excavations in an old well in Jamestown, Virginia, America’s first permanent European settlement, uncovered a colonial-era slate tablet covered with layers and layers of overlapping, scratched inscriptions. These drawings include a man with a ruff collar and what appears to be a palmetto-tree, as well as words that read “A minion or minion of finest sorte” (a minon or minion being a servant or cannon) and “I am not of the finest sorte” (the slate’s original owner or owners). The palmetto tree suggests that the artist was traveling south from Jamestown. He may have even been William Strachey who survived a Bermuda shipwreck to become the colony’s first secretary.
(Stolen from Africa, enslaved people first arrived in colonial Virginia in 1619. )
The well in which the tablet was found was dug around 1608 to 1610 in the center of James Fort under the orders of John Smith, Jamestown’s leader, and was made into a trash pit after it became brackish and unusable. The colonial trash is an archaeologist’s treasure and the discarded slate, although it is not immediately clear, is extremely valuable.
Portions of this work have previously appeared in 100 Greatest Mysteries Revealed by Patricia Daniels. Copyright (c) 2022 National Geographic Partners, LLC.
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The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.