A team of early-career researchers from the University of Cologne has accomplished a significant breakthrough by deciphering the long-standing mystery of the ‘unknown Kushan script.’
This enigmatic writing system has puzzled scholars for over seventy years, but Svenja Bonmann, Jakob Halfmann, and Natalie Korobzow dedicated years to studying photographs of inscriptions found in caves, as well as symbols on bowls and clay pots from different Central Asian countries, in order to piece together the puzzle.
On March 1, 2023, the researchers made their announcement regarding the partial decipherment of the unknown Kushan script during an online conference organized by the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tajikistan.
Their efforts have resulted in the successful reading of approximately 60 percent of the characters, while they continue their work to decode the remaining symbols.
The team has now published a detailed account of their decipherment in the journal Transactions of the Philological Society, under the title ‘A Partial Decipherment of the Unknown Kushan Script.’
The ‘unknown Kushan script’ was used in Central Asia between 200 BCE and 700 CE and is associated with both the early nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppe, including the Yuèzhī, and the ruling dynasty of the Kushans.
The Kushans were responsible for spreading Buddhism to East Asia and left a legacy of monumental architecture and artworks.
Historically, only several dozen relatively short inscriptions have been discovered, primarily from the present-day territories of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan. Additionally, French archaeologists found a longer trilingual inscription in the 1960s at Dašt-i Nāwur in Afghanistan, on a boulder at an altitude of 4,320 meters on Mount Qarabayu, about 100 km southwest of Kabul.
Despite the knowledge of the script’s existence since the 1950s, it had remained an unsolved puzzle until the discovery of a bilingual inscription in 2022. The inscription, found carved into a rock face in the Almosi Gorge near Dushanbe, Tajikistan, contained sections written in the already known Bactrian language alongside the unknown Kushan script.
This finding reinvigorated attempts by multiple researchers to decipher the script, with the linguists at the University of Cologne ultimately achieving partial success in collaboration with Tajik archaeologist Dr. Bobomullo Bobomulloev, who played a crucial role in the discovery and documentation of the bilingual inscription.
Drawing inspiration from the methodology used to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs with the help of the Rosetta Stone, ancient Persian cuneiform script, and Greek Linear B script, the team utilized a similar approach.
The decipherment was made possible through the identification of the royal name Vema Takhtu, present in both Bactrian texts, and the title “King of Kings,” which was found in the sections written in the previously unidentified Kushan script.
This title provided the linguists with the crucial clue to determine the language of the text. By analyzing the Bactrian parallel text, the researchers could gradually decipher further character sequences and determine the phonetic values of each character.
Their investigations revealed an entirely unknown Middle Iranian language captured in the Kushan script, distinct from both Bactrian and Khotanese Saka, which was once used in western China.
The language appears to represent an intermediate stage of development between these two known languages. It is speculated that this newly identified Iranian language could belong to either the settled population of northern Bactria (present-day Tajikistan) or the language of certain nomadic groups from Inner Asia, such as the Yuèzhī, who originally inhabited northwestern China.
For a certain period, this language served as one of the official languages of the Kushan Empire, alongside Bactrian, Gandhari/Middle Indo-Aryan, and Sanskrit. As a tentative name, the researchers have proposed labeling it ‘Eteo-Tocharian.’
First author Svenja Bonmann remarked, The successful decipherment of the unknown Kushan script opens the door to a better understanding of the language and cultural history of Central Asia and the Kushan Empire.
This achievement can be compared to the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphs or Mayan glyphs, which significantly enhanced our understanding of ancient Egypt and Mayan civilization.
More information: Bonmann, S, et al, (2023). A Partial Decipherment of the Unknown Kushan Script, Transactions of the Philological Society. DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12269