If you want to start a debate, ask a roomful of scholars to name the ancient world’s greatest invention. You’ll hear lots of answers: some citing the wheel, fire, the axe, or the plow. After reflection, the scholars might skip ahead and start thinking across world history. They’ll add inventions like the calendar, marine compass, and the printing press.
I’ve just finished reading Silvia Ferrara’s The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts. The book, published in Ferrara’s native Italian two years ago, just came out this year in English in a readable and sensitive translation by Todd Portnowitz.
In her slim volume (290 pages), Ferrara, a professor at the University of Bologna, gives readers a look at how – and how often – humans have managed to produce the miracle of written language. She leads us on a fast code-cracking tour around the globe: Mesopotamia, Crete, China, Egypt, Central America, Easter Island, and beyond. Her book is part ancient history and part a page-turning detective story.
While Professor Ferrara does touch on analytical techniques — the “how” of decoding undeciphered scripts — her book remains accessibly armchair, written as if speaking directly to the reader. She veers off into fun exercises like using an image of actor Brad Pitt to show how concepts become simplified into symbolic squiggles. At one juncture, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfield lands in the narrative with his famous “known knowns” and “unknown unknowns.”
With Ferrara as our trusty guide, we examine enigmas of still undeciphered scripts including the Voynich Manuscript and the famous Phaistos Disk of Crete with its wheel of mysterious markings. We get to watch as Sequoyah single-handedly invents a polished writing script for his native Cherokee language and we get to touch upon the knotted and colorful strings of Inca quipu.
Even a casual reader will come away from The Greatest Invention with a whole new appreciation for the miracle of written language. Ferrara asks the reader to think again about images dating from 40,000 years ago: “The Paleolithic symbols in caves. We can still see them. They’re still there.” Ferrara views ancient writings as evidence of someone’s emotions, perhaps someone who wished to be remembered forever.” She concludes, “As long as there are emotions, there will be written letters. Living letters.”