A team of Indian and U.S. researchers, led by University of Washington professor Rajesh Rao, is attempting to decipher the script of the ancient Indus Valley civilization. Some researchers have questioned whether the script’s symbols are actually a language, or are instead pictograms of political or religious icons. The researchers are using computers to extract patterns from the ancient Indus symbols. The researchers have uncovered several distinct patterns in the symbols’ placement in sequences, which has led to the development of a statistical model for the unknown language. “The statistical model provides insights into the underlying grammatical structure of the Indus script,” Rao says. “Such a model can be valuable for decipherment, because any meaning ascribed to a symbol must make sense in the context of other symbols that precede or follow it.” Calculations show that the order of the symbols is meaningful, as taking one symbol from a sequence and changing its position creates a new sequence that has a much lower probability of belonging to the language. The researchers say the presence of such distinct rules for sequencing provides support for the theory that the unknown script represents a language. The researchers used a Markov model, a statistical model that estimates the likelihood of a future event, such as inscribing a particular symbol, based on previously observed patterns. One application uses the statistical model to fill in missing symbols on damaged artifacts, which can increase the pool of data available for deciphering the writings.
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