Scholars can glean information about the ancient Greeks by examining the images and writings on their pottery. Some vases contain nonsense inscriptions, however: combinations of Greek letters that don’t translate to any known words. One scholar played a hunch about these gibberish words and, in the process, gave voice to languages that hadn’t been heard for thousands of years.
The work began with a study of 12 Greek vases in Athens from the period 550 B.C. to 450 B.C. Stanford University Research Scholar Adrienne Mayor and J. Paul Getty Museum Assistant Curator David Saunders translated inscriptions next to scenes of Amazons fighting, hunting, and shooting arrows. The inscriptions were written in ancient Greek but didn’t form Greek words, so they could only be transcribed by sounding out each letter.