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Problems and Strategies in the Decipherment ofMeroitic Richard Lobban Rhode Island College This article offers a preliminary report on the evolution of the study of Meroitic language and on developing a strategy for expanding its translation from one or two dozen words to some greater number. The strategy is complicated by the essential absence of bilingual texts. Thus, this strategy seeks to synthesize a bilingual environment for the study of Meroitic inscriptions. The first part of this article will review the position of Meroitic in African language systems and discuss why so little progress has been made in the decipherment of Africa's oldest written language after Egyptian hieroglyphics. The emergence of Meroitic "cursive" begins well after the end of XXVth Dynasty, and at about the time of the Kushitic withdrawal from Naptata to Merowe—i.e., ca. 300 B.c. at the earliest. In other terms, the emergence of Meroitic occurs about the time of King Nastasen (the last to be buried at Napata) or King Arkamani (who was the first to be buried at Merowe. It is believed that King Arkamani spoke both Meroitic and Greek. Meroitic writing ends essentially at the time of the conquest of Merowe by King Ezana of Axum in about 340 A.D. Thus Meroitic was written in one form or another for 500 to 600 years. There are about 1,000 known inscriptions of Meroitic found scattered in an extensive region from Aswan to Alwa/Soba. But they are clearly concentrated in the region between Napata and Merowe, and are especially numerous at Merowe/Bejrawiyya. Some are very short, some formulaic, and some stela texts (free-standing stone tablets, usually commemorative) are relatively long.©Northeast African Studies (ISSN 0740-9133) Vol. 1, Nos. 2-3 (New Series) 1994, pp. 159-164 259 260 Richard Lobban Historical Background Although the study of Egyptian hieroglyphics dates back to the close of the 18th century, the study of the second oldest system ofwriting on the African continent, Meroitic, has only been initiated in the 19th century and was not very seriously advanced until the 20th century. Despite the rapid advance in the transliteration of the Meroitic alphabet, the study has been effectively stalled ever since. The serious collection of Meroitic inscriptions begins with the first inscriptions recorded by Gau in 1819, or perhaps with Ferlini's 1834 raid on the jewels of the Meroitic pyramids. The father of serious Meroitic archaeology is typically considered to be Lepsius as a result of his 1844 fieldwork in the region. The first systematic work appeared in the Denkmaler of Lepsius in 1849, which includes the formal hieroglyphic form of this dead language. The Mahdist revolt in the Sudan brought the fieldwork to a temporary halt, but Lepsius's 1889 work on Nubian grammar advanced his interest in regional languages. At present , his estimate that Meroitic was Cushitic or Old Nubian is usually believed to be incorrect. Archaeological excavations of Meroe by Garstang, Griffith, and Sayce from 1909 to 1911, and Garstang's return in 1912-13, deepened archaeological interest and added considerably to scientifically collected data. Then, the several works of Francis Llewellyn Griffith written between 1911 and 1922 made the scholarly public more aware of the collection of Meroitic inscriptions. He is properly credited with the system of transliteration that remains largely intact today. Nevertheless, my study of Meroitic already reveals letters or characters which do not easily fit his schema, varying either by the writing style of writer, or perhaps as additional letters. There is certainly more ambiguity in phonetic assignment than Griffith's transliteration scheme suggests. His important advance was accomplished with a bilingual ritual bark stand from Ben Naga written in Meroitic and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Griffith established that there were 23 Meroitic hieroglyphs for royal inscriptions. These are substantially derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs but simplified and somewhat different. There was also a "cursive" Meroitic which was both alphabetic and partly syllabic with dotted word dividers. Both languages were probably official and/or formal, but this needs further study. Problems and Strategies in the Decipherment ofMeroitic 161 The next major effort at translation came with Sayce in the period 1914-16 in the effort to...


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