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Deciphering the King’s Script

An inscription carved into a boulder high in the Almosi Gorge of Tajikistan’s Hissar Range has enabled philologists to decipher a writing system known as “the unknown script,” which was used during the centuries when the multiethnic Kushan Empire (ca. A.D. 50–250) held sway over Central Asia. Local shepherd Sanginov Khaitali first spotted the inscriptions in the 1970s, and in July of 2022, he guided a team led by archaeologist Bobomullo Bobomulloev of Tajikistan’s National Academy of Sciences to the site. They found the inscription was written in both the unknown script and Greek letters, which allowed linguists using the team’s photographs to decipher the mysterious writing system. The inscription is dedicated to the Kushan “king of kings” Vema Takhtu (reigned ca. A.D. 80–90). Bobomulloev believes that remains of a stone wall near the inscription may have once belonged to a Kushan royal hunting enclosure. (Credit for all images: Bobomullo Bobomulloev.)

  • Shepard Sanginov Khaitali, from the village of Shol near the Almosi Gorge, first encountered the Kushan inscription in the 1970s. In recent years he noted that the inscription was degraded, possibly due to earthquakes, and alerted archaeologists to the existence of the site.
  • Archaeologist Bobomullo Bobomulloev uses the “squeeze” field method to record the inscription by applying and then brushing damp paper over the incised characters. The paper is then allowed to dry.
  •  The team found a second boulder in Almosi Gorge inscribed with characters belonging to the unknown script when they surveyed the site.
  • The rockface inscribed with the inscription’s Greek characters (top) had spalled off the boulder. The team made a tracing (above) of them without removing the stone.
  • Rock walls near the Almosi Gorge inscription formed a rectangular enclosure measuring about 400 by 165 feet. Bobomulloev believes it may have once been used by Kushan nobility as a hunting enclosure.
  •  A second rock wall was discovered a few dozen miles from the Almosi Gorge inscription in 2023. Bobomulloev thinks it, too, may have once been used by royal Kushan hunting parties.

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