One day in 1994 Richard Salomon, professor of Asian Languages and Literature at the University of Washington, received a small package in the mail. Inside were a number of blurry black and white photographs and an accompanying letter from the British Library asking if they might be of any interest.
Salomon started looking at the photos – first idly, and then with growing disbelief. “I could see pretty quickly they were the real deal.” The photos showed various inscriptions that were written on a series of scrolls – scrolls of bark that the British Library had been given by an anonymous donor, who in turn, had bought them from an anonymous buyer based somewhere in Pakistan.
The inscriptions Salomon saw were written in Gandhari, a middle Indo-Aryan language closely related to Sanskrit that was in use from the third century BC to the fourth century AD. It was hardly surprising that the British Library had come straight to him. Salomon was one of the few, the very few, people in the world who could read Gandhari – or at least read some of it. “I knew the basic grammar, but there were an awful lot of words that I didn’t know.”
Up until then Salomon had been working on the only known example of a Gandhari manuscript ever discovered – it’s also reckoned to be the oldest surviving example of an Indian text. This discovery, though, changed everything.
A few days later, Salomon flew to London to have a look for himself.
Because they’re written on bark, Gandhari manuscripts are much more fragile than anything on paper, or vellum. A French archaeologist who discovered some in the 1830s found that they literally crumbled to dust as soon as he touched them. Rolled up, the manuscripts Salomon saw resembled enormous cigars. Unrolled, some of them were more than 8ft long. As he gazed at them, something strange happened. “Literally, it was as if my life flashed before my eyes.” Straight away, Salomon realised that there was so much new material here he was going to be spending the rest of his career working on it. Sure enough, 20 years on, he’s still hard at it. “I know a lot more now than I did, but there’s still a long way to go.”
A life further removed from today’s torrent of tweets, Facebook posts and 24-hour news is hard to imagine. For Salomon and the small band of scholars around the world dedicated to translating ancient languages, “status updates” happen only rarely and the internet’s fire hose of information is more or less irrelevant.
And while it’s easy to assume there are no longer any unknown languages left in the world, that they all gave up their secrets long ago, the truth is, there are lots of them. Several are well on the way to being deciphered, but others remain out of reach.
Read more: The Telegraph