Ancient tablet shows undiscovered language
Amid the ruins of a Middle Eastern palace dating back nearly 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, archaeologists believe they have discovered a previously unknown ancient language.
Working in southeast Turkey, a team excavating an Assyrian imperial governors’ palace in the ancient city of Tushan recently unearthed a 2,800-year-old clay writing tablet.
Cambridge University archaeologist John MacGinnis discovered the unknown language – which was likely spoken by a hitherto unknown people from the Zagros Mountains of western Iran – while deciphering the tablet, according to The Independent.
“The discovery is important because it may help reveal the ethnic and cultural origins of some of history’s first ‘barbarians’ – mountain tribes which had, in previous millennia, preyed on the world’s first great civilizations, the cultures of early Mesopotamia in what is now Iraq,” according to the British newspaper.
The clay tablet revealed the names of 60 women – probably prisoners of war or victims of an Assyrian forced-population transfer program.
But when MacGinnis began to examine the names in detail, he realized that 45, or three of every four, bore no resemblance to any of the thousands of ancient Middle Eastern names already known to scholars.
Because ancient Middle Eastern names are normally composites, made up in full or abbreviated form, of ordinary words in the relevant local lexicon, the unique nature of the tablet’s 45 mystery names is seen by scholars as evidence of a previously unknown language, The Independent reported.
Typical names borne by the women who are believed to have come from the area with the previously unknown language would be considered a mouthful today, including: Ushimanay, Alagahnia, Irsakinna and Bisoonoomay.
“Now archaeologists and linguistics experts are set to analyze the mystery names in even greater details to try to discover whether the letter order or letter frequency shows any similarities to previously attested ancient tongues to which this mystery language could be related,” according to the publication.
The belief that the 45 women came from somewhere in the central or northern Zagros Mountains is based on the fact that that region is the only area in which the Assyrians were militarily active at the relevant time where the ancient languages are still largely unknown.
The clay tablet text originally formed part of the palace’s archive – used by local Assyrian imperial officials to record their administrative, political and economic decisions and actions.
(A detail from the ancient Assyrian clay tablet detailing the 45 mystery names written in cuneiform script. Photo by The Independent.)