Ancient language discovered on clay tablets found amid ruins of 2800 year old Middle Eastern palace

 

Archaeologists have discovered evidence for a previously unknown ancient language – buried in the ruins of a 2800 year old Middle Eastern palace.

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.

Evidence of the long-lost language - probably spoken by a hitherto unknown people from the Zagros Mountains of western Iran – was found by a Cambridge University archaeologist as he deciphered an ancient clay writing tablet unearthed by an international archaeological team excavating an Assyrian imperial governors’ palace in the ancient city of Tushan, south-east Turkey.

The tablet revealed the names of  60 women – probably prisoners-of-war  or victims of an Assyrian forced population transfer programme. But when the Cambridge archaeologist – Dr. John MacGinnis - began to examine the names in detail, he realized that 45 of them 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 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.

The 60 women (including the 45 with evidence of the previously unattested language) were almost certainly being deployed by the palace authorities for some economic purpose (potentially a female-associated craft activity like weaving). Indeed the text mentions that some of them were being allocated to specific local villages.

Typical names, borne by the women – the evidence for the lost language – include Ushimanay, Alagahnia, Irsakinna and Bisoonoomay.

Now archaeologists and linguistics experts are set to analyse 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.

The 45 women are thought to come from somewhere in the central or northern Zagros Mountains – because that is the only area in which the Assyrians were militarily active at the relevant time where the ancient languages are still largely unknown.

It’s likely that the women were compulsorily moved from their Zagros Mountains homeland and assigned to work near Tushan sometime in the second half of the 8th century BC – probably as a result of conquests carried out in the Zagros by the Assyrian kings Tiglath Pilasser III or Sargon.

The excavation of the palace at Tushan is being carried out by a German archaeological team directed by Dr. Dirk Wicke of Mainz University as part of an archaeological investigation into the ancient Assyrian city led by Professor Timothy Matney of the University of Akron in Ohio. Full details about the discovery of the mystery names are published in the current issue of the Journal of Near Eastern Studies .

David Keys is the Archaeology Correspondent for The Independent

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links