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Archaeological research in the Middle East is revealing how a long-forgotten ancient civilisation used previously undiscovered linguistics to promote multiculturalism and political stability.
The revolutionary findings are also providing insight into the functioning of ancient empires.
Archaeological digs in Turkey, specifically at the site of the former capital of the Hittite empire, are uncovering compelling proof that the empire’s government had departments solely or partially focused on studying the religions of subjugated groups.
According to the evidence, during the second millennium BC, Hittite leaders instructed their civil servants to document the religious practices and customs of subject peoples in their native languages, using Hittite script. This was done in order to preserve these traditions and integrate them into the empire’s diverse and inclusive religious system.
Up until now, contemporary scholars of old languages have determined that bureaucrats in the Hittite society documented and kept religious records from a minimum of five different ethnic groups.
The most recent instance was discovered only two months ago. It was revealed to be written in a Middle Eastern language that was previously unknown and had been lost for approximately 3,000 years.
Over the years, approximately 30,000 intact and incomplete clay tablet records have been discovered in the remains of the former Hittite capital, Hattusa (currently referred to as Bogazkoy), located approximately 100 miles east of Turkey’s present-day capital, Ankara.
The majority of the writings were in Hittite, the main language of the empire. However, approximately 5% of the writings were composed by the scribes of the Hittite government in the languages spoken by minority ethnic groups within the empire, such as the Luwians (from southeastern Anatolia), Palaians (from northwestern Anatolia), Hattians (from central Anatolia), and Hurrians (from Syria and northern Mesopotamia).
A newly discovered minority language, documented by official writers (previously unknown to contemporary researchers), is now known as Kalasmaic. This language appears to have been used by a subordinate group in a region known as Kalasma on the outskirts of the empire.
The finding indicates that the empire was documenting, analyzing, and safeguarding even the most unfamiliar languages. This brings up the potential for other lesser-known Middle Eastern languages to be found on Hittite tablets in the specific scriptoria being excavated at Bogazkoy by archaeologists.
The scribes of the empire’s civil service used a Hittite variation of cuneiform, the oldest writing system in the world, to write their manuscripts. This script originated in Mesopotamia and consists of wedge-shaped lines grouped together to represent syllables.
During ancient times, the region that is now Turkey was abundant in various languages.
The variation of languages is frequently influenced by geographical features such as mountains and isolated valleys. The presence of these natural barriers often leads to the development and continuation of multiple languages.
Currently, there are only five minority languages known to have existed during the Bronze Age Hittite empire. However, it is possible that there were actually at least 30, considering the rugged terrain of the region.
Indeed, just adjacent to the ancient Hittite Empire were the Caucasus mountains region which still today boasts some 40 languages.
The Hittite language is the earliest recorded Indo-European language in the world.
The oldest writings originate from 1600 BC. Being an Indo-European language, it shares connections with numerous current European and Asian languages, such as English, Iranian, and various Indian languages. In fact, despite the 3,000 years that separate them, ancient Hittite and modern English have a significant overlap in vocabulary.
For example, the Hittite word for “water” was Watar. Duttar was a crucial component of their word for “daughter”. Their term for “wine” was wiyana, “heart/cardiac” represented a card, and newa was their word for “new”.
The investigation of the historic writing rooms in Bogazkoy will aid linguists in comprehending the development of Indo-European languages from the Bronze Age, which have a distant connection to the English language.
Professor Andreas Schachner from the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul is currently leading the excavations. The clay tablets are being studied by paleo-linguists from Wurzburg and Istanbul universities.
According to Daniel Schwemer, a professor at Wurzburg University and an expert in cuneiform script, the history of the Bronze Age in the Middle East is not fully understood. However, the recent discovery of clay tablet documents is aiding scholars in expanding their understanding.
The ongoing dig at Bogazkoy is discovering an average of 30 to 40 new cuneiform tablets or fragments each year. This site, known as Hattusa in ancient times, holds significant significance as it was the capital of the Hittite empire from approximately 1650 BC to 1200 BC. This empire was one of the earliest and largest imperial political systems in the world, making Bogazkoy a hub for a well-established civil service and the production of numerous documents.
The Hittite kingdom extended from the western coast of the Aegean Sea to present-day northern Iraq in the east, and from the Black Sea in the north to Lebanon in the south.
The civilisation fundamentally changed human history – because its technological innovations (especially the invention of iron, the development of sophisticated ultra-lightweight war chariots and the creation of a substantial civil service) enabled an expansion of warfare and government and the creation of ever-larger empires.
Ongoing excavations at Bogazkoy are providing significant insight into the functioning of Hittite civilization and its role in shaping human history.