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New findings from archaeological studies in the Middle East are shedding light on the forgotten practices of an ancient civilization that utilized innovative language techniques to promote diversity and maintain a stable political climate.
The revolutionary findings are also revealing insights into the functioning of ancient empires.
Ongoing digs in Turkey at the site of the former capital of the Hittite empire have uncovered compelling proof that the imperial bureaucracy included departments specifically focused on studying the religions of conquered peoples.
During the second millennium BC, Hittite leaders instructed their civil servants to document the religious practices and customs of subject peoples in their own local languages, using Hittite script. This was done in order to preserve and integrate these traditions into the empire’s diverse and all-encompassing religious system.
Until now, contemporary specialists in antiquated languages have ascertained that Hittite government officials maintained and documented sacred texts from at least five different ethnic groups.
The most recent instance was discovered only two months back. It was revealed to be inscribed in a Middle Eastern dialect that had been unknown and extinct for approximately 3,000 years.
In the past few decades, approximately 30,000 clay tablets, both complete and fragmented, have been discovered at the site of the ancient Hittite capital Hattusa (now called Bogazkoy), located around 100 miles east of Ankara, the current capital of Turkey.
The majority of the writings were in the primary language of the empire, known as Hittite. However, approximately 5% of these writings were either fully or partially written in the languages spoken by minority ethnic groups within the empire. These groups included the Luwians from south-eastern Anatolia, Palaians from north-west Anatolia, Hattians from central Anatolia, and Hurrians from Syria and northern Mesopotamia.
The newest minority language, documented by official recorders (previously unknown to contemporary researchers), is referred to as Kalasmaic. It appears to have been used by a subordinate group in a region called Kalasma on the outskirts of the empire.
The finding indicates that even the least known languages in the empire were being documented, examined, and protected through writing. This also suggests that there is a potential for other lesser known Middle Eastern languages to be uncovered, documented on clay tablets from the Hittite empire, within the specific ancient scriptoria currently being excavated at Bogazkoy by archaeologists.
The scribes of the empire’s civil service used a Hittite adaptation of the cuneiform script, which originated in Mesopotamia and is considered the oldest writing system in the world. It consisted of wedge-shaped lines organized into groups to represent syllables.
During ancient times, the Middle East region that is now known as Turkey was abundant in languages.
The variety of languages is often influenced by geographical features. Areas with numerous mountains and secluded valleys are more likely to have a higher number of languages that develop and persist.
Currently, only five minority languages have been identified in the Bronze Age Hittite empire. However, due to the hilly landscape, it is possible that there were actually around 30 languages spoken.
Next to the historic Hittite Empire, lies the Caucasus mountain region which currently has around 40 languages spoken.
The Hittite language is the oldest documented Indo-European language in the world.
The oldest written records can be traced back to the 16th century BC. Being an Indo-European language, it shares similarities with many modern European and Asian languages, specifically Iranian and various Indian languages. Interestingly, despite the 3,000 years that separate them, ancient Hittite and contemporary English have a significant number of shared words.
For example, the Hittite word for “water” was Watar. Duttar was a crucial element of the Hittite term for “daughter”. “Wine” was referred to as wiyana, and their word for “card” was “heart” or “cardiac”. Additionally, their word for “new” was newa.
The excavations of the ancient scriptoria in Bogazkoy will allow linguistics experts to better understand the evolution of ancient Bronze Age Indo-European languages that English is distantly related to.
Professor Andreas Schachner from the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul is currently leading the excavations, while paleo-linguists from Wurzburg and Istanbul universities are studying the texts on the clay tablets.
“Bronze Age Middle Eastern history is only partly understood – and discovering additional clay tablet documents is helping scholars to substantially increase our knowledge,” said cuneiform script expert, Wurzburg University professor Daniel Schwemer, who is leading the investigation into the newly discovered texts.
Bogazkoy, also known as ancient Hattusa, is currently producing an average of 30 to 40 new cuneiform tablets or tablet fragments per year through ongoing excavations. This site holds great significance as the capital of the Hittite empire (around 1650 BC to 1200 BC) and one of the earliest and largest imperial political systems in the world. It was also home to a highly productive civil service that generated a significant amount of documentation.
The Hittite empire extended from the western Aegean Sea to present-day northern Iraq in the east, and from the northern Black Sea to Lebanon in the south.
The civilization had a profound impact on human history, as its advancements in technology (specifically the utilization of iron, the advancement of highly advanced lightweight war chariots, and the establishment of a significant civil service) allowed for increased warfare and larger empires to be formed.
Ongoing excavations at Bogazkoy are providing significant insights into the functioning of Hittite civilization, revealing its impact on human history.