Forgotten Language Rediscovered

In the ruins of an ancient palace in the Middle East,  an archaeologist from Cambridge recently discovered an amazing artifact. No, it wasn’t the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail. Sorry, Indiana Jones. Instead, it’s the remains of a forgotten language, long extinct, that scholars were unaware of until now.

The language, found inscribed on clay tablets in an Assyrian stronghold that dates back 2,800 years, was likely spoken by nomads living in the Zagros Mountains of Iran.

So far, knowledge of the mystery language is limited to the names of 45 women. According to the Independent, archaeologist Dr. John MacGinnis discovered them while translating  a clay tablet used as an administrative record book by the palace bureaucrats.  The names were clearly not Assyrian, as the Assyrian tradition at the time was to create names by combining existing words together.

From the Independent, here are some of the names in question: Ushimanay, Alagahnia, Irsakinna and Bisoonoomay.

Look for a celebrity to choose one of these for their baby girl sometime within the next year — after all, what could be more unique than a name in a forgotten language?

But who were these women? And who were their people? At the this time, all we know is that they probably weren’t there of their own free will. As the Independent notes,

“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.”

Now, they are at the center of a linguistic mystery, and the race is on to try to get a better idea of where they were from. The 45 names will be compared to existing regional languages to see if any relationship can be found that might help place them. Their language may not ever be deciphered or named, but almost 3,000 years later, history has not forgotten them.

Dictionary Translates Language of the Everyday Ancient Egyptian

After almost four decades, scholars at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute have finally finished their magnum opus: a dictionary of demotic Egyptian, the script used by commoners in ancient Egypt.

The elaborate hieroglyphs that adorn the tombs of the pharaohs were much too complicated to be suitable for everyday writing, so a more practical cursive script was developed alongside them. This eventually evolved into demotic Egyptian, used by everyday people to do things like record stories, write love letters, and draft contracts.

According to James Allen, an Egyptologist from Brown University, “there are more unpublished documents in Demotic than any other phase of ancient Egypt.” Now, it should be much easier for scholars to translate those documents. The final entries to the dictionary, which is free to use online, were published last month. It is expected to be released in book format in the future, for use in research libraries.

Gil Stein, the Oriental Institute’s director, told the New York Times that

“It’s really huge what a dictionary does for understanding an ancient society. This will lead to mastering texts from the Egyptians themselves, not their rulers, at a time the country was becoming absorbed increasingly into the Greco-Roman world.”

Other scholars agree. Prof. Friedhelm Hoffmann of the Institute for Egyptology at the University of Munich told

“I myself have been using the Chicago Demotic Dictionary since the first letters were published, not only for looking up words and but also finding their meaning.”

The dictionary has simplified the translation of things like marriage annuities, which show how Egyptian husbands were obliged to provide for their wives, as well as financial records like tax receipts, which were kept on broken pieces of pottery. It may also have assisted in the translation of this “cult fiction” story, which describes the hedonistic and sometimes salacious religious rites practiced by acolytes of the Egyptian goddess Mut.

It also highlights how Demotic Egyptian has lived on through the years in some surprising places. For example, the word “adobe” is derived from Demotic, as is the word “ebony.” According to the New York Times, the name “Susan” is actually Demotic in origin, too. It means “water-lily.”

Image via Wikipedia: This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at // under the creative commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license.

Rosetta Stone

Unlocking the Meaning of an Ancient Hieroglyphic Script

Translating ancient scripts is difficult, especially when the civilization they belonged to is long gone.

We lucked out with the ancient Egyptians when we found the Rosetta Stone, which had the same passage translated into three different scripts: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, demotic Egyptian and classical Greek. Since linguists could read classical Greek, they were able to use this knowledge to understand the hieroglyphic script on the stone.

However, there is no similar artefact available for ancient scripts such as the hieroglyphics used by the Indus Valley civilization. These people lived approximately 4,000 years ago, along what it now the Indian-Pakistani border. They were very technologically advanced for that time, living in cities equipped with the first known urban sanitation systems in the world.

They were also excellent traders who developed an extremely accurate, standardized system of weights and measures. But could they write? Many of their artefacts are decorated with symbols, but nobody knows what these symbols mean. In fact, some researchers doubt that they even represent a written language at all.

So, researchers at the University of Washington have teamed up with researchers from India to try to translate the script using computers. The computer program looks at existing examples of the script and tries to perceive patterns in the order of the symbols.

Using a statistical method called the Markov model; the program has been able to demonstrate that the placement of symbols follows a logical pattern, supporting the theory that they represent a language. As one of the researchers noted in the article referenced above, “The finding that the Indus script may have been versatile enough to represent different subject matter in West Asia is provocative. This finding is hard to reconcile with the claim that the script merely represents religious or political symbols.”

Ancient Roman Curses, Translated

What do you do when you come home from a bad day at work, furious at someone? Do you pour yourself a drink? Blow off steam playing video games? If you lived in a time when people commonly believed in black magic, you might have used a different coping mechanism: casting a curse at the offender, usually by contracting with a witch or sorcerer.

In ancient Greece and Rome, if you meant business, you’d have your curse written down on a stone tablet called a curse tablet or defixio. These tablets were purported to bind deities like Hecate, the Greek goddess of witchcraft, to the sorceror’s will in order to make them punish the person named in the curse. Defixiones were sometimes mass-produced by sorcerers, with the curses pre-written and space left for information like the victim’s name and his or her alleged crimes.

Interestingly, the tablets often included “Voces mysticae,” untranslatable words that were thought to have magical powers, like the modern day “Abra Cadabra” (or Avada Kedavra, as the case may be.)  In ancient Rome, these words have been of Etruscan origin, or they may have been made up out of whole cloth. Nobody is quite sure.

LiveScience reports that two defixiones from the Museo Archeologico Civico di Bologna have recently been translated. The translations, with targets as high and mighty as a senator and as low as an animal doctor,  seem to illustrate how common  these cursing tablets were in Roman society.

It’s not hard to imagine reasons why a politician would be targeted, but what did the hapless veterinarian do? Celia Sánchez Natalías, the doctoral student who translated the tablets, speculated that perhaps  he just wasn’t good at his job: “Maybe this person was someone that (had) a horse or an animal killed by Porcello’s medicine.”

Either way, ancient curses were quite vicious. Here’s just a sampling of the one directed at Porcello:

“Destroy, crush, kill, strangle Porcello and wife Maurilla. Their soul, heart, buttocks, liver …”

Senator Fistus doesn’t get off any more lightly:

“Crush, kill Fistus the senator. May Fistus dilute, languish, sink and may all his limbs dissolve …”

Are you sensing a pattern here?

What Killed The Sumerian Language?

It’s a puzzle that’s long vexed archaeologists, historians and linguists alike. What caused the decline the of the ancient Sumerian civilization and the language they spoke?

The ancient Sumerians were the first civilization to invent a system of writing. Cuneiform tablets that describe their laws, myths and stories still survive today. For centuries, the Sumerian language was spoken in the Mesopotamian region of Sumer, located in what is now Iraq. However, some time around 2000 BCE, people stopped speaking it in favor of the language of the nearby Akkadians. Eventually, they also stopped writing and studying it.

What caused the decline? A geologist named Matt Konfirst says that local climate change could be the culprit. But can a drought really kill off a language? Maybe…especially if it’s a drought that lasts centuries.

Konfirst’s findings, which were written up on LiveScience, were presented to colleagues on December 3rd at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. In his presentation, he described what he believes happened:

“This was not a single summer or winter, this was 200 to 300 years of drought…As we go into the 4,200-year-ago climate anomaly, we actually see that estimated rainfall decreases substantially in this region and the number of sites that are populated at this time period reduce substantially.”

As the Sumerian city-states declined, the once-proud civilization made easy prey for invading nomads. The population of Sumer moved to the north, and according to Live Science, 74 percent of the ancient Mesopotamian settlements were abandoned. The Sumerian people had long maintained close ties to the Akkadians, and eventually Akkadian replaced Sumerian completely as a spoken language.

But did climate change really kill off the Sumerian language? Certainly not by itself. According to Wikipedia, rising soil salinity in the region provided another strong incentive for the Sumerians to leave. A centuries-long drought was doubtless a contributing factor in the decline of the civilization and its language, but even if they’d had rain, the high salt levels in the soil would have made it difficult to grow enough food.


Translation Reveals Depth of Egyptian Medical Knowledge

Hippocrates may be revered as the “father of medicine,” but the ancient Egyptians deserve much of the credit.

After assisting in the translation of a 16th-17th Dynasty Egyptian papyrus, Dr. Gonzalo M. Sanchez was “blown away” by how modern much of the content seemed. As he told the Pierre Capital Journal, when it came to trauma, the almost 4,000-year-old papyrus ” was telling me exactly the same thing to look for that I was going down to the Bellevue Hospital Emergency Room and seeing.”

The document in question, the Edwin Smith Papyrus, is an ancient medical textbook that dates back to around 1500 BCE. Unlike most of the other surviving Egyptian medical texts, it focuses mainly on practical healthcare matters as opposed to magic. Though there is no author, some of the original material may have been written centuries earlier by Imhotep, who was a great Egyptian doctor and the architect behind the first pyramid.

Dr. Sanchez provided medical commentary for the latest translation of this document, called the “The Edwin Smith Papyrus: Updated Translation of the Trauma Treatise and Modern Medical Commentaries.” The new translation also benefits from a more up-to-date understanding of ancient Egypt and of the Egyptian hieratic script, courtesy of Egyptologist Edmund S. Meltzer.

In the Pierre Capital Journal, Dr. Sanchez explained how working on the medical translation increased his appreciation for the medical expertise of the ancient Egyptians:

“What we attribute to Hippocrates, of establishing a method to study patients, is here. And it’s here way before him. The major merit is not that they could do brain surgery and build computers,” he said. “They couldn’t do that. The major benefit of Egyptian medicine is that they established a system to study the patient and to document things for further advancement and teaching. That is the contribution.”

That shouldn’t be surprising, really. Even in ancient Greece, Egyptian doctors commanded the utmost respect. In the Odyssey, Homer states that “In Egypt, the men are more skilled in medicine than any of human kind. ” Hippocrates himself trained in the Egyptian temple of Amenhotep.

Anatolia: The Birthplace of Indo-European Language?

The Indo-European language family is one of the world’s largest, encompassing languages as diverse as English and Hindi. Linguists have managed to reconstruct quite a bit of Proto-Indo-European , but the origins of the language family remain shrouded in mystery. Who spoke it, and how did it spread across two continents, and eventually the world?

There are two competing hypotheses regarding how Proto-Indo-European began to spread and fragment. The first, and most popular, hypothesis has the language family originating in the steppes of eastern Europe, among the warlike Kurgan people. The underdog hypothesis has the language family originating in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), among early adopters of farming, and spreading along with agriculture.

Now, a group of researchers at the University of Auckland in New Zealand believe they might have solved the puzzle, using a computer-driven analysis that relies on techniques used to track the spread and mutation of viruses in epidemics. After analyzing the similarities and differences in the vocabularies of 103 Indo-European languages, including both living and extinct languages, the researchers concluded that the Anatolian hypothesis is the most likely to be correct.

As study author Quentin Atkinson explained to Voice of America,

“So the argument is that agricultural populations were able to increase their population density relative to hunter gatherer populations around them, and so they expanded out generation by generation.”

But does language really evolve in the same way a virus does? Not to so fast, say some scholars.

Advocates of the steppe hypothesis point to the fact that as currently reconstructed, Proto-Indo-European has an entire vocabulary to deal with chariots, wagons and other wheeled vehicles. Therefore, the language couldn’t possibly have begun to fragment until after the use of such vehicles became widespread: about 3500 B.C, well after those Anatolian farmers began to go forth and multiply.

As archaeologist David Anthony of Hartwick College told the New York Times, “I see the wheeled-vehicle evidence as a trump card over any evolutionary tree.”

Cue the back-and-forth sniping between rival academic factions, with Dr. Anthony calling the computer analysis ““a one-legged stool” and Dr. Atkinson calling his objections “hand-wavy.”

Meanwhile, study co-author Michael Dunn is taking the long view, expecting that history will eventually vindicate the team. He told the Washington Post:

“These things take a lot of time in science, but in the long run, I would bet on our theory. You just can’t explain away the data.”

What do you think?