Lost language’s discovery opens window into Tigris’ threatened richness

Lost language’s discovery opens window into Tigris’ threatened richness

May 27, 2012, Sunday/ 13:11:00

Nearly 2,800 years ago, 60 women found themselves among the hapless millions forcibly displaced and resettled by the Assyrian empire, their names recorded in a palace registry far away from home.

 In 2009, the registry -- a palm-sized clay tablet pockmarked by cuneiform etchings -- was found at a dig site in Ziyaret Tepe, southeastern Turkey, and analyzed by archaeologists. Ushimanay, Alagahnia, Irsakinna, Bisoonoomay -- this ancient onomasticon possesses names wholly alien to modern ears, and most intriguingly, alien also to the archaeologists who have dedicated their lives to studying this period of history.

That is because the names inscribed on the tablet belong to a previously undiscovered ancient language, argues the University of Cambridge’s John MacGinnis in a recent paper in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies.

“The tablet includes 62 names, 60 of which are readable,” said MacGinnis in a phone interview with Sunday’s Zaman. “One or perhaps two are identifiably Assyrian, and some others may belong to known languages which were spoken in southern Anatolia during this period, including Luwian or Hurrian. But most belong to a previously unidentified language.”

MacGinnis speculates that one possible homeland of the language and the women who spoke it is the central or northern Zagros Mountains in present-day Iran, a region where the Assyrians conducted campaigns and a place which remains largely unknown to linguists. The details, however, remain murky. “We can’t say much about this language at the moment, and the next stage for linguists is to look at the finds in detail. It would be extremely exciting if it led to more. But we don’t know for certain where it was spoken or the linguistic milieu it came from.”

The find is one of the most intriguing yet at Ziyaret Tepe, a place where archaeologists have been digging since 1997 under the directorship of University of Akon archaeologist Timothy Matney. Matney and his colleagues believe the site to be the ancient Assyrian frontier city of Tushan, an urban settlement large enough to sustain a monumental governor’s palace, which they say was built by the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.). The seat of provincial administration and a crossroads for ancient cultures, the site holds “at least a lifetime’s worth of research,” Matney told Sunday’s Zaman.

One of the clearest revelations from the digs at Ziyaret Tepe and other Assyrian sites, archaeologists say, is the Assyrians’ surprising level of bureaucratic know-how. MacGinnis’s tablet of unfamiliar names hints at this, dividing the women by the villages and granaries to which they were assigned by the palace. Baked and preserved by chance during a fire that destroyed the palace around 800 B.C., the clay tablet is testament to an extensive system of record keeping and census taking visible elsewhere in the empire.

The bureaucratic culture evidenced by the tablet doubtlessly supported another distinct feature of the Assyrian empire -- the forced relocation of populations in large numbers across great distances. The Assyrians, MacGinnis said, consolidated power by moving chunks of conquered populations into other Assyrian provinces, a strategy he says made subjects “completely tied to the Assyrians for their survival.”

The tablet of women who likely were relocated in this way provides a rare glimpse into this process in action. “We were very lucky to find such a list of names,” says MacGinnis. “The children of the captured were given Assyrian names, meaning you can’t tell a subject’s origins after the first generation. It has been estimated that as many as 4.5 million people were forcibly uprooted and moved by Assyrian officials, but the real number is probably much higher than that.”

Collateral damage

In present-day Turkey, another regional upheaval is on its way, threatening to relocate populations and rearrange the social fabric. That upheaval is the Ilısu Dam, a project which would see much of the upper Tigris River -- one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world and the location of Ziyaret Tepe -- put underwater as early as 2015.

The dam project, says Doğa Derneği (Nature Foundation) head Güven Eken, has been delayed for 15 years as international backing has dried up in protest of the untold damage to local communities, ecosystems and archaeological sites it is certain to cause.

“Nonetheless, the message we’ve constantly received is, ‘We will build the dam.’ This violates the European Convention on [the Protection of the] Archaeological Heritage, to which Turkey is a signatory. It also has untold value to local communities, and [the project] has been condemned by the world. But that is unlikely to change anything,” Eken told Sunday’s Zaman. The loss from submerging the Ziyaret Tepe site will be difficult for archaeologists to assess, despite having another digging season ahead of them and a wealth of already recovered tablets and artifacts. “Up to this point, I would say around 1 to 2 percent of the site has so far been excavated,” project leader Matney says.

Thinking of what may be lost, MacGinnis’s thoughts turn to another peculiar tablet, the subject of a 2009 paper by Professor Simo Parpola of the University of Helsinki. The tablet comes from 611 B.C., the last days of the Assyrian empire, and is a panicked appeal from a Tushan official to central authorities about the hopelessness of his allies and of raising an army to defend the city from Babylonian invaders. “Nobody mentioned in this letter, not one of them is here… How can I command?” the letter states, concluding: “Death will come out of it! No one will escape, I am done!”

“It’s definitely an amazing moment to capture,” says MacGinnis. “The odds of finding something like this are incredibly small.” Soon after the tablet was engraved, invaders overran Tushan, the beginning of the end for the Assyrian empire.

Indeed, MacGinnis says that it is impossible to understate what cuneiform tablets can communicate to archaeologists, and says his work and that of his colleagues shows that “pretty much everything we write today was written in antiquity.” Title deeds, records of legal disputes, prayers and school texts -- “these are the things that make up the ancient world as well,” he says.

Despite the Ilısu project, that rich record may not be entirely lost, say MacGinnis and Matney. Both cited cases where sites were flooded, presumed lost and then partially recovered by archaeologists after the sites were dry again. They suggest that if the dam is dismantled one day, sections of the site might survive for future archaeologists. “And,” adds Matney, “we currently have material for years’ worth of study about Ziyaret Tepe as it is.”

But the loss of the site will nonetheless be a tragedy, says MacGinnis. “It’s part of our fundamental heritage, our human heritage. These sites cover the whole span of human history.”

The palace registry tablet, originally discovered by Dr. Dirk Wicke of the University of Mainz, is currently stored at the Diyarbakır Museum in the province of Diyarbakır, Turkey.

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