Tushan and vicinity at the time that the tablet was written. The Zargos Mountains would be to the right side of the illustration below the illustrated area.
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. . . .
Typical names, born by the women – the evidence for the lost language – include Ushimanay, Alagahnia, Irsakinna and Bisoonoomay.
From here. (source press release here).
Around 2,150 B.C.E., the short lived Gutian dynasty of Sumer, founded by invaders from the Central Zargo Mountains seized power from the dynasty that established the Akkadian Empire.
About 3,400 years ago (1400 B.C.E.), the Northern Zargos Mountains and this site were both home to the Mittani Empire, whose leaders spoke a Sankrit derived Indo-Aryan language. But, the Mittani Empire was long gone by 800 B.C.E.
Just to the North of the region of interest at the same time, the Uratu Kingdom was in existence in the Armenian Highlands.
The Sumerian language had ceased to be spoken in neighboring Mesopotamia, except as a liturgical language, about a thousand years earlier. The Semitic Akkadian language would have been in decline in favor of the Semitic Aramaic language at around this time, and the adjacent lowlands would have been part of the Neo-Assyrian empire at the time.
Both this site and the possible place of origin of the women were in the area claimed by a stateless people called the Kurds in Western Iran, Northern Iraq and Southeastern Turkey (although these events took place about fourteen hundred years before the period of Kurdish ethnogenesis).
Akkadian was first attested in Sumerian texts in proper names from the late 29th century BC. From the second half of the third millennium BC (circa 2600-2500 BC), texts fully written in Akkadian begin to appear. Hundreds of thousands of texts and text fragments have been excavated to date; covering a vast textual tradition of mythological narrative, legal texts, scientific works, correspondence, political and military events, and many other examples. By the second millennium BC, two variant forms of the language were in use in Assyria and Babylonia (known as Assyrian and Babylonian respectively). Akkadian had been for centuries the lingua franca in Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East. However, it began to decline around the 8th century BC, being marginalized by Aramaic during the Neo Assyrian Empire.
This is also around the time that the Jewish state begins to emerge in the Levant and that the Hebrew language starts to become a distinct Semitic language.
This find would have been from about 400 years after Bronze Age collapse (and hence also post-Hittite), about three hunded years before the classical Greek "Golden Age," and around the legendary date attributed to the founding the City of Rome by Romulus. Etruscan would have been spoken in Tuscany at the time.
From at least ca. 1,500 B.C.E., Indo-Iranian languages (most prominently Persian) and (after Alexander the Great ca. 550 BCE, Greek) were spoken in parts of Iran. Afro-Asiatic languages, other than some relatively short lived incursions of Akkadian, weren't believed to be present in the Zargos Mountains until the advent of Islam ca. 700-800 C.E. in this area.
Turkish and Monoglian expansions didn't reach anywhere close to this area until a millenium or two after this find. The earliest Dravidian writings are attested around this time, but no Dravidan language has ever been attested anywhere West of Pakistan.
Elam is shown in red, with its neighbors a couple hundred years after the time of the tablet. The Persian Gulf is darkened blue where it was probably an above water delta area at the time.
One of the last attested West Eurasian non-Indo-European language was spoken in the Elamite Empire (2800 BCE to 550 BCE) in present day Iran (with proto-Elamite writings a few hundred years earlier), and according to Wikipedia: "Elamite is regarded as a language isolate and has no close relation to the neighboring Semitic languages, to the Indo-European languages, or to Sumerian, even though it adopted the Sumerian syllabic script." (I personally suspect some distant relationship between Elamite and the Sumerian, Hattic, Hurrian and Minoan languages.) These names aren't an obvious fit to any of these.
The best guess for the source of the people speaking the newly discovered language would be between Elam and the Neo-Assyrian empire. The Medes and Persians came onto the scene after the tablet was written.
Background on the author's work at this site can be found here: "He has also been working for over a decade at the site of Ziyaret Tepe in southeastern Turkey, now identified as the Neo-Assyrian provincial capital of Tushan, where he is both project epigrapher and directs excavations in the lower town." The dig also has its own blog. According to the Wikipedia article on the Zargos Mountains:
During early ancient times, the Zagros was the home of peoples such as the Kassites, Guti, Assyrians, Elamites and Mitanni, who periodically invaded the Sumerian and/or Akkadian cities of Mesopotamia. The mountains create a geographic barrier between the flatlands of Mesopotamia, which is in Iraq, and the Iranian plateau. A small archive of clay tablets detailing the complex interactions of these groups in the early second millennium BC has been found at Tell Shemshara along the Little Zab. [Eidem, Jesper; Læssøe, Jørgen (2001), The Shemshara archives 1. The letters, Historisk-Filosofiske Skrifter, 23, Copenhagen: Kongelige Danske videnskabernes selskab, ISBN 87-7876-245-6.] Tell Bazmusian, near Shemshara, was occupied between the sixth millennium BCE and the ninth century CE, although not continuously.Another story with more detail is here:
‘It is a list of women, written in Assyrian cuneiform, yet most of the names are not Assyrian,’ he told CWA. ‘One is Hittite, one Hurrian, but most do not belong to any known language. Could these women be either descendants of the indigenous (Shubrian) pre-Assyrian population, or deportees brought in by the Assyrian government? As Shubrian is thought to be a dialect of Hurrian, the latter explanation seems more likely. A current theory is that these women were most likely speakers of a non-Indo-Iranian language, deported from the Zagros in western Iran.’ . . . The new research, published in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, reports that all the common languages of the Assyrian Empire – as well as others spoken at the time such as Egyptian, Elamite, Urartian and West Semitic – have been ruled out. . . . the names could be Shubrian – a language which until now was believed never to have been written down. Another option is the language of the Mushki, a people who were migrating to Eastern Anatolia at the time the tablet was made – though this is described as ‘less plausible’.
Dr MacGinnis suggests that the language was spoken by people from elsewhere in the Assyrian Empire who had been forcibly relocated by the ruling powers. This was a popular tactic by Assyrian kings, as it helped to break the control of local elites. ‘If people were deported to a new location, they were entirely dependent on the Assyrian administration for their wellbeing,’ he said. One possibility for the origin of these people is the Zagros Mountains, an area known to have been annexed by the Assyrians but for which no language has yet been identified. Tantalisingly, one Assyrian king, Esarhaddon, refers to an as-yet unidentified language, Mekhranian, which he links to the Zagros. ‘If correct, this suggests that Iran was home to previously unknown languages,’ Dr MacGinnis said. ‘The immediate impression is that the names on this tablet were those of women who belonged to an isolated community. It may be, however, that there were others whom we still have to find out about.’
A prior story on the site (which is scheduled to be flooded in the near future by a major new dam), provides historical context specific to that location.
The Early Iron Age – roughly the end of the 13th century BC to the 10th century BC – takes its name from a new metal, heralding a new stage of technological progress, which coincides with a tumultuous shift in the established world order that sent shock waves through the region. Many important states and big cities that had existed throughout the Late Bronze Age were now either destroyed or abandoned, with even superpowers such as Assyria and Egypt contracting and becoming weaker.The author behind this find also reviewed a book on Neo-Babylonian court procedure based on ancient legal texts, and translated a tablet with the dying plea of the last ruler of this city before it was sacked.
From the 13th century BC, the Uruatri and Nairi tribes in Northern Syria and Eastern Anatolia, including the Upper Tigris region, began to threaten the northern frontiers of Assyria. By the 11th century BC, a tribe called the Mushki was migrating through the Taurus mountains to the south. At much the same time, Semitic-speaking Aramean tribes began to migrate from their Syrian homelands into south-eastern Anatolia and Assyria.
This is the most active time for this region with almost half the sites excavated in the Ilısu Dam area yielding remains from this period. At Ziyaret Tepe, these levels consist of pits full of ashes, pieces of handmade ‘grooved’ pottery (so-called because of the distinctive grooves between the rim and the shoulder of the bowls) and cremation burials. This type of pottery was widespread in the upper Tigris area, particularly the western part, and is found at Hakemi Use, Hirbemerdon, Kuriki Höyük, Kenan Tepe, and Salat Tepe. Storage jars and grinding stones bear witness to village settlements. Even after the Neo-Assyrian conquest of the upper Tigris region in 10th century BC, the influence of the indigenous culture thrived, and the evidence is that some semi-nomadic people from the Early Iron Age survived and lived under the rule of the Neo-Assyrian state as settled villagers.
Now came one of the high-water marks in the imperial history of the area, the resurgence of the Assyrian empire. Opportunistic campaigning by the king Tukulti-Ninurta II (891-883 BC) was followed by a coordinated policy on the part of his son, Ashurnasirpal II (882-859 BC). Abandoned cities were reoccupied and rebuilt, with the Tigris itself now serving as the northern border of Assyrian territory, and the region formed part of the empire for the next 270 years.
The site of Ziyaret Tepe came into its own on the back of this (see CWA 37). Re-established as the capital of a province, it became a city of great power and prosperity. Consequently, investigation of this site was considered a top priority. Fieldwork commenced by Timothy Matney of the University of Akron Ohio in 1997 has continued every year since then, and excavation has revealed exceptional results: the palace of the governor, a major administrative complex, a monumental city gate and both elite residences, and the dwellings of common soldiers.
The Assyrians are known to have buried their dead beneath the floors of their houses, and we find evidence for both rich and poor: the graves of soldiers buried in the chambers of the gates where they stood watch; and the graves of the ruling class, in this case primary cremations, cut into the courtyard of the palace on the high mound, and containing spectacular artefacts – bronze vessels, palace ware beakers, stone bowls, worked ivory, and seals. Many finds have been sensational but equally intriguing is the discovery of an archive of cuneiform texts dating to just before and just after the fall of Nineveh in 612 BC. Another tablet hints at the existence of a language hitherto unknown.
But Ziyaret Tepe is not the only Assyrian site in the region, indeed far from it. The Assyrians populated the region, once pacified, with deportees from other parts of the empire. Plentiful evidence, backed up by historical texts, bears witness to their farmsteads dotting the countryside: at Kavuşan, Hakemi Use, Boztepe, and Müslüman Tepe.
At the end of the 7th century BC, the Assyrian empire was overthrown by a coalition of the Babylonians and the Medes who divided up the spoils between them. It is unclear which side seized the upper Tigris region, as historical sources are vague.
Archaeologically, a major problem is the difficulty in identifying diagnostic ceramic types for the period, so surface surveys are not yet able to reliably map the settlement patterns for post-Assyrian occupation. The situation is little better for the Achaemenid period that followed. No major Achaemenid sites have been found, although the occasional discovery, like the Achaemenid graves at Ziyaret Tepe and Aşağı Salat with their characteristic omphalos bowls that probably belonged to soldiers, is a sign of their presence. The area must have been under the at least nominal control of a Persian satrap, but which one? This may be one of the secrets the Ilısu Dam takes to its watery grave.
South-eastern Turkey has been a crossroads and crucible of civilisations since prehistoric times. From the 3rd millennium BC, it was populated by speakers of Hurrian, a language related to just one other: Urartian. In the 2nd millennium the Hittite and Mittani empires held sway, followed a millennium later by the Assyrians. At this time, the Arameans rose to prominence, and then the Scythians and Phrygians. Achaemenid rule with Persian influences followed, before Alexander passed through on his campaigns, with Hellenisation following in his wake. Here, too, was the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire. More recently, Armenians, Kurds, Turks, Arabs and (modern) Assyrians have all played their part.