Researchers have just discovered and decoded a language lost for thousands of years after studying two ancient clay tablets that are being compared to the Rosetta Stone.
The tablets, which are thought to be 4,000 years old, were discovered decades ago in Iraq. They have been housed in separate collections, one in the Jonathan and Jeanette Rosen Cuneiform Collection, and the other in a private collection in London. However, since 2016, researchers Manfred Krebernik and Andrew R. George have been studying the tablets. In January, the pair published their findings in the French journal Revue d’assyriologie et d’archéologie orientale, or Journal of Assyriology and Oriental Archaeology.
Both tablets are inscribed in a landscape format, something commonly associated with Middle Babylonian Tablets, which date back to the Kassite Period during the first millennium in southern Mesopotamia. At first blush, the tablets have other features similar to others previously discovered.
“The text of both tablets is divided by a vertical ruling into two columns, after the manner of the lists and vocabularies that are typical of Babylonian pedagogical scholarship,” the authors write. “The right-hand columns contain text in the Old Babylonian dialect of the Akkadian language.”
The other side, however, was found to contain something “remarkable”: a lost language, one that has been long thought to have existed—although some doubted even this—but with barely any surviving examples.
“It is the left-hand columns of our two tablets that yield the remarkable content,” they write. “They contain text which bears many indications of reproducing a North-West Semitic language.”
The information on the right side of the tablet is meant to translate the unknown language on the left side, the authors write, helpfully letting them decode it.
“According to the normal practice of two-column academic lists, beginning in the early second millennium, the right-hand column should explain, line by line, the material in the left-hand column,” the authors wrote.
Analyzing the words and sentences, the researchers were able to deduce that the left hand language was likely the extinct Amorite language, and the right side was the Akkadian equivalent. Amorite is a precursor to Hebrew, and until now our only knowledge of it was a handful of nouns. The information contained on the tablets blows that out of the water.
“Our knowledge of Amorite was so pitiful that some experts doubted whether there was such a language at all,” the researchers told Live Science. But “the tablets settle that question by showing the language to be coherently and predictably articulated, and fully distinct from Akkadian.”
The tablet also provides insight into the Amorite communities and beliefs. One stretch of the tablet consists of god names.
“If the language of the left-hand columns is Amorite, the question then arises as to whether the list of gods that opens the left-hand column of text No. 1 can be understood as a reflection of a specifically Amorite pantheon,” the authors write. “Each deity is explained in the right-hand column as the counterpart of a well-known member of the Babylonian pantheon.”
In addition to their format and resemblance to language manuals, the two tablets share other interesting similarities with each other.
“The singularity of the two tablets’ content may indicate that they come from the same scriptorium,” the authors wrote. “They are sufficiently similar in handwriting to suggest that they may even be the work of the same individual scribe.”
One potential criticism of the study is that the researchers primarily relied on photographs of the tablets, as both are parts of private collections. Regardless, both Krebernik and George believe the findings were important to publish.
“The present authors both adhere to the view that is preferable to publish a cuneiform tablet only following intensive personal study of the object and its inscription,” the authors wrote. “Personal study has not been possible of either of the tablets presented here, but their content seems to us to be of such singular importance that, despite not having read them at first hand, we feel obliged to make public an edition of them.”
* This article was automatically syndicated and expanded from VICE: Motherboard.