Semitic Luwians and other hybrids

After my complaining yesterday, my wife Julia Pope pointed me in the direction of a fascinating article by John Noble Wilford in the New York Times yesterday about the discovery of a stele (inscribed monument) at the site of Zincirli (known as Sam’al in antiquity) in southeastern Turkey. It was found this past summer during the excavations at Zincirli directed by David Schloen at the Oriental Institute, and will be discussed at the American Schools of Oriental Research / Society for Biblical Literature meetings which begin tomorrow in Boston.

The stele dates to the 8th century BCE, and suggests the existence of cultural hybridization between Luwians (Anatolian Indo-Europeans, speakers of a language related to Hittite) and Aramaeans (Semitic-speakers from the Levant). The stele contains Luwian personal names, but the script is Phoenician-Aramaic and records a language that the translator calls Sam’alian, but which is basically an archaic form of Aramaic. We have known for over a century that Zincirli was a major border region where cultural contact took place, but this is pretty good textual evidence that shows that speakers of Indo-European languages were using Semitic languages and writing systems for mortuary purposes (rather than merely for trading purposes, for instance).

And unlike the Shaanxi oracle bones or the paleo-Hebrew ostracon, in this news article we have a very interesting partial translation by Dennis Pardee at Chicago: “I, Kuttamuwa, servant of [the king] Panamuwa, am the one who oversaw the production of this stele for myself while still living. I placed it in an eternal chamber [?] and established a feast at this chamber: a bull for [the god] Hadad, a ram for [the god] Shamash and a ram for my soul that is in this stele.” One of the more interesting features is the use of the phrase ‘my soul that is in this stele’ – this is decidedly unusual for the Near East, to conceive of a soul separate from the body, entombed in stone. No tomb and no mortuary remains have been found at or near the stele, but its iconography depicts a man receiving offerings of food and drink, as is further suggested from the inscription. Whether this actually represents a previously-unidentified religious tradition, no one can say for sure, but the evidence is suggestive.

Although there are no numerals on the stele, I am quite enthused about this find as it relates to my research. I have thought for some years that the Hittite-Luwian written numerals may have played some role in inspiring the Aramaic-Phoenician numerical system that emerged in the 8th century BCE. The earliest numerical inscription ever described as Aramaic is on an 8th century ostracon from Tell Qasile, in which the numeral 30 is expressed as three horizontal strokes ( ), each stroke with the value of 10 (Lemaire 1977: 280). This is the representation found regularly in Luwian inscriptions (Hawkins 1986). However, it is not the normal form used in later Aramaic inscriptions, where the standard representation would be two horizontal strokes followed by a single stroke: written right to left, roughly -=).

But this isn’t a particularly strong argument, and I don’t make a great deal of this similarity in my forthcoming book – one artifact does not make an absolute case for a cultural borrowing, especially not when the ‘borrowing’ is simply the use of horizontal strokes for 10. The traditional wisdom is that while Anatolian Indo-European speakers received a lot of cultural influence from Mesopotamia and the Levant, their representational systems (writing systems, numerals, etc.) were quite distinct. However, given this new stele, if it turns out that contact between Anatolia and the Levant was greater than we previously anticipated, a Luwian borrowing becomes more strongly supported. I look forward to seeing the publication that will surely emerge from this work, and will keep you updated.

Works cited
Hawkins, J.D. 1986. Writing in Anatolia: imported and indigenous systems. World Archaeology 17(3): 363-375.
Lemaire, André. 1977. Inscriptions hébraiques, vol. 1. Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

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