In the ancient Hittite capital of Boğazköy-Hattuša, archaeologists have discovered evidence of a previously unknown language. On a cuneiform tablet with ritual texts that was around 3,500 years old, they came across a passage written in Hittite script in a foreign language called the “language of the land of Kalašma”. Previous analyzes suggest that this is an extinct language from the Anatolian-Indo-European region. However, what the text passage means is not yet known.
The Hittites were the third major power of the Bronze Age Orient, alongside Egypt and Assyria. Their empire extended across large parts of Asia Minor and the Middle East. The center of power was from 1600 to 1200 BC. The Hittite capital Hattuša, whose ruins lie a good 150 kilometers east of today’s city of Ankara in Turkey. The city, protected by nine kilometers of walls, was the seat of the Hittite kings and, in its heyday, included monumental gates, temples and an urban area of up to 180 hectares. Today the Boğazköy-Hattuša region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been explored by archaeologists for more than 100 years.
Cuneiform tablets with ritual texts
As part of their excavations, archaeologists have also found almost 30,000 clay tablets with cuneiform writing in Boğazköy-Hattuša. These tablets, which have been part of UNESCO’s world heritage since 2001, provide rich information about the history, society, economy and, last but not least, the religious traditions of the Hittites and their neighbors. A team led by Daniel Schwemer from the University of Würzburg and Andreas Schachner from the German Archaeological Institute are researching the cuneiform finds, which are predominantly written in Hittite, the oldest attested Indo-European language and the predominant language at this location.
But during excavations in 2023, the research team discovered a cuneiform tablet that, in addition to Hittite, also contains a passage in a previously unknown language. The passage can be found in a Hittite ritual text. Based on the context of the text, archaeologists assume that this is a quotation from a ritual recitation in this foreign language. “The Hittites were uniquely interested in recording rituals in foreign languages,” explains Schwemer. “Ritual texts written by scribes to the Hittite king reflect diverse Anatolian, Syrian, and Mesopotamian traditions and linguistic milieus. “
“Language of the Land of Kalašma”
The discovery of another language in the Boğazköy-Hattuša cuneiform archives is therefore not entirely unexpected. In the Hittite text the quoted idiom is referred to as the “language of the land of Kalašma”. In the Bronze Age, Kalašma was an area on the northwestern edge of the Hittite Empire, probably in the area of today’s Turkish province of Bolu. It is not yet known what is written in the newly discovered “Kalašma text”, as the language is still unknown and not deciphered. However, according to initial analyzes by linguist Elisabeth Rieken from the Philipps University of Marburg, a specialist in ancient Anatolian languages, it belongs to the family of Anatolian-Indo-European languages.
Two other Anatolian-Indo-European languages, Luwian and Palaian, are also cited in the Hittite cuneiform ritual texts from Boğazköy-Hattuša. Both languages are closely related to Hittite, as the researchers explain. There are also passages in Hattic, a non-Indo-European language, in the ritual texts. “Now the language of Kalašma can be added to these languages,” says Schwemer. According to Rieken, the Kalašma text suggests that the still undeciphered language bears greater similarity to the Luwian dialects of Late Bronze Age Anatolia than to Palaian. Further analyzes will now clarify whether this is true and what exactly the passage quoted by the Hittites means. In any case, the discovery of the new language confirms that the cuneiform texts from Boğazköy-Hattuša provide valuable insights into the linguistic landscape of Late Bronze Age Anatolia.
Source: German Archaeological Institute, University of Würzburg