An Ancient Language Newly Discovered: Is It Shubrian? (What is Shubrian?)

Cambridge University archaeologists today (May 10) announced the discovery of a previously unknown 2,500-year-old language in Turkey.

Writing for us last November, in ‘Before the flood: startling finds from the Tigris Basin‘ , project leader Dr John MacGinnis described how a single clay tablet inscribed with cuneiform characters was found at Ziyaret Tepe – thought to be the ancient Assyrian city of Tušhan.

‘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.’

Now Dr MacGinnis has been set the challenge of identifying the ancient tongue, which was written down around the end of the 8th century BC. He has identified some 144 names on the tablet, of which 59 can still be read.

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.

One theory put forward in the paper is the one proposed by Dr MacGinnis in CWA: that 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’.

Sorry I excerpted so much, it’s just such a fascinating story, and there’s a lot more!

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One thought on “An Ancient Language Newly Discovered: Is It Shubrian? (What is Shubrian?)

  1. gracetracer 10 May 2012 at 10:15 am

    No need to apologize for the long excerpt! That was great!

    Imagine how the brutal Neo-Assyrian policies of forced migration might have snuffed out the last remnants of ancient societies, little subsistent groups which had held on to small slivers of ancient lands, but then, caught up in the Assyrian mixing and matching of peoples and lands with which they were unfamiliar… Such a disruption could easily have been the last straw for a marginal culture.

    Like everyone since, the Assyrians gave no thought to the unintended consequences of their policies.

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