Science

A 2000-year-old artifact rewrites what we know about one of Europe’s most mysterious languages

Historians previously believed the Basque people had no written language until the Romans invaded. Surprise!

Aranzadi Science Society

Artifact restorer Carmen Usúa didn’t expect to rewrite linguistic history when she started cleaning mud off a hand-shaped bronze ornament from an Iron Age village back in January.

Archaeologists from the Aranzadi Science Society found the artifact in 2021 in the ruins of an ancient village in northern Spain. The site eventually became home to a medieval-era castle. “When I started cleaning, I found a series of lines and then a series of dots,” says Usúa in a statement. “I immediately realized that I was in front of a piece with writing.”

That small piece of writing — just 40 characters — reveals a hidden chapter in the story of a language whose origins are still unknown: Basque, whose native speakers live in what’s now northern Spain and southwestern France. Basque is what linguists call an isolate, meaning it doesn’t share roots with other known language groups.

Until recently, historians thought that Basque speakers didn’t develop a written language until their contact with Romans who invaded their lands, but the bronze hand reveals that by the time the Romans arrived, the Basques already had their own system of writing, developed from a system used more widely across the Iberian peninsula.

Aranzadi Science Society

What’s New — Translators are still puzzling over most of the words incised on the 2,000-year-old bronze door hanging, but part of its meaning is already clear: well before the Romans invaded what’s now northern Spain, the people who lived in the area had their own written language, instead of learning the idea of writing from the Roman invaders.

Today, several hundred thousand people in northern Spain and southwestern France, on either side of the Pyrenees Mountains, speak the Basque language, or Euskara.

The people who lived atop Mount Irulegi — and spoke and wrote Basque there — were likely members of a group called the Vascones. That’s the name the Romans gave them, at least; we don’t have any record of what the Vascones called themselves, and only a few Roman historians wrote down even vague descriptions of their language.

“We were almost convinced that the Basques were illiterate in ancient times and did not use writing except for minting coins,” says University of the Basque Country linguist Joaquin Gorrochategui in a statement.

Although the bronze hand dates to the 1st century BCE, when the Romans occupied — and fought over — what’s now Basque country, the words etched into its surface don’t bear any resemblance to Latin script. Instead, the writing looks like an ancient script used elsewhere on the Iberian peninsula, but Javier Velaza, one of the linguists who has studied the hand, says the system has clearly been adapted to include signs for sounds that don’t exist in the original Iberian writing system — but do exist in an early form of Basque.

Similar signs have shown up on coins minted in Basque territory, but none of them are as old as the 2,000-year-old bronze hand.

40 characters, spelling out five words, are incised into the bronze with a method called stippling, which basically involves tracing out the shape of a letter with dots. But before the ancient craftsperson did the stippling, they traced the shape of the letters with faint lines, probably as a guide for themselves.

“This is practically unknown, not only in all the epigraphy of Hispania, but in all the ancient epigraphy of the western world,” says Velaza in a statement.

The hand as it was found buried in mud and rubble in the ancient village. At the time, no one realized it contained evidence of writing.Aranzadi Science Society

Here’s the background — In 2021, archaeologists found the 5.6-inch-long hand, cut from a thin sheet of a bronze, buried amid the burned, collapsed ruins of a small mud-brick house. The house once stood on the outskirts of a village atop what’s now Mount Irulegi in northern Spain, not far from the city of Pamplona. But in the 1st century BCE, Roman troops pillaged and burned the village during the Sertorian wars: a clash between Roman factions that played out in the hills of the Iberian peninsula and upended the lives of the local people.

According to the Aranzadi Science Society, which is running the excavations at Mount Irulegi, people had lived at the site since at least the middle of the Bronze Age (about 1400 BCE).

The collapsed walls of those ancient homes preserved a grim time capsule of ancient life — and disaster.

“We have a snapshot of the moment of the attack,” says site director Mattin Aiestaran in a statement. “That means we’ve been able to recover a lot of day-to-day material from people’s everyday lives.”

That material includes the bronze hand, which probably once hung on a door as a protective charm for the household. Archaeologists based that conclusion on the hole near the wrist, which would have made it possible to hang the hand, and on the one word linguists have translated so far: “sorioneku,” an earlier form of the Basque word “zorioneku,” which means “good fortune.”

What’s Next — Linguists still have four words of the inscription to translate, and archaeologists are in the process of excavating the ruined village atop Mount Irulegi.

And the story of the Basque language — and its people — still has plenty of gaps in its earliest chapters. Linguists now know that people started writing in Basque before the Romans arrived in Spain, and that they based the writing system in part on other Iberian writing systems. That doesn’t shed any light on where and when the Basque language itself came into being — which must have happened thousands of years before anyone put it into writing. That’s a story linguists, archaeologists, and geneticists will be working to piece together for years, if not decades, to come.

Meanwhile, there are questions to answer at Mount Irulegi, too. The site offers a detailed snapshot of one moment in history, but as Velaza says, “That doesn’t mean we know how long they’d been there, nor what their future was after that moment.”

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