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A stone step about a foot high covered completely with a row of deep marks like letters

One sample of the possible script from the excavations at Graklani in eastern Georgia-in-the-Caucasus. Photo from Georgia Today, 20 August 2015; photographer not named.

I am still sick, so this week I will be brief and talk about some of the papers which were read at the conference of the Societas Iranologica Europaea in St. Petersburg. Abdoula Souvadar did his best to argue that a sheet of silver containing an inscription in Old Persian which claims to be the word of Otanes announcing that Darius has become king is not a modern forgery. Askold Ivantchik discussed 235 arrowheads found in the ruins of a small fort near Gordion in Phrygia which seems to have been destroyed by Cyrus’ armies. So far, most of the physical remains of Persian battles and sieges which have been found come from Anatolia. And Vakhtang Licheli talked about an Iron Age site which he is excavating on the hills above a main highway in Georgia-in-the-Caucasus. Most of this site appears to date roughly to the Achaemenid period in the sixth, fifth, and fourth centuries BCE. For most of his paper he discussed the sorts of details of interest to specialists, but in the last few minutes he mentioned something else. Some of the stone altars at this site have deep marks like letters carved in them, but none of the marks looks like a known script such as the Imperial Aramaic or Attic Greek alphabets. Several people in the audience whipped out cell phones and cameras to catch Dr. Licheli’s slides, but it turned out that the photos of the possible text is available online.

Its not implausible that people in Georgia would have invented a writing system in the first millennium BCE. The lands south of the Caucasus had been in contact with the literate societies of Mesopotamia for thousands of years, and Greek colonization spread the use of alphabetic writing into the Black Sea region. Archaeological finds such as seals suggest that at least some aspects of the culture of record-keeping interested people living in the area. The kingdom of Urartu with its heartland somewhat to the south had its own cuneiform writing system in the seventh century BCE, although it does not seem to have been used in as many areas of life as Akkadian cuneiform was in Mesopotamia. Much later, there are traditions that Armenia had a script in Roman times before the King of Armenia ordered a new one to be invented and used for sacred and secular writing, and people in Gaul and Germania were inspired by Greek writing to create scripts for their native languages. (If I recall what I heard correctly, no long texts in this earlier script are known, but individual signs may be preserved on pots and other simple objects). Some descendants of the Aramaic script have a vaguely similar appearance to these marks on the altar base.

A photo of the same inscription carved into into the base of a square pedestal

A different view of the inscription above. From Tara Isabella Burton, “Ancient Script Spurs Rethinking of Historic ‘Backwater’,” National Geographic, 2015-09-16; photo by Shalva Lejava.

Now, its always wise to be skeptical about archaeological news. Journalists like to shock people and do not always understand what they hear, while archaeologists can be tempted to try to link their work to something famous or show that the less famous part of the world which they study was important too. But this is a broadly plausible claim, and announced with the appropriate limitations (until more examples of these signs are found, they could be simple decoration rather than characters). And while it was released first to the local news in Georgia, the first article by a major publication in Western Europe or the US was time to coincide with the conference paper in St. Petersburg. And the tone of the responses at the panel felt curious and optimistic, not hostile. Dr. Licheli certainly seemed like a sober scholar to me. So while it will take time to continue the excavations and see if more examples of this possible script are found, people interested in the spread of writing outwards from urbanized and imperial societies to their neighbours should keep their eyes on Georgia.

Further Reading: Dr. Licheli’s academia.edu page. A review of an earlier book which he edited containing a chapter on this period of Georgian archaeology. Georgia Today article (in English) released in August 2015. National Geographic post released during the conference. Abstracts about half a page long per paper are available on the conference website.

Edit 2015-10-03: Corrected Orontes, a different Persian in Greek literature, to Otanes, the correct one.