Linguists from Leiden decipher Phrygian and Lydian inscriptions
Linguists Alwin Kloekhorst and Alexander Lubotsky from Leiden University made a great discovery this summer. They deciphered a few dozen inscriptions on pot shards found in Daskyleion (North-West Turkey) as Phrygian and Lydian, and thus proved the presence of the Phrygians and Lydians in that area.
Kloekhorst and Lubotsky’s find can be termed sensational. Previous excavations had already led to the supposition that Greeks and Phrygians lived in and around Daskyleion between the 6th and 3rd century BC, but now there is also proof of the presence of the Lydians. The kingdom of the Phrygians in the mid-west of the Anatolian Plateau had a rich mythology in which kings such as Gordias (of the Gordian Knot) figured. The Lydians are known as a rich people that in all probability invented coins. This means it has been proven for the first time that Daskyleion was a multi-ethnic town in that period. This is important, because we do not yet know for sure which languages were spoken in North-West Turkey before the Greeks began to settle there in about 800 BC.
Grin and bear it
When the Turkish archaeologists Kaan Iren (Mugla University) and Handan Yildizhan (Nevsehir University) found pot shards with inscriptions that they could not decipher their search soon led them to Leiden. Kloekhorst, who received a VENI grant in 2008 for his research into Hittite (a language related to Lydian), is known to be expert in the field of Anatolian languages (a sub-group of the Indo-European language family). For his part, Lubotsky is an authority in the field of the Phrygian language. At the request of the Turkish archaeologists they spent a week in Daskyleion in July deciphering the inscriptions. Kloekhorst says, ‘It was 35 degrees and there was no air-conditioning. It was certainly a case of grin and bear it.’
The best discovery, says Kloekhorst, is a small shard with ‘To Zeus’ scraped on it. ‘Most of the shards are very small,’ he explains. ‘The words are often broken into pieces, and you do find a whole word it is usually a name. The advantage is that Phrygian and Lydian each had their own alphabets. That is often our only guide: it’s how we know that it can’t be a Greek text.’ The discovery amounts to some thirty inscriptions. That may not seem much but for two extinct languages it is huge. Kloekhorst says, ‘In total we only have 150 Lydian fragments. That means that any new piece of text is welcome. They are the small pieces of evidence that we work with.’
At the request of the Turkish archaeologists Kloekhorst and Lubotsky are producing a book on the joint discoveries. An article will also be published in which they will reveal the discoveries. But it probably does not end there. ‘Whilst we were in Turkey,’ says Kloekhorst, ‘every now and then a new shard with an inscription would be found. I can easily see us having to return next year.’
(13 September 2012/Coen van Beelen)