PHILOLOGY: Two 3,800-year-old Cuneiform Tablets Found in Iraq Give First Glimpse of Hebrew Precursor. The ancient tablets, uncovered 30 years ago during the Gulf War and forgotten until now, offer a first glimpse of the Amorite language that Hebrew developed from
(Ofer Aderet, Haaretz).
The text on the tablets resembles a language manual that is divided into two parts. On the first are words and phrases in the Amorite/Canaanite language – an extinct ancient language of which scholars hitherto had very little knowledge, and the second contains their translation into Akkadian, a known language that can be read and translated.
"Amorite" is a general term for the proto-Northwest Semitic dialects in the second millenium BCE which are ancestral to the Northwest Semitic languages: Ugaritic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Phoenician, Moabite, etc.
Up to now our knowledge of Amorite has come almost entirely from names of its speakers preserved in Akkadian and Egyptian transcription. Neither Egyptian hieroglyphics nor Akkadian cuneiform are well suite to transcribing the Amorite language, and names are a poor source for the current state of a language - they often reflect a more archaic form. So our knowledge of Amorite has been very imperfect.
This new discovery is a potential game changer. It still does not give us a connected narrative text. But it preserves a list of words, and even sentences, in a current spoken form of Amorite with Akkadian translations. That is a huge amount of new information.
All that said, I have two reservations.
First, although the tablets have been published in a peer-review journal, which is gold-standard good, I still want to see the reaction of other Assyriologists. Cuneiform texts are difficult. Those transcribing another language are very difficult indeed. Let's see some more publications and find out whether there is general agreement that the tablets contain an Amorite glossary.
Second, the tablets are unprovenanced. They were not scientifically excavated. They were "transferred" from Iraq during the Iraq war. Reportedly they sat around somewhere for more than thirty years until the editors noticed them. I don't have access to the journal article, but the Haaretz article gives no other information about the provenance trail.
I used to think that convincing forgery of cuneiform tablets was virtually impossible, but apparently it does happen. And the contents of these tablets are just the sort of thing a competent forger might have the incentive to produce.
In this case the tablets have been studied thoroughly by experts, so the chance of a forgery seems remote. But I want more information before I rule it out. Again, what is their provenance trail? Did anyone get a lot of money for them at some point? And, again, I want to see evaluations by other Assyriologists. I myself have some training in cuneiform, now very rusty, but I am not an Assyriologist and am not qualified to have an opinion of my own.
In sum, this announcement is probably very good and important news. But let's take our time and vet it thoroughly before we get too excited. Modus et ordo.
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