The Basque Language: Our Understanding Altered by a 2,000-Year-Old Inscription

Margie Jones
10/11/2023

Last summer, archaeologists in northern Spain were excited to unearth a flat, hand-shaped artifact made of bronze from a dig site not far from Pamplona.

But only later, when they began the careful restoration process, did the hand’s true significance come to light: After cleaning away the centuries-old sediment and dirt, researchers discovered lines of text inscribed across the object, which they’ve nicknamed the Hand of Irulegi.

Experts believe the words belong to a language that predates modern-day Basque, also known as Euskara. The first word on the hand, sorioneku, closely resembles the Basque word zorioneku, which means “fortunate.”

The Basque Language: Our Understanding Altered by a 2,000-Year-Old Inscription

Archaeologists discovered the hand last year, but they did not fully appreciate its significance until they brushed away some of the sediment. Courtesy of Aranzadi Science Society

Archaeologists suspect the hand hung above the door of a mud-brick house some 2,000 years ago, likely as an “amulet of protection,” as Joseph Wilson writes for the Associated Press.

The researchers haven’t been able to match any of the hand’s other text with known Basque words, but they plan to continue their analysis.

Not only is the discovery important for understanding the evolution of the Basque language, but it also sheds new light on the Vascones, a late Iron Age tribe that researchers believe gave rise to Basque culture. The Vascones lived in what is now Spain’s Navarra region.

The Basque Language: Our Understanding Altered by a 2,000-Year-Old Inscription

Researchers analyzing the hand Courtesy of Aranzadi Science Society

Archaeologists had previously assumed that the Vascones did not use writing—other than for the purpose of creating coins—until the Romans introduced the Latin alphabet. But the 40 characters engraved on the Hand of Irulegi say otherwise.

“This piece turns upside down what until now we thought about the Basques and writing,” says Joaquín Gorrochategui, a philologist at the University of the Basque Country, in a statement from the Aranzadi Science Society, which has been excavating the site since 2017. “We were almost convinced that the Basques were illiterate in ancient times.”

The Basque Language: Our Understanding Altered by a 2,000-Year-Old Inscription

The hand’s creator used a technique known as stippling, which involves making many small dots to create a shape or image. Before making the dots, however, the author first traced the letters with a sharp instrument, a technique known as sgraffito. These methods are “practically unknown … in all the ancient epigraphy of the Western world,” says Javier Velaza, a philologist at the University of Barcelona, in the statement.

The hand likely survived so long because two warring Roman groups set fire to the ancient settlement during the Sertorian War, which lasted from 80 to 72 B.C.E. The flames sealed the village’s mud-brick buildings—and, in doing so, preserved artifacts for the ages.

The Basque Language: Our Understanding Altered by a 2,000-Year-Old Inscription

The Basque language has endured for centuries, despite many attempts throughout history to snuff it out. Experts consider Basque a “language isolate,” which means it is unrelated to any other world languages, including those spoken nearby, such as French and Spanish. Today, an estimated 700,000 still speak it.

“Nobody is able to say where [the language] comes from,” Pello Salaburu, who previously led the Basque Language Institute at the University of the Basque Country, told BBC Travel’s Anna Bitong in 2017. “There are no clear conclusions.”

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