Professor discusses history of cuneiform

By JAMES SCHARF | November 16, 2017

Charles University professor Jana Mynářová discussed how the Amarna Letters, a collection of Egyptian tablets discovered in Tell El-Amarna, could explain how Egyptians used and learned cuneiform in a lecture on Thursday, Nov. 9.

Discoveries from Tell-El Amarna can be found in museums across Europe. Unlike most collections, the Amarna Letters’ contents are generally very well preserved and legible.

The tablets in the collection vary widely in content. Some contain information about foreign policy, while others contain cultural stories from the Babylonians. However, the tablets largely reflect government-sanctioned writings. The original excavators found many of them in governmental districts and few in private districts.

The origins of the Amarna Letters are unclear. Traditionally, archaeologists believed that an anonymous peasant woman found the tablets and sold them. According to Mynářová, the story is “far from the truth.” Private excavations, legal in the late 1800s, likely uncovered the archive.

Of the total collection of tablets, only 31 can be deciphered. Most Egyptologists agree that the ancient Near-Eastern community used Akkadian as an interlanguage during the Bronze Age. They believe that Akkadian served as the language of foreign affairs because scribes accepted the “Hittite tradition” of writing. However, Mynářová disagrees.

“It’s my aim to reevaluate this, taking into account recent studies,” she said.

Mynářová claims that stylistic changes in the Amarna Letters indicate that there were three distinct waves of writing. She believes that the “mixed-dictus” of the archive proves that it is a part of the second wave.

A substantial portion of Mynářová’s analysis revolved around linguistics. She described the alternate forms of the linguistic element “NI” to support her claim. There are several different versions of the element, but all originate in Egypt. Originally, scribes wrote the element in the Babylonian style before using the Hittite style.

“These variants [of NI] are considered to be Egyptian in origin,” Mynářová said.

The presence of a Babylonian story in the archive suggests that Egyptian scribes transcribed foreign works. Mynářová also described the massive effort to move the clay to Tell El-Amarna indicates the importance of foreign affairs in Egyptian society.

The archive also includes 21 texts used for educational purposes. Scribes would copy down the content of these foreign tablets to learn how to write properly in cuneiform. Mynářová emphasized that this was a way  information flowed between borders.

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