Enigmatic Bronze Hand Holds First Basque Script Ever Discovered
A linguistic expert has decoded curious symbols on a 2,100-years-old bronze hand that was discovered last year at an Iron Age castle in Spain. The symbols represent the “earliest” text ever discovered written in Basque.
Until now the origins of the ancient Euskera or Basque language that was spoken in the Navarre and Basque Country in northern Spain and south-western France, was unknown. However, in 2021 a team of archaeologists unearthed the bronze “Hand of Irulegi” at the Late Iron Age Castle of Irulegi to the south of Pamplona in Navarre, Spain.
With the distinctive shape of an extended right hand, this 2,000-year-old artifact has 40 mysterious symbols comprising four lines of text carved on the back of the hand. Now, a linguistic expert has deciphered the first word and has confirmed that this is the “earliest” document written in Basque around 2,100 years ago.
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The Irulegui Hand and Proto-Basque inscriptions. (SOCIEDAD DE CIENCIAS ARANZADI)
Giving Archaeologists A Hand
Between 80 to 72 BC, Roman rebels fought governmental Roman forces in The Sertorian Civil War on the Iberian Peninsula. The rebels retreated to Castle of Irulegi on Mount Irulegi, in Spain’s northern Navarre region, but the Roman General Pompey raised it to the ground.
In 2018 archaeologists excavated the Irulegi Castle hill and discovered the remains of a 2,000-year-old fort and settlement measuring about 70 square meters (753 square ft). Experts found many artifacts telling the story of day-to-day life at the castle, and they said it played a significant role on a local and regional scale. However, everything changed when the bronze hand was uncovered beneath charcoal and burnt adobe remains.
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The Irulegi hand bearing the earliest Basque language in situ where it was discovered. (SC Aranzadi)
Basque Language on the Hand “Astonished” The Cryptographer
In the 1st century AD Roman writers Pliny the Elder and Claudius Ptolemy both recorded the Vascones people inhabiting present-day Navarre. Today, the Vascones are considered as the ancestors of the present-day Basques. The Irulegi Castle site controlled the surrounding agricultural lands in the Bronze Age, between the 15th and 11th centuries BC, and it was destroyed by the Romans in the 1st century BC.
The Hand of Irulegi measures 14.5 centimeters (5.7 in) long and it has 40 symbols marked across four lines, which are suspected to represent 5 individual words. According to Spanish daily El Pais, Javier Velaza, a professor of Latin Philology at the University of Barcelona and a leading expert on pre-Roman inscriptions, was “astonished” when he began analyzing the hand last April. Until the discovery of this bronze hand little was known about Vascones culture as only a few coins had ever been unearthed, and this is why Velaza said the inscribed Hand of Irulegi represents “an exceptional novelty.”
A transcription of the signs on the Hand of Irulegi. The first word is 'sorioneku', which can mean ‘of good fortune or omen’. (SC Aranzadi)
The First Document Undoubtedly Written In The Basque Language
Velaza noticed that the first word “ sorioneku” was very similar to the Basque word “ zorioneko,” which means “ zori” (fortune) and “on” (good). Therefore, the first word means “good fortune or good omen.” The remaining four words are proving more difficult to translate, but the researcher believes they probably refer to unknown Basque divinities or places which were worshipped at; sacred sites throughout the Pyrenees Mountains including mountain peaks, caves, springs and wells.
When exactly the Vascones people began using this unknown Iberian script is unknown, but until now archaeologists believed they didn’t even use a writing system. Velaza concluded that The Hand of Irulegi represents “the first document undoubtedly written in the Basque language,” proving that they were using this language in the 1st century BC.
Top image: Hand of Irulegi with engraving of early Basque language. Source: Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi
By Ashley Cowie