Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


- 1570 B.C. - 1200 B.C. (ca.)

edited by: Giulia Torri (translation revised by Melanie Rockenhaus)

  • Introduction
  • Index
  • Further information

The Hittite cuneiform writing system is a variation of the Akkadian cuneiform of the old-Babylonia period. It was created by the Hittites, an Indo-European people present in Anatolia (Turkey) between 16th and the beginning of 12th century B.C. This script was also used by scribes to express languages other than Hittite, namely Luwian, Palaic, Hattic, Hurrian, Akkadian and Sumerian.

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Graphic system

The Hittite cuneiform writing system represents an attempt to adapt an Indo-European language to a graphic system, the Akkadian cuneiform script, which had been used for several centuries to express Semitic languages. In comparison with this system of script, the Hittites developed a syllabary suitable to the phonetic values of their language. The Hittite syllabary is characterized by:
- syllables used for their phonetic values in these combinations: simple vowel (V), consonant-vowel (CV), vowel-consonant (VC), consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC);
- Sumerian logograms, also called Sumerograms (for ex. LUGAL, Hitt.: haššu- = king);
- Akkadograms Akkadian words, written syllabically and used, like Sumerograms, to replace words in the Hittite language (for. ex. Hitt. išha- (lord) = Akk. bÄ“lu);
- determinatives   prefixed to words with the function to classify them by semantic category (for ex.: LÚ “man” > palwatalla "cultic performer"; DINGIR “god” > DINGIR (=d)U " Stormgod ").

Both Sumerograms and Akkadograms can be completed by using phonetic complements that render the grammatical function of the word: the case and number of nouns and adjectives (LUGAL-, Hitt.: haššuš, nom. sing. “the king”), person and tense of the verbs (DIB-anzi, itt. appanzi: 3rd pers. plur. present “they take”). In some cases Sumerograms are completed using Akkadian phonetic complements (for ex. DINGIR-LUM = Akk. ilÅ«m; Hitt.: šiuš = god). According to the use of phonetic complements and thanks to the numerous duplicate texts in which syllabic writings alternate with logograms, it is possible to suggest that the function of Sumerograms and, to a certain extent, of Akkadograms, in Hittite texts was solely graphic: during the reading process only the (hidden) Hittite word was actually pronounced. Many Sumerian and Akkadian logograms were so extensively used that the corresponding Hittite term is still not known.
Several cuneiform signs, like in the Akkadian script, are homophones, i.e. syllables expressed with different signs but having the same phonetic value. The homophonous graphemes are distinguished in transliteration by using accents and subscribed numbers. While the most frequent sign is not marked, the second and third signs are respectively marked by acute and grave accents.
In some cases scribes adopted only particular values of the Akkadian syllabary. For example the Akkadian sign PI always has the value WA in Hittite. This sign was also used in the composition WA+vowel to express sounds of the Hattian, Palaic or Hurrian language. In these cases the sign is represented with a subscribed vowel to determine its phonetic value.

Many cuneiform signs may have several values, like in Akkadian. For example, AN was used as the Sumerogram AN (“sky”, Hitt. nepiš), as the Sumerogram DINGIR (“god”, Hitt. šiu-) -) and, with the same value, as the determinative of divine names. In Hittite AN is used for its phonetic value in the construction of several words. It can also have the phonetic value ìl, used by the Hittite scribes mostly in the composition of personal names followed by the Akkadian phonetic complementation to indicate the precise reading in that particular context: Mur-ši-DINGIR-LIM = Muršili.
A further characteristic of the Hittite script is the use of gloss-wedges, one or two cuneiform wedges placed at the left of Luwian words in Hittite texts. More rarely glosses were also used to mark Hurrian or Akkadian words. We have almost 337 glossed words in 140 texts of different content. Gloss-wedges are used in a consistent way starting with the epoch of King Muršili II (14th cent.). Their precise function is still under discussion, but they were surely used by scribes who wanted to mark unusual or foreign words

Discovery of the Hittite cuneiform script and locations (find spots) of the texts

The first texts written in Hittite cuneiform script were discovered in 1887 during the excavation of the site of Tell El Amarna (Akhetaton). They were letters addressed to the pharaoh Amenophi III by Tarhundaradu, king of Arzawa (14th cent.). The cuneiform script was understandable because the Akkadian syllabary was already deciphered. However the language used to write those tablets was unknown.

At the end of the 19th century the Frenchman Ernest Chantre, during an explorative expedition in Turkey, in the site of BoÄŸazköy, found some fragments of clay tablets written in a language similar to the one of the Amarna letters. He suggested that the Armana letters had come from this site.

It was, however, a German expedition that got the permission to start excavation in BoÄŸazköy. The site revealed the ruins of Hattuša, the capital city of the Hatti reign. It was not the capital of the Arzawa kingdom, a region today located in western Anatolia.

Excavations began in 1906 under the direction of the German philologist Hugo Winckler and are still ongoing. Over the years ca. 30,000 fragments of cuneiform tablets have been found. Tablets were unearthed in different locations of the city, in particular in the Lower City, occupied by a vast temple quarter which also included administration buildings, workshops and storerooms, in the citadel area Büyükkale, place of the king’s residence, and in the High City, occupied by another temple quarter with several temples dedicated to the various deities of the Hatti reign. Texts were found in the temples VIII, XII, XV, and XVI.

Smaller, but not less important archives were found also in other sites of Turkey: by Ortaköy, the ancient Šapinuwa, MaÅŸat Hüyük (Tapikka), KuÅŸaklı (Šarišša), and Kayalıpınar (Šamuha?). From Syria, a region that the Hittites controlled steadily from the 14th century, come several tablets in the Hittite language or connected with the Hittite administrative system. Texts were retrieved in Alalakh (Tell Açana), Ugarit (Tell Ras Shamra), Karkemiš (Jerablus), Emar (Meskene), and most recently in Tell Afis.

The content of the Hittite texts varies: there are compositions of historical, administrative, diplomatic and religious genres. There are school texts, like vocabularies and lexical lists similar to the ones used in Mesopotamia. Many texts were composed by the scribes of Hattuša, others were new elaborations of Mesopotamian and Hurrian models. A first organization of the Hittite textual material was prepared by Emanuel Laroche who arranged the corpus of the Hittite texts according to their content (E. Laroche, Catalogue des textes hittites, Paris 1971). The catalogue of Laroche is regularly updated and provides a very useful instrument for research.

Development of the Hittite cuneiform script and studies about its paleography

It is common opinion that the writing model adopted by the scribes of Hattuša, capital city of the kingdom, was the cuneiform syllabary of the Syrian area known to us especially from the archives of Alalakh (Tell. Açana, level VII). This system was adopted in the period of the military endeavors of Hattušili I in northern Syria (1570 ca.). This sovereign, the first one to be mentioned in the Hittite archives and probably the founder of the dynasty that gained power over the whole of Anatolia, brought back Syrian scribes to the capital city. Those scribes began the elaboration of the Hittite writing system.

In 1972 Christel Rüster, epigraphist together with H. Otten of the archaeological mission at BoÄŸazköy, published the Hethitische Keilschrift-Paläographie, offering a comparison of signs attested in 11 manuscripts from different periods, thus tracing the first systematic study on the evolution of the Hittite cuneiform syllabary.

In consequence of this and other studies on the topic, the period of composition of a cuneiform text is obtained, today, on the basis of the internal development of the signs, thus of the script in its entirety, and through the observation of the external features of the clay tablets, their shape, and the distribution of the text on their surface.

Conventionally Hittite writing is divided in three phases:

Old Script (typisch alt): 1570 – 1450 B.C. ca.

Middle Script (ältere Schrift): 1450 – 1380 B.C. ca.

New Script (junge Schrift): 1380 – 1200 B.C. ca.

Texts edited in ancient script are quite few and can be attributed with difficulty to a precise period. Just two texts can be actually dated to the Kingdom of Hattušili I (1570 B.C.), first sovereign of Hattuša, and both are written in the Akkadian language, the syllabary is similar to the one used in Alalakh VII:

-      The letter of Hattušili to Tunip-Tešup of Tikunani: a letter in which the king gives orders concerning his military campaign against Syria (M. Salvini, Una lettera di Hattušili I relativa alla spedizione contro Hahhum, SMEA 34 (1994), pp. 61-80).

-      The Siege of Uršu: an epic document (KBo 1.11) in which the incapability of Hittite officers to conquer the besieged city and the anger of the king of Hatti are described.

The script of these texts is different from the one used even in ancient times by the Hittite scribes. According to the German scholar Jörg Klinger, in Hattuša there were two different categories of scribes at first, the Hittites and the Syrians (J. Klinger, "Wer lehrte die Hethiter das Schreiben? Zur Paläographie früher Texte in akkadischer Sprache aus BoÄŸazköy: Skizze einiger Überlegungen und vorläufiger Ergebnisse", ICH3 (1998), pp. 365-375).

Important evidence of the most ancient phase of the Hittite writing system can also be found in the “Documents of Land Donation”(Landschenkungsurkunden), administration texts attesting the practice of the Hittite kings to grant lands to court dignitaries in exchange for loyalty (a common practice in particular during the reigns of Huzziya, Ammuna and Telepinu). Also in this case we are in the presence of administrative documents mostly in the Akkadian language created by the Hittite administration on the basis of complementary Syrian models.

There are a number of cuneiform tablets in ancient script preserving descriptions of festivals or rituals. These texts do not contain, however, any reference to a precise king. For this reason they could have been created in a historical phase lasting at least two centuries. Many of these texts could have been written around the 16th century or even a few decades later, thus in an epoch following the period conventionally called “Old-Hittite”. Considering these elements, some scholars have expressed doubts about the entire dating system, connecting it with the same origin of the Hittite cuneiform system. Even the Zukraši text, fundamental in the ’50s for the beginning of research about the ductus, could have been composed in a later period than the one proposed.

It has been suggested that the acquisition process of the writing system and the adaptation of the Akkadian syllabary to the Hittite language was gradual and covering an arch of time of several decades. It was completed only in 15th century when all the documents started to be written in Hittite language. However there are no proofs to think that this process lasted so long. Scribes may have learned to employ the Akkadian syllabary within few years, adapting it in a simplified form to their language, thus developing the Hittite cuneiform syllabary. Akkadian was the language of international prestige. Hittite was the language of the court and of the documents addressed to a Hittite speaking audience. For this reason many of the most important compositions of the beginning of the Hittite kingdom, for us preserved only in late copies, like the political testament of Hattušili I, preserved in a bilingual Hittite and Akkadian version, were at first composed in Hittite.

Scribal System

Hittite texts known to us are almost always written on baked clay tablets: DUB (Sum.), ṬUPPU (Akk.), tuppi (Hitt.) “tablet”. The tablet was prepared by the scribe himself in the desired shape. The drawing of the signs was done with the use of a stylus when the clay was still wet. Tablets of metal were also used, however the only known example is the Bronze Tablet found during the excavation of Hattuša in 1986, which conserves the treaty between the Hittite king Tuthaliya IV and Kurunta, king of Tarhuntašša in the 13th century. Some information about metal tablets come from indirect sources: King Hattušili III made a peace treaty with the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II which was engraved on a silver tablet. The official copy of the treaty between Hattušili III and Ulmi-Tešub of Tarhuntašša, of whom a version on clay is known, was engraved on an iron tablet.

Hittites also used wooden tablets (gulzattar, GIŠ.HUR, GIŠlÄ“’u). They consisted probably of two-leaf tablets. The inner surface of each leaf was filled with wax on which the text was inscribed. Examples were found in a ship sunk with its charge during the 14th century B.C. in front of the Turkish coast in the locality of Uluburun, in south-western Turkey. Other writing surfaces are the seals of the kings, normally digraph. They have an inscription in cuneiform writing on the outer ring and a hieroglyphic inscription in the inner field.

In the Hittite society scribes were members of the royal and temple administration. In the texts they were named DUB.SAR, whose Hittite equivalent is tuppala- (attested only once in fragmentary context). There existed also a huge category of scribes who worked on wooden tablets (DUB.SAR.GIŠ). Scribes were hierarchically organized: the GAL.DUB.SAR was the “Chief” of the scribes, an expert scribe charge with supervising the work of other scribes. The DUB.SAR.TUR “the young scribe” and the GÁB.ZU.ZU “novice” were the apprentices. There is evidence that the scribal profession was transmitted from father to son. However, titles that scribes used to call each others, like “my beloved brother” ŠEŠ.DÙG.GA-YA, or “my beloved son” DUMU.DÙG.GA-YA did not always refer to real kinship ties but to a hierarchical and corporative organization of the scribal school.