Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


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

  • Introduction
  • Ancient Writing Systems
  • Further information

Among the clay tablets found in Hattuša there were several written in languages other than Hittite. Besides texts in Akkadian and Sumerian (rare), there were compositions in Hattian, a language indigenous of Anatolia, Hurrian, spoken by people settled in southern Anatolia, Syria and northern Mesopotamia, and in two others Indo-European languages, Palaic and Luwian.

In particular, this last language, Luwian, is well documented thanks to two different kinds of written sources:

1) Hittite cuneiform texts of Hattuša that preserve words (often marked by gloss-wedges), sentences, or full compositions in this language called by the scribes luwili, “in the Luwian way”.

2) The monumental inscriptions in Luwian from the second and first millennium B.C. written in hieroglyphic script. These inscriptions were already known by the travelers of the19th century. They could not understand, however, the nature and the language expressed in these inscriptions.

Luwian, as an Indo-European language, is inflectional. From the original Proto-Anatolian from which the Hittite was formed as well, a western branch also split. Both Luwian and Palaic would originate from this branch.

Records in the Luwian language coming from Hattuša are mainly of a religious-magical character. It comprises a period lasting from the 15th until the end of the 13th century. Already B. Hrozný (1920) remarked that it was a language containing elements different from the Hittite.

Documentation in the Luwian language but written in hieroglyphic script appears in the late Hittite imperial period in the stone monumental inscriptions of the Hittite kings (13th century). The majority of the inscriptions, however, was produced in the states located in southern Anatolia and Syria, formed between 12th and 7th century B.C. after the fall of the Hittite empire. Besides stone monuments, there are letters and economic documents written on lead strips.

It is believed that the Luwians were the major ethnic component of Anatolia. They occupied western Anatolia, including Troy (Wiluša) and the Arzawa Kingdom on the Mediterranean coast, central Anatolia, in the area of the contemporary city of Konya, the southern coast of Mediterranean Sea - the territory called Lukka in the Hittite sources, and the southeastern Anatolia corresponding to the regions named Kizzuwatna, in which Luwian and Hurrian cultural elements were mixed together. However, until now, cuneiform tablets written in Luwian have been found only in the Hittite capital city. In the above mentioned regions only material in hieroglyphic Luwian was found.

It was suggested that at the end of the Empire period the Luwians became the dominating ethnic group also in the territory around Hattuša, thus transforming the Hittite into a mere administrative language. This idea, however, has to be considered with carefulness since Hittite with its grammar and syntax variations seems to have been a living language until the end of the Empire period. On the other hand, it is certain that Luwian had a deep influence on the Hittite language even in the most ancient times and throughout its whole history, as several words of the Luwian lexicon, perfectly adapted to the structure of the Hittite language, show. Later, from the 14th century on, cases of Luwian terms inflected according to Luwian grammar rules but inserted in the Hittite vocabulary and marked by gloss-wedges are frequent.

Even though the diction “cuneiform” and “hieroglyphic” indicates two different kinds of writing systems, they are currently used to name two variations of the Luwian language.

Scholars speak about “dialects” to mark the differences occurring between the language expressed in the cuneiform Luwian documentation and the language of the hieroglyphic inscriptions. There are phonological differences but also discrepancies in the verbal conjugation and in the pronouns and nominal inflection that, although minimal, lead us to think about two branches of the same language. They cannot be explained simply on the basis of their diverse chronological development.

Ancient Writing Systems

  1. Cuneiform Luwian
  2. Hieroglyphic Luwian

Further information

  1. Bibliography
  2. Online resources