February 29, 2024

For the average museum goer the romance of archeology is inextricably bound to extravagant displays of power and wealth: Egyptian pharaohs in their gilded sarcophagi, China’s extraordinary Terracotta Warriors, the gold and jewels of ancient Rome. In the field, it is the remains of mighty fortresses and opulent palaces, the imprint of cataclysmic events, that people cross continents to visit.

Few of the thousands who lined Hadrian’s Wall to the Roman fort of Vindolanda each year would go out of their way to see two of the treasures discovered there, both now at the British Museum. One is a birthday invitation from the wife of the fort commander to a friend, including greetings from her husband and “my boy”. The other is a letter to a soldier who promises socks, sandals and breeches to protect him from the Northumberland cold. Yet these messages offer poignant and human insight into colonial life in a remote outpost of the empire nearly 2,000 years ago. More tablets are still being unearthed by archaeologists racing against the effects of climate change.

As objects, these two pieces of text on wood fall into the realm of archeology defined by the American anthropologist James Deetz in 1977 as “little things forgotten”. Of the examples he in his groundbreaking study of early American life were records of estate auctions showing that many households in colonial America contained only a single chair. What better evidence of a patriarchal system could there be, he argued, than the fact that everyone except the man of the house was expected to sit on chairs or the floor.

Prof Deetz used records to research objects, but his example also highlights one of the great paradoxes of written texts: they often turn out to be banal statements of accounts or legal documents rather than great works of literature. Just look at the Rosetta stone. In that case, the text’s importance was not so much what it said as what it did: in recording a rather dull decree of the royal cult of a 13-year-old king, it offered Egyptologists a key to crack the code of hieroglyphs. But in many cases the ordinariness of texts is itself a code waiting to be deciphered: it reveals which societies felt it necessary to set in stone. It is not surprising and chastening that the instruments of civil control, such as laws and accounts, appear as prominently as religious scriptures. Sometimes – as in the long-term excavation of Hattusa (now Boğazköy), the ancient capital of the Hittite empire in north-central Turkey – all three come together to revelatory effect.

Last fall, archaeologists who worked at the site announced the discovery from a cuneiform tablet in a previously unknown language. It is one of about 30,000 clay documents that have been unearthed over decades. Although mostly written in Hittite script, as many as 5% of the tablets used ethnic minority languages. From this it appears that the Hittites – who ruled the area between 1650 and 1200 BC – far from oppressing their subject peoples – had a civil service of scribes dedicated to researching and recording their traditions and beliefs.

It will take time for the newly discovered language to be translated – historical texts are only accessible to most of us through the mediation of scholars – but its mere existence, more than 3,000 years after it was written, is a proof of how much we have to learn about civilization from “little things forgotten”.

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