Hi! I am Anna Bonfanti, former PhD candidate at the University of Pavia (Italy), and my research is (still) focused on different aspects of the Urartian culture: the adoption and adaptation of the cuneiform writing system by the Urartian royal class appeared to be a particularly important and curiously understudied topic.

Firstly, a brief introduction to the topic in general: Urartu is the exonym commonly used to indicate an Iron Age statal entity whose core area was located on the Armenian Highlands, around lake Van (modern-day Eastern Turkey).

It emerged as a more or less cohesive state in the second half of the 9th century BCE, and it gradually declined until it disappeared, probably at the beginning of the 6th century BCE. What’s curious about this state is its peculiar adherence to an Assyrian model, both in the arts and in literature, so much so that the study of the Urartian culture was initially conceived as a minor branch of the Assyriological studies. My thesis, originally born as a study of the different traces left by contacts with other populations in the Urartian culture, ended up being a reflection on the reasons why the Urartian culture owes so much to the Assyrian model.

Thanks to my work based on contacts and interactions between Urartu and the rest of the world, as a CREWS visiting fellow I decided to focus exclusively on the adoption and adaptation of the cuneiform writing system in the Urartian environment. What initially sparkled my interest was the use of writing in the Urartian state: while cuneiform inscriptions in Urartian are spread all over the territories touched by the Urartian power, it is important to notice that these epigraphs are only expression of the royal dynasty, and that writing was used exclusively as a tool stating the king’s power. But how has cuneiform spread in the Urartian territory?

Tiglath-Pileser I’s inscription at the ‘Tigristunnel’

It can be hypothesised that writing was introduced in Urartu thanks to an Assyrian-speaking scribe, writing in his mother tongue, who probably devoted himself to form a school of local scribes able to write both in Akkadian and Urartian. Traces of cuneiform script were present in the future Urartian area certainly from the reign of Tiglath-Pileser I, who carved a rock relief and an inscription at the so-called ‘Tigristunnel’ (RIMA 2, A.0.87.15) in the same place where, a little more than a century later, Shalmaneser III would leave four other epigraphs (RIMA 3, A.0.102.21-24). Tiglath-Pileser I left a further rock inscription north of Lake Van, in Malazgirt (RIMA 2, A.0.87.16), but it is only starting with the reign of the first ‘official’ Urartian king, Sarduri, son of Lutipri, that cuneiform writing was systematically used in the area, associated with both the language of the local sovereigns, Urartian, and the lingua franca of the ancient Near East in the 1st millennium BCE, Akkadian.

It is today widely accepted that the Urartian cuneiform script was most likely derived from the Neo-Assyrian script: the Urartian cuneiform signs have approximately the same shape of the corresponding Neo-Assyrian ones. Also, the contents of the Urartian inscriptions, from the very beginning, refers to an Assyrian original model from which the Urartians took their inspiration. The Urartian writing system, being derived from the Assyrian one, works as the other cuneiform writing systems: it is a logo-syllabic script, with signs for syllables, plus logograms, vastly used, and determinatives. They used about a hundred cuneiform signs, 57 CV signs (probably sometimes read as only consonants), and 19 VC signs, leaving out many of the most common VC signs in Assyria, in an attempt to simplify the inventory of Assyrian signs; there are 31 CVC signs, and signs for vowels a, e, i, u and ú are present. It is interesting to note that the Urartians didn’t adopt the complete syllabary used in the Neo-Assyrian period, but only a part of it; moreover, the signs used in Urartian were not adopted along with their complete range of meanings or readings, since the Urartian signs usually have one, and more rarely two or three, possible readings.

An Urartian cuneiform tablet

Urartian writing is mainly attested on stone and rock, but it is also present on clay documents, such as tablets and bullae: while the Urartian cuneiform writing on stone and rock presents peculiar and characteristic features, the cuneiform writing on tablets remains graphically closer to the Assyrian ductus. For this reason, the existence of two types of ‘writings’ in Urartu can be suggested, the proper Urartian and the Assyrian one: the first inscriptions, dated to the reign of Sarduri, son of Lutipri, were written in the Assyrian type of writing, but from the reign of his son Ispuini the Urartian type started to appear. The main peculiarity of the Urartian cuneiform is that the horizontal and vertical wedges don’t intersect, probably to avoid breaking the rock while carving the inscription.

Thanks to the contacts and interactions (!) with the CREWS members, I decided to build up a whole new project based on an in-depth study of Urartian writing as a whole, focusing on both the palaeographical and the social side of writing, keeping in mind the agency approach often forgotten in the study of ancient civilisations.

So sit back and relax, more news on Urartian cuneiform study is coming!

You can watch Anna’s seminar talk on Urartian writing here:

~ Annarita Bonfanti, PhD candidate, University of Pavia

One thought on “A brief introduction to the introduction of cuneiform on the Armenian Highlands: Guest post by Annarita Bonfanti

  1. It is interesting to observe that the Urartian language is a relative of Hurrian, as used in Mitanni and elsewhere, thus offering an opportunity for comparative linguistic study. It is also interesting to observe that some Urartian storage jars, which usually have their capacity written into the clay in cuneiform, were found in Altıntepe inscribed with Anatolian ‘hieroglyphs’ instead. These quasi-bilinguals not only permitted an improved reading of the Luwian signs, but also hold implications for the use of Luwian in western Urartu. For the literature on the jars, see:
    Özgüc, Tahsin. 1969. Altintepe II. Tombs, Storehouses and Ivories. Ankara.
    Laroche, Emmanuel. 1971 [1973]. Les hieroglyphes d’Altintepe. Anadolu (Anatolia) 15; 55-61.
    Klein, Jeffrey J. 1974. Hieroglyphic inscriptions from Altintepe. AnSt 24: 77-94.


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