July 03, 2007

Old Persian News

There has been an interesting development in the study of Old Persian. Old Persian is the language of the royal inscriptions of the Achaemenid kings, such as the Behistun inscription of Darius, and is known to us almost exclusively from these inscriptions. The inscriptions are written in a unique writing system, cuneiform in form, but in structure quite different from the more familiar Sumerian-Akkadian Cuneiform and its derivatives, such as Hittite, Elamite, and Hurrian Cuneiform.

This writing system is generally believed to have been created for Darius and to have been deliberately restricted in use to royal inscriptions. This was not because there was no other application for writing - Achaemenid Persia was a literate society that kept extensive administrative records. However, it kept them in Elamite and Aramaic, not Persian.

The development, reported in a recent paper by Matthew Stolper and Jean Tavernier, is the discovery of an Old Persian administrative text. A nice photograph may be seen here. The tablet was actually excavated in 1934, but no one seems to have noticed until recently that it is in Old Persian. Much of the text is uninterpretable, but enough can be read that it is clear that it is an administrative text: it deals with a transaction of unknown type involving 6,000 or more litres of a dry commodity from a named person in five named villages.

The implications of this discovery are not clear. It may be that Old Persian cuneiform was used for purposes other than royal display and that only one example has thus far been found, or it may be that this example is a fluke. Stolper and Tavernier have an interesting discussion of literacy in the Achaemenid Empire and how it could be that an administrator could get away with writing such a document in a language and writing system not normally used for such purposes.

Incidentally, over at the Harvard Iranian Studies Department Prods Oktor Skjærvø has made available on-line his Old Persian Primer. Those worried about learning to read Old Persian cuneiform will be heartened by Stolper and Tavernier's view that "For a modern student, to learn the Old Persian script is a work of scarcely an hour". Skjærvø also offers Older Avestan, Younger Avestan, and Sogdian, introductions to Zoroastrianism and Manicheism, the two major pre-Islamic Iranian religions, and Wheeler M. Thackston's reference grammars of Sorani and Kurmanji Kurdish. An excellent opportunity to bone up on your Iranian languages.

Posted by Bill Poser at July 3, 2007 08:15 PM