249 Hittite hieroglyphs found in ancient tunnel

A university professor has discovered 249 hieroglyphs painted on the stone walls of the Yerkapı Tunnel in the ancient Hittite capital of Hattusa near modern-day Boğazkale, Turkey. Mardin Artuklu University Archeology Department Lecturer Assoc. Dr. While Bülent Genç was walking the tunnel with his students last month when he spotted symbols painted on the boulders with a red pigment (probably madder). Preliminary interpretation suggests they may be symbolic representations of deities.

The tunnel is more than 240 feet long as was built 3,500 years ago using thousands of large boulders of unmortared stone inside an artificial embankment on the ancient city walls near the Sphinx Gate. Archaeologists believe it was not simply a passageway through the fortifications used for practical purposes in the city’s defense, but rather for religious ceremonies.

The remains of 12 other similar tunnels have been discovered under the Hittite-era walls, but this one is by far the best preserved. Built as a corbelled vault like a triangle with a slightly flattened top corner, it is in such good shape that it is completely passable and structurally sound.

It was first excavated in 1907 and since then many archaeologists and other visitors have walked through the Yerkapı Tunnel, but nobody noticed the hieroglyphs until now. They survived because they were protected from the sun, wind and rain by the tunnel which also has a constant cool temperature throughout the year ideal for conservation purposes.

Hattusa was founded by the Hattian Bronze Age culture around 2000 B.C. Writing was introduced to the settlement by Assyrian merchants over the next couple of centuries, and when it became the capital of the Hittite Empire in 1700 B.C., the Hittite language replaced the Hattian in written documents. Tens of thousands of Hittite-language cuneiform tablets have been unearthed at Hattusa.

After the collapse of the Hittite Empire in 1200 B.C., the use of cuneiform in the area ceased, but Anatolian hieroglyphs remained in use for another four centuries after the Bronze Age collapse.  The discovery of the tunnel hieroglyphs suggests an early origin for a non-cuneiform writing system that was local and unique to Anatolia, not imported from Assyria, and that was used for symbolically significant purposes even as cuneiform was dominant in administrative and record-keeping uses.

Pointing out that the hieroglyphs in the tunnel are similar to each other, [excavation leader Andreas] Schachner said, “When we share the symbols with the scientific world, our colleagues working on the Hittites will have an opinion and maybe one or maybe several ideas will emerge accordingly. We have identified a total of 249 Anatolian hieroglyphs here, but they are not all different from each other. We can divide them into 8 groups in total. They add innovation to us socially. Since they are written with paint, we need to interpret them more in the style of graffiti. We think it was done quickly and so that it could be understood quickly,” he said.

Stating that most of the hieroglyphs found in Anatolia are seen in monumental inscriptions or seals that have their own meanings, Schachner underlined that the discovery of the symbols in the tunnel led to the idea that hieroglyphics were used much more widely in the Hittite period.

All 249 hieroglyphs have now been 3D scanned so they can be studied further. Researchers hope the symbols will help shed new light on the tunnel and the role it played in Hittite culture.