Editor's Note: New research into the archaeologist's work has found that this inscription is likely a forgery. Read more about the possible forgeries.
A 3,200-year-old stone slab with an inscription that tells of a Trojan prince and may refer to the mysterious Sea People has been deciphered, archaeologists announced today (Oct. 7).
The stone inscription, which was 95 feet (29 meters) long, describes the rise of a powerful kingdom called Mira, which launched a military campaign led by a prince named Muksus from Troy.
The inscription is written in an ancient language called Luwian that just a few scholars, no more than 20 by some estimates, can read today. Those scholars include Fred Woudhuizen, an independent scholar, who has now deciphered a copy of the inscription. [Cracking Codices: 10 of the Most Mysterious Ancient Manuscripts]
Woudhuizen and Eberhard Zangger, a geoarchaeologist who is president of the Luwian Studies foundation, will publish findings on the inscription in the December issue of the journal Proceedings of the Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society.
If the inscription is authentic, it shines light on a period when a confederation of people that modern-day scholars sometimes call the Sea People destroyed cities and civilizations across the Middle East, scholars say. The kingdom of Mira, which engaged in this military campaign, was apparently part of this Sea People confederation given their participation in the attacks.
A Trojan war?
The inscription tells of how King Kupantakuruntas ruled a kingdom called Mira that was located in what is now western Turkey. Mira controlled Troy (also in Turkey), according to the inscription, which additionally described Trojan prince Muksus leading a naval expedition that succeeded in conquering Ashkelon, located in modern-day Israel, and constructing a fortress there. [Biblical Battles: 12 Ancient Wars Lifted from the Bible]
The inscription details King Kupantakuruntas' storied path to the throne of Mira: His father, King Mashuittas, took control of Troy after a Trojan king named Walmus was overthrown. Soon after that, King Mashuittas reinstated Walmus on the Trojan throne in exchange for his loyalty to Mira, the inscription says.
Kupantakuruntas became king of Mira after his dad died. He then took control of Troy, although he wasn't the actual king of Troy. In the inscription, Kupantakuruntas describes himself as a guardian of Troy, imploring future rulers of Troy to "guard Wilusa [an ancient name for Troy] (like) the great king (of) Mira (did)." (translation by Woudhuizen)
A copy of a copy
The inscription itself no longer exists, having been destroyed in the 19th century, but records of the inscription, including a copy of it, were found in the estate of James Mellaart, a famous archaeologist who died in 2012. Mellaart discovered several ancient sites in his life, the most famous of which is Çatalhöyük, a massive, 9,500-year-old settlement in Turkey that some scholars think is the oldest city in the world. [The 25 Most Mysterious Archaeological Finds on Earth]
Mellaart left instructions saying that if the inscription could not be fully deciphered and published before he died, other scholars should do so as soon as possible. Some scholars (not Zangger and Woudhuizen's team) have raised concerns that the inscription could be a modern-day forgery created by Mellaart or someone else.
Mellaart briefly mentioned the existence of the inscription in at least one publication, a book review published in 1992 in the Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society journal. But he never fully described the inscription in a scientific publication.
According to Mellaart's notes, the inscription was copied in 1878 by an archaeologist named Georges Perrot near a village called Beyköy in in Turkey. Shortly after Perrot recorded the inscription, villagers used the stone as building material for a mosque, according to Mellaart's notes. In the aftermath of the inscription being used as building material for the mosque, Turkish authorities searched the village and found three inscribed bronze tablets that are now missing. The bronze tablets were never published and it is not certain exactly what they say.
A scholar named Bahadır Alkım (who died in 1981) rediscovered Perrot's drawing of the inscription and made a copy, which Mellaart, in turn, also copied and which the Swiss-Dutch team has now deciphered.
Last member of a team
Mellaart was part of a team of scholars who, starting in 1956, worked to decipher and publish Perrot's copy of the inscription, along with the now-missing bronze tablets and several other Luwian inscriptions, his notes say.
Mellaart's notes state that the team he was part of was unable to publish its work before most of the team members died. The notes add that the team Mellaart worked on included the scholars Albrecht Goetze (died 1971), Bahadır Alkım (died 1981), Handam Alkım (died 1985), Edmund Irwin Gordon (died 1984), Richard David Barnett (died 1986) and Hamit Zübeyir Koşay (died 1984). Mellaart, who was one of the younger members of the team, died at the age of 86, having outlived the rest of his team.
The Swiss-Dutch team found that in his later years, Mellaart spent a considerable amount of time trying to understand the copies of the different Luwian inscriptions in his possession. However, Mellaart couldn't read Luwian; he was brought onto the team for his knowledge of the archaeological landscape of western Turkey, while other members could read the ancient language. [Cracking Codes: 5 Ancient Languages Yet to Be Deciphered]
Did the inscription exist?
Live Science talked to several scholars not affiliated with the research. Some of them expressed concern that the inscription is a modern-day forgery. They said that until records of the inscription are found that are not left behind by Mellaart, they can't be sure the inscription existed.
Zangger and Woudhuizen said that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Mellaart or someone else to create such a forgery. The inscription is very lengthy, and Mellaart couldn't read, much less write Luwian, they said in their paper. They also noted that nobody had deciphered Luwian until the 1950s, which means that Perrot wouldn't have been able to forge it either. Zangger and Woudhuizen added that few scholars today are able to read Luwian, much less write a lengthy inscription. They said they also don't understand why Mellaart would have wanted to create a lengthy and complex forgery, but leave it largely unpublished. [24 Amazing Archaeological Discoveries]
Mellaart was accused in his life of inadvertently aiding smugglers and exaggerating or even "imagining evidence" (as Ian Hodder, the current director of excavations at Çatalhöyük put it) to prove his archaeological ideas; however, he was never found to have created a forgery, Zangger and Woudhuizen noted.
Even so, Zangger told Live Science that until records of the inscription are found apart from Mellaart's estate, he can't be totally certain it's authentic and not a forgery.
Zangger is also publishing details of the newly deciphered inscription in a German-language book called "Die Luwier und der Trojanische Krieg – Eine Forschungsgeschichte," (Orell Füssli, 2017), which is being released today.
Editor's note: This article was updated to reflect the fact that Woudhuizen, not Zangger, can read Luwian and was the one who deciphered the inscription.
Original article published on Live Science.
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Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.