The Rediscovery of Ugaritic

Author: Marie Young (Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne)

Ugarit was an ancient Syrian city, capital of a kingdom which reached its peak from the fourteenth to the early twelfth centuries BCE. Archaeological excavations have found its vestiges at Ras Shamra in the Syrian province of Latakia. The Ugaritic state was a major centre of exchange in the Mediterranean during the Bronze Age. Its population spoke the Ugaritic language, a Semitic language written in Cuneiform. The scribes of this Syrian “periphery” adapted the Sumero-Akkadian syllabic cuneiform to make it an alphabet.

Picture: Wikimedia. View of the ruins of the Royal Palace of Ugarit 2005.

Discovery

In March 1928, a ploughman discovered by surprise a stone tomb built with much pottery towards the old seaport of the city of Ugarit. This immediately aroused the curiosity of the French administration which ruled the region. Indeed, Syria had been under a French mandate granted by the League of Nations since 1918. The Louvre Museum chose Claude F.-A. Schaeffer (1898-1982) to lead the first excavation campaigns. He led the excavation team from May 14, 1929, until 1969, with an interruption during the Second World War. His team uncovered this city at the heart of trade in the eastern Mediterranean. Ugarit was in the fertile plain of the Syrian city of Latakia, not far from the sea cove of Minet El Beida. It enjoyed a strategic position in the Levant that lets it develop a prosperous economy.

Since 1999, a Syrian and French team of archaeologists has been in place, and since 2011, a Syrian archaeological team. The first farmers occupied Ugarit from the Neolitich (c. 7500 BCE), and there were human settlements until the end of the Bronze Age. The city was destroyed around 1180 BCE, when the Middle East was facing economic and political upheavals.

Stele of Baal with a thunderbolt. Baal was the main god of Ugarit, he was a weather god. (Louvre Museum, RMN-Grand Palais 2006 / Franck Raux, AO 15775)

During the excavation campaigns, many texts were discovered in a writing system that resembled the cuneiform used to write Akkadian and Sumerian. The inhabitants of Ugarit had adapted this writing to mark better the Semitic dialect they spoke.

From 1929 onwards, mainly three researchers were deciphering the Ugaritic alphabet: Hans Bauer (1878-1937), Edouard Dhorme (1881-1966) and Charles Virolleaud (1879-1968). The first two, Hans Bauer and Edouard Dhorme have worked in the cryptography department during the First World War. Hans Bauer had been employed in the German army and Edouard Dhorme in the French one. The methods of decoding encrypted systems used during the First World War helped them undoubtedly to decipher the Ugaritic alphabet. Former enemies of war, they did not stop their communications to unveil the mystery of the Ugaritic between the two World Wars.

Charles Virolleaud was the first epigraphist of the excavation site in 1929. He was the first to see Ugaritic texts. Ugaritic scribes used vertical separators to individualise each word. After having understood this, Charles Virolleaud had no difficulty in observing that most of the words were short, they mostly contained one letter, sometimes two or three, and at most four. Only twenty-six or twenty-seven signs seemed to appear in the texts. This led him to believe that the script was an alphabet. After this discovery, he started to find the letters corresponding to each sign.

He began his study of the Ugaritic language by analysing a short inscription appearing on a tablet, and on metal adzes.

The adzes were part of a depot of seventy-four bronze weapons and tools that belonged to the house of a high priest of Ugarit between the Ba’al and Dagan temples (discovered at the beginning of the excavations in 1929). They were agricultural tools.  Picture: C. Schaeffer 1956, Ugaritica III, p. 255 fig. 219.

On some of them, appeared the inscription: ”rb khnm”, (property) of the high priest, and on one of them a word seemed to designate the object itself: “ḫrṣn”, for adze. (on the right). A sign composed of three vertical wedges was on the cuneiform tablet which bore the same inscription. A word separator followed the sign. Ch. Virolleaud had the intuition that this first sign was the equivalent of the Akkadian “ana” preposition which serves to design the owner of the adze. Ch. Virolleaud made it the letter l, the translation of “ana” in West Semitic. (Picture: C. F-A. Schaeffer 1956, Ugaritica III, p. 264, fig. 229).

Plan of the high priest’s house, Ugarit. The yellow circle shows the storeroom of the bronze weapons and bronze tools. Source : C. Schaeffer 1956, Ugaritica III, p. 252, fig. 216.

Ch. Virolleaud thought that the inscription found referred to the object and his owner. This allowed him to start the identification of the letters belonging to the Ugaritic alphabet. Further studies confirmed the meaning of the inscription “adze of the high priest”, and the other one “(property) of the high priest”.

The exchanges between the three researchers made it possible to identify all the letters of the Ugaritic alphabet. Hans Bauer and Edouard Dhorme perfectly master other Semitic languages, which facilitated the deciphering of the Ugaritic alphabet. Hans Bauer had published a grammar of ancient Hebrew, which became a canon (Historische Grammatik der hebraïschen Sprache des Alten Testamentes, Halle 1922). E. Dhorme had been teaching Semitic languages at the Ecole Biblique of Jerusalem since 1905. Furthermore, Charles Virolleaud knew well Arabic, Akkadian and Sumerian. Before 1929, he made a big name for his translations of many texts written in Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform. After the scholars understood that they were dealing with a Semitic language, they tried to decipher the letters by drawing parallels with the other Semitic languages they knew, and which shared many common roots with Ugaritic.

Thus, in November 1929, shortly after the excavations began, Charles Virolleaud succeeded in identifying three letters of Ugarit’s main god: b’l. The 26th of April 1930, Hans Bauer proposed in a message to the Director of Oriental Antiquities of the Louvre, René Dussaud, the identification of fourteen letters of the Ugaritic alphabet: ā, ī, b, b, g, d, h, w, w, y, k, l, l, n,’, r, š, t, and ś. From that moment on, he suggested the western Semitic character of the texts newly discovered. Edouard Dhorme completed the deciphering, identifying at the same times eighteen of the twenty-nine letters. H. Bauer after receiving these results corrects the errors made. The debates between the three researchers permit to discover the other letters. Furthermore, one must mention Marcel Cohen (1884-1974), a famous linguist, who also contributed to the deciphering of the alphabet. He actively advised Charles Virolleaud in the thirties to identify certain consonant values of the Ugaritic alphabet.

Nevertheless, the confirmation of their deciphering came only twenty-five years later in 1955. The excavations of the royal palace of Ugarit uncovered a mutilated text and this school text contained a synoptic table of the Ugarit alphabet, and its phonetic equivalents in Akkadian cuneiform. This discovery made it possible to understand the vocalisation of the Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet.

Copy of Charles Virolleaud, Royal Palace of Ugarit II, Textes en cunéiforme alphabétique des archives est, ouest et centrales, N. 189 (Damascus Museum, RS 19.159). Synoptic table of the Ugaritic alphabet with its Akkadian cuneiform equivalents for the first and last ten letters of the alphabet. The fire of the palace destroyed the rest of the text. Claude F.-A. Schaeffer discovered this document in 1955 in the ashes covering the ground of the south-western archives of the Royal Palace. The table originally contained four columns. The apprentice scribe has to learn both the Sumerian-Akkadian syllabary and the Ugaritic alphabet. He adopts in the tablet presented above the classic presentation of the Sumero-Akkadian sign lists, vertically in columns, whereas he normally writes the Ugaritic alphabet horizontally in landscape format. This table made it possible to translate texts and switch from one writing system to another.

The syllable “ḫa” in Akkadian is equivalent to ḫ (o.4) and ġ (r. 21). Indeed, the Sumero-Akkadian syllabary has no sign of responding to the Semitic ġ. H is also unknown in Akkadian, it has been replaced here by ú (o.6). ḥ becomes in Akkadian ku (o.9), but the sound is often rendered in names or words by ḫ in Sumerian-Akkadian. ś is equivalent to zu (r.30) showing that the traditional samekh was closer to z than to s in the old Semitic languages.

Charles Virolleaud is particularly to be thanked for translating important parts of Ugaritic literature into French. He published the first edition of the Phoenician legend of Danel in 1936, then the legend of Keret, king of the Sidonians in 1936, and the poem to the goddess Anat in 1938. He also faced another important problem in Ras Shamra’s sources: there were not only documents written in Ugaritic. After renewing efforts on a sixty-two lines literary text, he concluded that it was written in another language. It is clear now that Hurrian was the language of the text. Ugaritic society spoke different languages and mastered different mythologies.

Tablet of the legend of Danel (picture: RMN-Grand Palais 2014 / Mathieu Rabeau, No. AO 17323). A poem in verse discovered in 1930-31. A certain Ilimilk may have composed the text in the fourteenth century BCE. The legend told the adventures of King Danel and his son Aqhat, related to the agrarian rites of ancient Phoenicia. The myth highlights the opposition between wisdom and power and warns against a lack of moderation.

Type of Sources

Texts in the Ugaritic language are documented from the fourteenth to the twelfth century BCE. Since 1929, nearly five thousand objects and fragments inscribed in some form of cuneiform writing have been discovered in Ras Shamra. Eight languages were used in the city: the Ugaritic language, the Akkadian Babylonian dialect, the Sumerian, the Hittite, the Luwian, the Hurrian, the Egyptian hieroglyphic and the Cyprominoan. Five writing systems recorded these languages: alphabetic cuneiform, the Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform, Luwian hieroglyphic, Egyptian hieroglyphic, and finally Cyprian-Minoan writing. Most of the texts were incised on clay tablets. A small number were engraved on ivory or metal objects, and no inscribed wood was found until now.

The Akkadian had a central role in Ugaritic society. It was the language of diplomatic and economic exchanges, and three thousand texts and fragments in the Babylonian Akkadian dialect were discovered. They were some classical texts of the Sumero-Akkadian literature, but also letters sent to the Egyptian Pharaoh.

The archaeologists found the house of a high priest and its library between the two main temples of the city. Many school texts and literary texts were exhumed inside, among them the legend of Keret, the legend of Danel, and other myths written around the figure of the god Baal.

The archaeologists found the tablet in the house of the high priest. It told the conflict between Baal and Mot, the god of death. The tablet had three columns, a part of the text is still missing. It described an agrarian myth: the heat of summer causes the god Baal to vanish, and at the end of the myth, Baal returns as a tempest bringing the rains of autumn. The image of Baal’s annual disappearance symbolised the forces of nature. (Louvre Museum, Museum Number: AO 16636. Picture: Musée du Louvre 2011 / Thierry Ollivier, cf. https://collections.louvre.fr/en/ark:/53355/cl010141546)

Over two thousand items written in Ugaritic are known, and the majority comes from the excavations at Ras Shamra, whereas a smaller corpus comes from later excavations made at Ras ibn Hani. The biggest part of the text belongs to the palatial administration and allows a reconstruction of the daily life of the city (1000 tablets and fragments), another important corpus concerns the cultic economies of temples (100 documents).

The Alphabet

In Ugarit the scribes used an alphabetic cuneiform. It is one of the oldest alphabets in the World. They started to use it in the fifteenth century BCE, it was used from Bet Shemesh in the South Levant to Cyprus. Each sign stands for a consonant, and the reader has to supply the court vowel like in Aramaean or Arabic. The reading direction was left to right like Sumerian or Akkadian. Clay was the principal support to write, but some Ugaritic inscriptions on metal were also exhumed. The scribes made a distinction between long and short vowels: a/ā, i/ī, u/ū, ē and ō

“Alphabet book” of Ugarit. Scribes started their formation, learning how to write and read. The Schaeffer’s excavation discovered this text in 1938. The tablet seems to be the teacher’s model version, while the student’s exercise which should have been below it seems to have been removed with a cutting tool. Traces of cuts are visible on the lower part of the edge. It was the first alphabet book exhumed nine years after the first discoveries of Ugarit (Picture: CDLI, Museum Number: RS 12.063).

Sources: Wikimedia. The Alphabet of Ugarit. The “a”, “i”, “u” are long vowels. The s2 is the equivalent of the samekh letter in ancient Hebrew.

Scholarly documents discovered in the ruins of the Ugarit palace in November 1955. The last studies show that the teacher wrote the first line and seven scribes seem to have copied the teacher’s model of the ten first letters of the alphabet carefully, except for the last scribe who completed the list and wrote all the thirty letters of the alphabet on three lines. (Excavation Number: RS 19.040, Copy of Charles Virolleaud, PRU II, no. 188.)

Some details about the Ugaritic language:

The grammar of Ugaritic is like classical Arabic or Akkadian, it belongs to the “West Semitic” branch, and Ugaritic is the earliest known West Semitic language for which a corpus of literary texts has been discovered. It possesses two genders: masculine and feminine, three cases: nominative, accusative and genitive, and three numbers: singular, dual and plural. The word order is verb-subject-object and subject-object-verb like in Akkadian. It is a Semitic language, linguists assert that Ugaritic is conservative because it retains most of the phonemes, the case system and the word order.

Introduction in the Verbal Morphology

Ugaritic verbal morphology may be characterised as a combination of two elements: a “verbal base” (consonantal root and a vowel pattern), and a collection of “grammatical affixes”. One finds in all verbs morphological marks of the gender (masculine, feminine) and number (singular, dual, plural) of the verb’s grammatical subject. Furthermore, Ugaritic verbs always distinguish three categories of “person” for the grammatical subject: first, second and third. This language possesses two verbal conjugations, each with its peculiar morphological features. One can designate them as the “suffixing conjugation (SC), and the “prefixing conjugation” (PC).

The Suffixing Conjugation and the Prefixing Conjugation

The Ugaritic Suffixing Conjugation mainly served as a tense noting action having occurred in the past, whereas the Prefixing Conjugation has a very extensive spectrum of semantic functions than the Suffixing Conjugation. The Prefixing Conjugation possesses both prefixes and suffixes, it may form the indicative mood to express present or future action. Also, the scribes used Prefixing Conjugation as a “narrative tense” in poetry.

singular 
3msbase=a
3fsbase=at
2msbase=(ā)ta
2fsbase=(ā)ti
1csbase=(ā)tu
Dual 
3mdbase=ā
3fdbase=(a)tā
2mdbase=(ā)tumā
1cdbase=(ā)nayā?
Plural 
3mpbase=ū
3fpbase=ā?
2mpbase=(ā)tumu
2fpbase=(ā)tina
1cpbase=(ā)nu?
The Ugaritic suffixing conjugation   
singular 
3msy=base=u
3fst=base=u
2mst=base=u
2fst=base=īna
1cs̕ =base=u
Dual 
3mdt=base=āna
3fdt=base=āna
2mdt=base=āna
1cdn=base=āna
Plural 
3mpt=base=ūna
3fpt=base=na
2mpt=base=ūna
2fpt=base=na
1cpn=base=u
The Ugaritic prefixing conjugation

The Ugaritic Divination

The Ugaritic scribes’ apprentices had to learn some basics of divination, before to choose to become a priest in the temple, or a scribe in the administration. Divination was used in all the spheres of the society but had different forms. One of the most widespread forms of divination in the Ancient Near East was the inspections of the entrails of a sacrificed sheep, a method called hepatoscopy. To teach this subject to the apprentice scribes, the overseer produced clay models of liver or lungs. Excavations found these types of school’s tools everywhere in Mesopotamia, and in Ugarit.

The liver model in the red circle had two sides with notations: one side is deeply incised, the other has three lines of an Ugaritic inscription beginning with the word “kbd”: liver. The object was found among five other livers models together with a model of a lung in the house of a priest. (Picture: Jacques-Claude Courtois, Ugaritica VI, 1969, Photo fig. 14, Excavation Number: RS 24.326 from the fourteenth-thirteenth century BCE.)

An inscription on the liver:

  1. Kbd dt jpt
  2. Bn jkn’ 
  3. K jptḫ jrk[t]
  4. Hnd

1 kbd means “Liver”

1dt jpt means “Of Jpt”, which is a personal name

2bn jkn’ means “Son of Jkn”, which is a personal name

3 k means “when”

3 jptḫ means “He opens (3sg.p.)”

4hnd means “This (determinative)”

3jrkt means “Entrails”

To sum up: “Liver of Jpt, son of Jkn, when he opens these entrails.“

Bibliography

  1. Tools to learn Ugaritic:

John Huehnergaard 2012, An Introduction to Ugaritic, Peabody, Hendrickson Publishers.

Pierre Bordreuil and Dennis Pardee 2009, A Manual of Ugaritic, Linguistic Studies in Ancient West Semitic 3, Winona Lake, Eisenbrauns.

Joseph Tropper 2000, Ugaritische Grammatik, AOAT 273, Münster, Ugarit Verlag.

Roger D. Woodard (ed.) 2008, The Ancient Languages of Syria-Palestine and Arabia, Cambridge, Cambridge/New York, Cambridge University Press.

Robert Hawley 2020, “Ugaritic”, in a Companion to Ancient Near Eastern Languages, by Rebecca Hasselbach-Andee (ed.), John Wiley & Sons.

  • Text editions:

André Caquot et al. 1989, Textes ougaritiques : tome 2, Textes religieux et rituels, correspondance, Paris, Éditions du Cerf.

 Charles Virolleaud 1957, Textes alphabétiques des archives Est, Ouest et Centrales, in Le palais Royal d’Ugarit, Paris, Geuthner (Abbreviation: PRU II).

Manfried Dietrich et al. 1976, Die keilalphabetischen Texte aus Ugarit, I, AOAT 24/1, Kevelaer/Neukirchen, Neukirchener Verlag (Abbreviation: KTU).

  • Archaeological reports:

Jacques-Claude Courtois 1969, Ugaritica VI, Paris, Geuthner.

  • Ugaritic Culture and Literature:

John Gibson 1977, Canaanite Myths and Legends, Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark.

Marguerite Yon 2006, The city of Ugarit at Tell Ras Shamra, Winona Lake, Eisenbrauns.

Robert Hawley 2008, “Apprendre à écrire à Ougarit : une typologie des abécédaires”, in Carole Roche (ed.), D’Ougarit à Jérusalem, Recueil d’études épigraphiques et archéologiques offert à Pierre Bordreuil, Paris, De Boccard.

  • Website:

http://archeologie.culture.fr/proche-orient/fr/a-propos/ougarit-ras-shamra

Cite this article as: M. Young, “The Rediscovery of Ugaritic”, in N. Moncunill (ed.), Cracking lost scripts, 29/12/2023, https://lostscripts.hypotheses.org/1610.


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
lostscripts (December 30, 2023). The Rediscovery of Ugaritic. Cracking lost scripts. Retrieved July 25, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/vf2e


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