At a temple site in the Republic of Georgia, letters carved in stone could change the way we see the development of writing.
GRAKLIANI, GEORGIA Sophia Paatashvili, a third-year graduate student in archeology at Ivane Javakashvili Tbilisi State University, was excavating an ancient temple at an Iron Age site called Grakliani last month when she noticed something strange: a series of marks carved into a stone slab just below the temple’s collapsed altar.
Unlike inscriptions found in other temples at Grakliani, these didn’t show animals or people, nor were they random decorative elements.
Instead, says Vakhtang Licheli, who heads the university’s archeology institute and has led excavations at Grakliani during the past eight years, they may be the oldest example of a native alphabet in the Caucasus—fully a thousand years older than any indigenous writing previously found in the region.
“This discovery is not just important for the history of Georgia,” Licheli says, “but in the history of the development of writing.”
The excavated portion of the inscription—some 31 by 3 inches—features at least five curved shapes hollowed out in deep chasms in the stone.
The script as a whole bears no relation to any other alphabet, although Licheli detects similarities to letters in ancient Greek and Aramaic.
He says there’s no doubt that the carvings are part of an alphabet rather than a decorative pattern.
“In a decoration you see repetition every two, four, six times. Here there’s no repetition.” He notes the skill of the carver in smoothing the design. “He was very comfortable doing this—this was not his first time.”
Licheli says it’s reasonable to assume that the writing dates to the seventh century B.C., when the temple is believed to have been built.
“These few letters upend traditional historical narratives about the native population of the region.”
Shards of pottery found at the site are emblematic of that period. Their color, material, and design, Licheli says, resemble those from similar sites in Georgia, leaving little doubt as to their age.
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