Last summer, archaeologists in northern Spain were thrilled to discover a flat, hand-shaped object made of bronze from a dig site not far from Pamplona.
But it wasn’t until later, when they began the careful restoration process, that the hand’s true significance came to light: After cleaning away centuries of sediment and dirt, researchers discovered lines of text inscribed all over the object, which they called the Hand of Irulegi.
Experts believe the words belong to a language that predates modern Basque, also known as Euskara. The first word in hand, sorioneku, is very similar to the Basque word zorioneku, which means “luck”.
Archaeologists suspect the hand hanging over the door of a mud-brick house some 2,000 years ago was likely an “amulet of protection,” as Joseph Wilson writes for the Associated Press.
The researchers have not been able to match any of the other manuscripts with known Basque words, but they plan to continue their analysis.
The discovery is not only important for understanding the evolution of the Basque language, but it also sheds new light on the Vascones, a late Iron Age tribe that researchers believe gave rise to Basque culture. The Vascones family lived in what is now the Navarre region of Spain.
Archaeologists had previously assumed that the Vascones did not use writing – except for the purpose of creating coins – until the Romans introduced the Latin alphabet. But the 40 characters carved into the Hand of Irulegi say otherwise.
“This piece turns on its head what we thought about the Basques and writing,” says Joaquín Gorrochategui, a philologist at the University of the Basque Country, in a statement from the Aranzadi Science Society, which has been excavating the site since 2017. “We we were almost convinced that the Basques were illiterate in ancient times.”
The maker of the hand used a technique known as stippling, which involves making many small dots to create a shape or image. However, before making the dots, the author first traced the letters with a sharp instrument, a technique known as sgraffito. These methods are “virtually unknown… in all the ancient epigraphy of the Western world,” Javier Velaza, a philologist at the University of Barcelona, said in a statement.
Dora likely survived this long because two warring Roman factions set fire to the ancient settlement during the Sertorian War, which lasted from 80 to 72 BC.