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An Israeli researcher claims that he has cracked an alleged code supposedly used by metalworkers over 6,000 years ago when they produced the treasure of Nahal Mishmar, arguing that it could be the earliest form of writing ever found.
Ben Gurion University Department of Bible studies, Archeology and the Ancient Near East researcher Nissim Amzallag has written a paper about his analysis of the objects, which were found in 1961 on the slopes of Nahal Mishmar near the Dead Sea.
There are over 400 objects in the treasure trove made by a people dubbed the Ghassulians. The objects are primarily made of copper mixed with various other metals. Included are 240 mace heads, about 100 scepters, 5 crowns, powder horns, tools and weapons. Some objects feature depictions of animals and shapes, which Amzallag insists is a secret code.
According to Haaretz:
Amzallag, who focuses on the cultural origins of ancient metallurgy, theorizes that these representations form a rudimentary three-dimensional code, in which each image symbolizes a word or phrase and communicates a certain concept.
In other terms, the Nahal Mishmar hoard should be seen as a precursor to the early writing systems that would emerge centuries later in Egypt and Mesopotamia, Amzallag says.
The same logic was at work in the code of Nahal Mishmar, Amzallag says. For example, one of the most recurring decorative motifs in the artifacts is that of a two-headed or four-headed horned animal, possibly a juvenile ibex.
While there is no particular connection between ibexes and metallurgy, the West Semitic word used for young ungulates does sound very similar to the designation of “dust” and “ore” (in Hebrew ‘ofer is a young deer and afar is dust).
It is therefore possible that the young ibexes were a phonogram for the mineral ore that made up these very artifacts, and the fused bodies of the animals represented the need to mix two or more ores to create the alloys used in the Nahal Mishmar hoard, Amzallag suggests.
And then there are the spherical symbols and objects, which are prominent features of the Nahal Mishar treasure. Amzallag posits that just about every time a spherical glob of metal is individually made or created as part of an object, it’s meant to represent the sun.
“The sun, for example, looks very much like a sphere of molten metal, so they would have felt that they understood what the sun is, and they could make a small sun of their own,” he said. “They thought they understood what the universe is made of, and would have felt like gods themselves.”
Indeed, metallurgy is an art form that requires great skill, especially those who perform the work entirely by hand. Perhaps the workers felt like they were part of an elite club and purposefully left messages behind on their work, perhaps as a signature.
“It is a mysterious occupation whose secrets you don’t learn easily – it requires initiation and several rites of passage, and having a visual code is part of that,” Amzallag says. “They didn’t aim to create writing – they aimed to understand and represent what they were doing.”
It’s certainly a fascinating theory, but there are holes in it.
Kinneret College and Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Dina Shalem points out that there’s no way to know what language the Ghassulians spoke and Amzallag is basing his theory on an assumption that they spoke a Semitic language.
“We don’t know enough to say what language they spoke,” she said. “The burial customs, the architecture are completely different. Some things do display some continuity, but it’s hard to tell whether this applies to the language.”
Shalem also expressed doubt that any of the metalworkers would have traveled to far off lands to share the secret with other metalworkers.
“When you look at the trade and import of raw materials, such as metals coming from Turkey, things would move from hand to hand, from one trader to another,” she says. “It wasn’t a single person who traveled to Anatolia to procure the goods, and certainly it was not the metalworkers themselves who did the traveling.”
But they were certainly capable of traveling to other places if they really wanted to do so. Just as we don’t know what language they spoke, Shalem can’t really know for sure that they did not travel to spread their secret code.
One of Amzallag’s colleagues, Ben-Gurion University emeritus professor of Semitic languages Daniel Sivan, thinks the research is worthy of publication.
“He makes some very bold, controversial claims, but there is something to this theory that the origins of writing are connected to metallurgy,” Sivan said. “It’s a new and interesting concept and it deserved to be published.”
We will likely never really know if the Ghassulian metalworkers had a secret code they incorporated into the objects they made, but it’s definitely something to consider. If anything, the theory brings renewed interest in the treasure of Nahal Mishar and the history behind it, even if they never had a code at all.
See more about the stunning and unique Nahal Mishmar treasure below from UFOmania:
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