GRAKLIANI, Georgia—Sophia Paatashvili, a third-year graduate student in archaeology 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 archaeology 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 important in the history of the development of writing.
“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.
No Longer A Backwater
These few letters in stone upend traditional historical narratives about the native population of the region the Greeks and Romans called Iberia (not to be confused with the modern-day Iberian Peninsula), which bordered the Georgian coast of the Black Sea.
Archaeologists have long known that literate civilizations were present there as long ago as the fourth millennium B.C.—excavations throughout Georgia have unearthed coins, beads, and pottery from Assyria, Greece, and Persia.
Until now, though, no trace of Iberian literacy from as long ago as the Iron Age, which in the Caucasus lasted from about the late second millennium B.C. to the fifth century B.C., has been found. (The earliest known Georgian and Armenian scripts date from the fifth century A.D., shortly after these cultures converted to Christianity.)
Ancient Iberia, Licheli says, has been seen by Georgian and international archaeologists as a backwater, unworthy of study on its own terms, especially during the middle years of the first millennium B.C., when foreign conquerors (notably the Greeks and Persians) made their mark.
A Wealth of Objects
Licheli’s initial excavations surfaced a wealth of objects: children’s toys made of carved stone, imitation Persian pottery, and a fifth-century B.C. stone temple that blended ancient Persian Zoroastrian altar architecture with ram sculptures representing Caucasian folk gods.
To Licheli, these finds suggested that Iron Age Iberians were an advanced and complex culture, in close contact with the “highly developed” societies of the age—not only Greece and Persia but also Mesopotamia and Egypt. “We even found a Egyptian scarab beetle here,” he says, showing off the carving.
But one question kept nagging at him: How could the Iberians have such cultural richness—but no written language? It didn’t make sense.
Licheli wasn’t the first to suspect that the Iberians had writing long before the fifth century A.D. Medieval Georgian chronicles from the 11th century refer to an ancient Georgian script. In the early 1900s the Georgian historian Ivane Javakhashvili—excavating the Iron Age Armaziskhevi site just outside Tbilisi— put heart and soul into a vain attempt to prove its existence.
Another question that intrigues Licheli is why three letters carved on one corner of a stone altar in the temple, also newly discovered, seem to bear no relation to the letter on the stone slab.
“Maybe there were two languages in one temple,” he conjectures—two ethnically related Iberian groups, each with its own script, living side by side. “This is very unusual, not just for Georgians but in the whole world.”
Although Grakliani itself was first identified as a site of potential importance during the 1950s, excavations proper didn’t start till 2007.
“During the Soviet era, we were very closed,” Licheli says. There was little opportunity to work with other scholars or to keep up with international methodological and technological developments.
And during the chaotic early days after Georgia’s independence, in 1991, it was even worse. There was no academy to train new archaeologists, and the few existing ones were overextended, unable to investigate the country’s wealth of ancient sites.
Even today, Licheli says, there’s a “generation gap”—Soviet-trained archaeologists in their sixties and a new young generation of eager archaeologists-in-training but no one in between.
But Licheli places his hope in the new generation—as does the nationalist Georgian government.
Two years ago then Minister for Education Giorgi Margvelashvili, now the country’s president, made governmental stipends available for students studying Georgian archaeology.
These days, for the first time, Licheli says he has “more than enough” students to do the work on his agenda. Plus, he adds, “the government has doubled our research budget.”
Meanwhile, a new paved pathway is being built from the highway to the Grakliani site to make it more accessible to curious visitors.
The script offers the confirmation Licheli has long sought that Georgia should be considered among the world’s “highest developed societies. For Georgians,” he says, “cultural knowledge is very important. Now at last they’re able to ascribe that knowledge to their ancestors.”
With a bigger budget, governmental support, and a wider platform for their research, Licheli reasons that more inscriptions will come to light.
“Somewhere,” he grins, “we can find another.”