Unknown Language #12

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From Aman ur Rahman:



Aman remarks:

In my collection I have had this clay impression [pictures of front and back above] of some script. The tablet, about 4 inches x 3 inches, was reportedly found in the Mazar-i-Sharif area of Northern Afghanistan along with several Huna seals a decade or two back. I have always been intrigued by the script and the language in which it is written, which to date remain a mystery to me and my few known scholar friends .

I would be more than happy if a scholar who is able to identify and translate the inscription wants to publish it and would even be willing to donate it as an exhibit in their University museum.

For context:

Hunas or Huna (Middle Brahmi script: Gupta ashoka huu.jpgGupta allahabad nnaa.jpg Hūṇā) was the name given by the ancient Indians to a group of Central Asian tribes who, via the Khyber Pass, entered India at the end of the 5th or early 6th century. Huna Kingdom occupied areas as far as Eran and Kausambi, greatly weakening the Gupta Empire. The Hunas were ultimately defeated by the Indian Gupta Empire and the Indian king Yasodharman.



Judith A. Lerner and Nicholas Sims-Williams.  With contributions by Aman ur Rahman and Harry Falk.  Seals, Sealings and Tokens from Bactria to Ghandhara (4th to 8th Century CE).  Vienna:  Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2011.  ISBN: 978-3-7001-6873-3

Aman ur Rahman & Harry Falk.  Seals, Sealings and Tokens from Gandhāra.  Wiesbaden:  Reichert Verlag, 2011.  ISBN: 978-3-89500-819-1

Klaus Vondrovec.  Coinage of the Iranian Huns and Their Successors from Bactria to Gandhara (4th to 8th Century CE).  Vienna:  Kunst Historisches Museum.  2 volumes.  Vienna:  Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2014.  ISBN: 978-3-7001-7695-4


  1. martin schwartz said,

    July 18, 2020 @ 10:09 pm

    At least some of the letters look like Pahlavi.
    I'm forwarding the post to two colleaues who are better
    epigraphers than I.

  2. martin schwartz said,

    July 18, 2020 @ 10:11 pm

    make that "colleagues".

  3. Rose Eneri said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 8:43 am

    I have a question about transliterating "AL" in Arabic. This post mentions a person, Aman ur Rahman and a place, Mazar-i-Sharif. I assume in both instances the middle letters represent a transliteration of AL.

    I understand that the pronunciation of the L in AL changes to the first letter of the following word if that word begins with a "sun" letter, but why the variation in the transliteration of the A? Why is there no standardization?

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 9:38 am

    I know nothing of the language involved, but I am intrigued by the visual ambiguity. When first viewed, the glyphs appeared to me to have been impressed into the surface, cuneiform-style. Then I decided to zoom in, and at some point the previously concave writing suddenly became clearly convex, as if it had been written by carefully pouring (e.g.,) liquid mud to form the letters. Now my mind cannot decide which it is. My brain tells me it must be convex, yet a part of me refuses to accept that.

  5. Rodger C said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 9:53 am

    The "i" in "Mazar-i-Sharif" is Persian; Middle Persian "ig."

  6. CuConnacht said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 9:54 am

    Rose Eneri:

    The i in the middle of Mazar-i-Sherif is not the Arabic article. I don't know Persian or any related languages, but my understanding is that the i (sometimes transliterated e) is suffixed to a noun that is followed by an adjective. Mazar (shrine) and sherif (noble) are both Arabic loanwords; in Arabic the place would be called al mazar ush sharif.

    The vowel in the Arabic article is a if the article begins a phrase; otherwise it is the vowel that ends the word preceding, so it will depend on the case of that word if it is a noun or an adjective. Abd ur Rahman has a u in the article if the name (meaning servant of The Merciful = God) is in the nominative; otherwise it could be i or a.

  7. Rodger C said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 9:55 am

    As for Aman ur Rahman, the "u" reflects the nominative case of the previous word: Amanu-r-Rahman.

  8. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 10:27 am

    Philip: It's clearly convex. Zooming in reveals double shadows, one of which is the unlit side of the raised letterform, and the other the shadow it casts on the flat surface.

    Since the light is coming from below, it seems possible the image we're seeing is upside down. Inverting it would have the tails of the letterforms bending to the right, which somehow makes more sense to me (but maybe that's just cultural bias on my part).

  9. Victor Mair said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 10:43 am

    From Shawkat Toorawa:

    In mazar-i-sharif, which is Persian, the "i" represents the ezafe, or possessive: it means "the tomb of the noble [prince]", it does not represent the definite article "al".

    The "al" is tricky because of (1) the preceding vowel, (2) elision, (3) whether the letter assimilates.

    In Aman-ur-Rahman, the "ur" does represent "al", because (1) the preceding vowel is a "u", (2) the "a" is elided, and (3) the following letter, an "r", assimilates to the "l". If transliteration is strict and attempts to represent the letters, not the grammar or the pronunciation, you get: Aman al-Rahman.

    There is standardization, but several versions. In LAL, we would transliterate that: Aman al-Rahman or Amanu l-Rahman…

  10. Victor Mair said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 10:51 am

    It's an impression.

    Are my eyes deceiving me?

    No matter how many times I look at it, and magnified to whatever degree, it is concave.

  11. Carol said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 11:18 am

    Rotate the image 180 degrees and it appears convex.

  12. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 11:25 am

    If I work at it, I can convince myself that it's an impression, though if that's the case it seems that at least two different tools were used to make it, one narrow and blade-like, and the other broad and wedge-shaped.

    There's a well-known illusion when viewing satellite photos of Lunar or Martian terrain in which the relief appears inverted when the sunlight comes from an unusual angle. Rotating the image often helps to snap your perception of it back to the correct relief.

  13. ~flow said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 11:38 am

    We can be sure about the direction of the lighting by looking at the edges of the piece which are clearly recessing (it is definitely not a concave dish), so the lighter parts of the script are sticking out from rather than being impressed into or carved out of the material. At least that's what it looks like to me; when I stare at a small part of the photograph I still prefer seeing it as being carved out, maybe just because that's a so much more common technique.

    If this was produced to serve as a stamp for clay, then the picture has to be mirrored, which I did; if the script runs in columns instead of horizontal lines, it should be rotated, which I also did. To no avail, but some of the forms look very Mongolian or Manchurian when rotated, so maybe there's something.

  14. ~flow said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 11:40 am

    PS. vaguely similar: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a9/Inner_Mongolia_Museum_stele_of_Yisungge.jpg

  15. Judith A. Lerner said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 12:08 pm

    I assume that Aman has shown it to Nicholas Sims-Williams and to Harry Falk. If they can't identify it, then….?

    And yes, the lighting and orientation are odd, which adds to the ambiguity (and mystery?). Aman is a superb photographer–the photographs of the seals and impressions in our volume are his work–so he would know how to orient and to light the inscription. This makes it all the more odd to me.

  16. ~flow said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 12:41 pm

    BTW it's a known phenomenon in graphics design that by default you should be placing your lights and shadows such that they look right under the assumption that the light is coming from the top left corner of the picture; if you do that, than most people will see bumps and grooves they way they were intended to be. Light coming from the bottom is a fairly unusual setting, think 'campfire, ghost stories, face light from below by flash light'. Why it should be the top left, not the top right corner though escapes me. FWIW the picture shown has light coming from bottom right, so maybe it was inadvertently turned around for some reason? Or maybe it's just taken with the object lying flat on a table; in that case, a photographer would maybe rather have the light coming from the back, not the front.

  17. DMcCunney said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 5:42 pm

    I'm fascinated. I have no idea what the script is.

    If I view the image as is, it looks like it was inscribed in the clay, like cuneiform. If I download the image, bring it into an image viewer, and flip it vertically, the letters suddenly become clearly convex.

    The question that occurs to me, if the letters are convex, is how the tablet was produced. The only method that occurs to me is that this is a copy. The original had the script inscribed in a harder material. The tablet was produced by pressing soft clay into the inscribed original, to produce the raised lettering, then firing the clay.

    If that's what whoever made this did, it's a manner of making copies of a master document for distribution, and there may be other similar tablets made from the same master.

    The late Harold Innis, Professor of Political Economy at the University of Toronto, did a paper called Empire and Communications. He talked about how the medium used to record documents affected the ability of political entities to administer the areas they controlled. He talked about media that solved for time and those that solved for space. Things like stone tablets and cuneiform solved for time. They were highly permanent. But they were also not very portable or easily reproduced. Media like papyrus and paper solved for space. They weren't permanent, but were easier to reproduce, and were portable, making it easier for empires that used them to administer larger areas. (You can find Innis's paper at Project Gutenberg Canada: https://www.gutenberg.ca/ebooks/innis-empire/innis-empire-00-h.html)

    If this is what I think it is, it's a novel compromise between solving for time and solving for space. The clay tablets will be far more portable that the original, and more easily reproduced.

    If someone can ask Aman whether those are raised letters on his sample, it would be a boon.


  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 6:37 pm

    ~flow: BTW it's a known phenomenon in graphics design that by default you should be placing your lights and shadows such that they look right under the assumption that the light is coming from the top left corner of the picture; if you do that, than most people will see bumps and grooves they way they were intended to be. Light coming from the bottom is a fairly unusual setting, think 'campfire, ghost stories, face light from below by flash light'. Why it should be the top left, not the top right corner though escapes me.

    This has nothing to do with the script the viewers are used to reading—whether it's read left to right and top to bottom.

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 6:38 pm

    Oops, that last statement was supposed to be a question.

    This has nothing to do with the script the viewers are used to reading—whether it's read left to right and top to bottom?

  20. Aman Rahman said,

    July 20, 2020 @ 2:49 am

    Rose Eneri/Rodgers/CuConnacht/Shawkat Toorawa – while admitting to be totally ignorant in matters linguist, in the case of my name, the ‘ur’ is perhaps a transliteration of ‘ar’ – thus Aman ar-Rahman maybe the correct form. Bless the British Raj for that and many other spellings and pronunciations e.g. Abdullah for Abd Allah Abdul Rahman for Abd ar-Rahman etc. Mazar-i-Sharif and many others are also a local sub-continental thing.

    George Kusnick/Philip Taylor – you are correct, it is convex. Which can also be judged from the back side of the tablet where the palm print of a young person, possibly a female, is very distinctly seen, indicating that the clay was pressed into an inscription that was engraved in reverse, possibly on stone, much as on coin dies and metal, stone and gem seals for stamping document sealing/clay tokens. Since the maximum pressure exerted on the clay being pressed on the ‘die’ is towards the middle of the palm and the bottom of the thumb, the impression is not totally uniform and is also marginally convex. This ‘hand pressing’ has also caused some of the unevenness in the depth and width of some words giving an impression of use of different sized/shaped engraving tools. It certainly served as a stamp for clay.

    The impression was photographed by me. I rested it on a flat surface on my macro photographing stand where I do my coin/seal photography. I could have probably done a better job.

    DMcCunney – yes, the letters are raised.

    Judith – I did show it to Nick and Harry. Unfortunately they could not make anything of it.

  21. Rodger C said,

    July 20, 2020 @ 8:33 am

    I do notice that spellings with "ul" and "ur" tend to come from South Asia, but for reasons given, there's nothing incorrect about them.

  22. martin schwartz said,

    July 20, 2020 @ 12:57 pm

    Dieter Weber, the foremost expert on Pahlavi script, write us that
    the script is "definitely Pahlavi" (as Nicholas Sims-Williams and I had thought), "BUT UNFORTUNATELY THE IMAGE IS REVERSED IN THE BLOG".
    Martin Schwartz

  23. M Lin said,

    July 20, 2020 @ 2:28 pm

    It's possible that it's reversed because it's an reverse impression. It looks like something that might be created when pressing clay into a carving, which would create a mirror image. It would also explain why the writing is convex.

  24. M Lin said,

    July 20, 2020 @ 2:29 pm

    And I forgot of course that the OP says explicitly that it's an impression, so being reversed does make sense.

  25. Aman Rahman said,

    July 21, 2020 @ 1:14 am

    Martin Schwartz – the image can be flipped in photoshop. If Dr. Dieter Weber can share his email with me, I can send him a flipped image and even some additional ones under varying light conditions and close ups. I can be contacted at otto1@eim.ae

  26. Victor Mair said,

    July 21, 2020 @ 4:27 am


    Please flip the image in photoshop and send the flipped image to me. I'll post it here so that everyone can see it.


  27. Philip Taylor said,

    July 21, 2020 @ 8:13 am

    Flipped (horizontal) in Photoshop and sent via e-mail. Also available here. Other transformations can be applied on request.

  28. Victor Mair said,

    July 21, 2020 @ 8:22 am


    Request for flipped image cancelled since Philip Taylor has already made it available in the previous comment and offers other transformations upon request.

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