Central Asian Kharosthi script on an ancient knife hilt found in Austria

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Astonishing demonstration of East-West interaction during Roman times (with an equally mind-boggling demonstration of the occasional, yet horrendous [defying common sense], ineptitude of AI translation):

"Geheimnis um Messergriff aus dem römerzeitlichen Wels gelüftet"

Ein vor über 100 Jahren entdeckter Elfenbeingriff mit rätselhafter Inschrift aus dem antiken Ovilava gehörte wohl einst einem Besucher aus dem fernen Asien

"The mystery of the Roman period Wels knife handle revealed"

An ivory handle with a mysterious inscription from ancient Ovilava discovered more than 100 years ago probably once belonged to a visitor from distant Asia

Thomas Bergmayr, Der Standard (7/28/23)

Before presenting the remarkable findings reported in this important article, just a short prefatory note about the AI translation of the title.  Three of the main online multilingual neural machine translation services (Google Translate, Baidu Fanyi, and DeepL) mistranslated "Wels" (the eighth largest city in Austria [ancient Ovilava]) as "catfish" (only Bing Translator got it right).  Given the object that we're dealing with, that is a genuinely bizarre rendering of the word, especially since the material of the handle is identified as ivory and the artifact as coming from Ovilaval in the subtitle.  (It is all the more perplexing that three of the four services are consistent in making the same strange mistake [well, not so strange after all, since "wels" really does mean catfish in German].)  Fortunately, the machine translators do a better job in the body of the article, where there is more context.

For the purposes of the rough translation of the German article, I have relied mainly on GT, with occasional assistance from the other translation services, and some good old human input from my own brain.  Please bear in mind that the translations proffered below do not pretend to be polished, flawless English renderings of parts of the German article, but only to give a functionally useful idea of its content.

N.B.:  Two photographs of the knife handle are provided near the bottom of this post.

The complete English translation of the article:

It was probably the convenient location that prompted Rome to turn the probably former Celtic nest on the left bank of the Traun into a Roman settlement in the second half of the 1st century AD. What was later to become the Upper Austrian Wels was raised to the status of a city barely half a century later under Emperor Hadrian, who reigned from 117 to 138 AD, and its full name was Municipium Aelium Ovilava.

Three traffic routes formed an important junction at this Traun crossing: A road led from here via today's Eferding to the Danube Limes to Passau; the so-called Noric Main Street came from the south and continued to the north, and the third traffic route was the east-west connection along the Danube towards Iuvavum, which is now called Salzburg. It is easy to imagine that the foreign visitor whose possessions were to cause a stir some 2,000 years later came to ancient Ovilava via one of these routes.

Strange characters

In 1918, during excavations in Wels north of today's Salzburger Straße, parts of the original Roman east-west connection and the remains of buildings south of it were uncovered. It may have been a Roman metal workshop, but one cannot be absolutely sure. Among the artefacts uncovered from the 2nd century AD there was also an unusual find: a piece of ivory that turned out to be a knife handle without a blade and eked out an anonymous existence in the depot of the Wels-Minoriten City Museum for decades. It was not until the 1990s that the current curator of the Stadtmuseum, Renate Miglbauer, rediscovered the good piece. She had it restored and it ended up in the museum's permanent archaeological exhibition.

What is special about the handle is an incised portrait on the back and characters, of which only one thing could initially be said with certainty: they are not Roman or Greek letters. The origin of the knife handle therefore remained a mystery, even if certain hypotheses were already circulating. The city archaeologist at the time, Ferdinand Wiesinger, guessed the oriental-Egyptian region as the place of origin. Other experts, on the other hand, believed in a Middle Persian origin and a connection with the Mithraic cult.

An Indologist solves the riddle

But what the archaeologist and ancient historian Stefan Pfahl from the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, together with a colleague, was able to find out about the knife handle goes far beyond these earlier assumptions, and not just geographically. "After a few dead ends, I was able to narrow down the potential linguistic area from which the knife inscription came so far that I was finally able to find the right specialist to solve this puzzle," the scientist told STANDARD.

The man's name is Harry Falk, he is an Indologist emeritus at the Freie Universität Berlin and a specialist in ancient Indian languages. Falk actually managed to identify the scratched character string as the ancient Indian script Kharosthi – and he was able to translate it: the inscription shows that the knife was once an honorary gift for a man named Tadara. Literally it says: "Honour-giving gift for Mr. Tadara". Who presented the knife to Tadara remains unclear, but the face carved into the end of the handle could well represent the honoree himself, Pfahl said.

Local dialect from the Taklamakan

 According to the scientists, these findings, which will be published in the "Archaeological Correspondence Journal" in the next few weeks, have very exciting, if not sensational, consequences: Based on the special variant of Kharosthi, a local dialect called Khar, Falk locates the origin of the knife and its owner with high probability in Niya, an important trading center on the southern branch of the Silk Road.

The city in the western part of the Taklamakan Desert is long gone, having been destroyed by severe drought and lack of water in the first centuries AD. Their remains are now on the territory of the People's Republic of China in the autonomous region of Xinjiang.

A unique artifact

 This makes the knife handle a unique find, because no other known object from this Central Asian region made it this far west in the early Roman Empire. The previous record holder was a sword carrying handle from the Taklamakan desert, which was found in a Thracian chief's tomb in Čatalka in Bulgaria.

"The fact that Rome maintained trade relations with distant Asia is by no means new," said Pfahl. "This is suggested by the numerous Roman gold and silver coins found in India." However, these goods, such as silk, only rarely survived the centuries in Europe.

Visit from far away Asia?

Pfahl believes that the knife from the Taklamakan was not likely to have been traded. Because the gift inscription on the handle only makes sense in the geographical area where it was read and the language understood. It is therefore more likely that Tadara, who is immortalized both by name and probably figuratively, brought the knife to Roman Ovilava himself as his personal possession.

The background of this massive, around 6,000-kilometer journey along the Silk Road is left to the imagination. Perhaps Tadara wasn't the only visitor from the Far East who found his way to ancient Wels thanks to the favorable location of this Roman city. (Thomas Bergmayr, July 28, 2023)


Foto: Stadt Wels
Der Elfenbeingriff eines Messers wurde vor 105 Jahren auf dem Gebiet der römerzeitlichen Stadt Ovilava entdeckt. Eingeritzte Zeichen stellten die Forschenden lange Zeit vor ein Rätsel.
The ivory handle of a knife was discovered 105 years ago on the territory of the Roman city of Ovilava. Carved characters puzzled researchers for a long time.

Foto: Stadt Wels
Auf der Rückseite des Griffes wurde das Porträt eines Mannes eingeritzt. Nachdem es sich bei dem Messer um ein Ehrengeschenk handelte, könnte das Bild durchaus den einstigen Besitzer zeigen.
A man's portrait is carved on the back of the handle. Since the knife was an honorary gift, the picture could well show the former owner.


Aside from my Austrian heritage, there are many reasons why I [VHM] personally am so deeply interested in and moved by this fascinating discovery.  Harry Falk, the Berlin scholar who deciphered the inscription, ia a friend.  Hiroshi Kumamoto, a specialist on Khotanese, who told me about it, was one of the first Ph.D. candidates on whose committee I served when I arrived at Penn.   Petya Andreeva is a more recent student whose dissertation focused on Scythian art — from Bulgaria (her homeland) to China (not to mention that she is part Chinese) — during the same period as the knife handle in question, and note that Bulgaria is named in the Standard as the location of the previous record holder for a Central Asian artifact in Europe.  Finally, because I have been to Niya, the probable origin of  the Wels knife hilt, several times, I have an affinity for the place.  One of the deepest impressions left on me was when I stumbled upon the remains of a nail factory far out in the desert where the town used to be.  Another was encountering denizens of the modern town of Niya to the south of the archeological remains who looked like they could have come from Kansas.

Selected readings

Addition (9/21/23):

The Kharosthi inscription on a knife hilt in ivory. Final Report.
Now the academic article is available for download.
Die westlichste Kharoṣṭhī-Inschrift – ein Elfenbeingriff aus Wels, by Harry Falk, Renate Miglbauer, Stefan F. Pfahl

[Thanks to Hiroshi Kumamoto]


  1. ~flow said,

    August 1, 2023 @ 3:37 am

    A quick test with the following slightly augmented headline:

    "Wels ist eine Stadt in Österreich. Geheimnis um Messergriff aus dem römerzeitlichen Wels gelüftet."

    in Google translate still yields

    "Wels is a town in Austria. Mystery of the knife handle from Roman catfish revealed."

    I have the feeling that ChatGPT & al have become able to deal with such contexts (and Bing Chat got it right in multiple languages without the added context).

  2. David Marjanović said,

    August 1, 2023 @ 5:54 am

    "The mystery of the Roman period Wels knife handle revealed"

    An interesting noun pile (or noun train wreck) that does not correspond to a compound in the original.

    "Mystery surrounding knife handle from Roman-age Wels solved"

  3. Victor Mair said,

    August 1, 2023 @ 7:32 am

    @David Marjanović

    I did that rather impishly, just to see if anyone would catch it.

  4. Blair said,

    August 1, 2023 @ 3:57 pm

    Just an FYI, for translating from other languages into English, Chat-GPT does a remarkable and often better job than any of the web translation services. I learned this recently when researching what on-the-spot translation service to use for an upcoming foreign trip.

    I have tried the prompt strategy recommended for translations (Please read X. Please re-write X in English as if…) on the initial headline and provide the prompt and output for your consideration below:

    Read the following text, a news article headline and news article summary : "Geheimnis um Messergriff aus dem römerzeitlichen Wels gelüftet"
    Ein vor über 100 Jahren entdeckter Elfenbeingriff mit rätselhafter Inschrift aus dem antiken Ovilava gehörte wohl einst einem Besucher aus dem fernen Asien

    Please re-write this text in English as if you were writing a news article headline and one or two sentence news article summary.

    Headline: "Mystery Unveiled: Ancient Roman Eelbone Handle's Secret Deciphered"

    Summary: An enigmatic inscription on an eelbone handle, discovered over a century ago in the ancient Ovilava, is believed to have once belonged to a visitor from distant Asia.

    As I don’t speak German, I am unsure if Chat-GPT failed on the ‘eelbone handle’ part; does the original language specify it is a knife handle? Could anyone guess where ‘eelbone’ came from?

  5. Olga said,

    August 1, 2023 @ 6:29 pm

    German speaker here. The eelbone stumps me. Messergriff is knife handle. I suspect that eelbone is a translation of Elfenbein (ivory, lit. Sth like elf bone? Fairy bone?). I'm not cryptozoologist, but IMHO it's a long way from elves to eels.

    And quantitatively speaking, catfish is much more likely than the place name Wels.

  6. Blair said,

    August 1, 2023 @ 7:09 pm


    I believe that you are correct about the translation ‘eelbone’ coming from Elfenbein

    Additional text chats:

    What is the word in German in the original text that you re-wrote as eelbone?

    I have never seen the word eelbone before. What are some other words in English that you would use to re-write the German word elfenbeingriff?

    I have never seen the word eelbone before. What are some other words in English that you would use to re-write the German word elfenbeingriff?

    I apologize for the confusion. The German word "Elfenbeingriff" refers to an "ivory handle." Other words in English that could be used to re-write it include "ivory hilt" or simply "ivory handle."

  7. Blair said,

    August 1, 2023 @ 7:10 pm

    Sorry, the first Chat-GPT response above got miscopied
    The word in German that I re-wrote as "eelbone" is "Elfenbeingriff."

  8. Victor Mair said,

    August 1, 2023 @ 8:15 pm

    Wels (Silurus glanis) are a kind of catfish. They are also called sheatfish.

    "With an elongated body-shape, wels are able to swim backwards like eels."

    The English common name comes from Wels, the common name of the species in German language. Wels is a variation of Old High German wal, from Proto-Germanic *hwalaz – the same source as for whale – from Proto-Indo-European *(s)kʷálos ('sheatfish').




    Regardless of the zoological definition of the Wels fish, Elfenbein means "ivory", as I pointed out in the o.p.

    As for ChatGPT versus web-based translation services, the latter are much easier to use, not requiring repeated hints and prompts, and overall remarkably accurate.

  9. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    August 2, 2023 @ 6:01 am


    Not Elf "elf" but Elefant.

    Kluge's Etymologisches Wörterbuch der Deutschen Sprache, 22. Aufl. by Elmar Seebold (1989) has:

    Middle High German helfenbein, Old High German helfantbein, helphan(t)bein. OHG helfant, helphan(t) means, like Greek eléphās m., both "elephant" and "ivory". The compounding with Bein "bone" is therefore, just like OE elpenbān, merely a clarification. The form without h- since Luther.

    mhd. helfenbein, ahd. helfantbein, helphan(t)bein. Ahd. helfan(t), helpfant bedeutet wie gr. eléphās m. sowohl "Elefant" wie auch "Elfenbein". Die Komposition mit Bein ist also, wie ae. elpenbān, lediglich eine Verdeutlichung. Die Form ohne h- seit Luther.

    Earlier editions e.g. 20. Aufl. by Walther Mitzka (1967), list more forms from other Germanic languages.

  10. Coby said,

    August 2, 2023 @ 10:37 am

    It's interesting that the word Bein for 'bone' still has that meaning in Yiddish, while in modern German it has morphed to mean 'leg'; 'bone' is Knochen.

  11. Sean M said,

    August 2, 2023 @ 10:06 pm

    An English term similar to Elfenbein would be whalebone which is baleen, a keratinous substance like fingernails, not literally bone (obviously there are also things made from the bones of whales, but "whalebone = baleen" was very common back in whaling times).

  12. Victor Mair said,

    August 3, 2023 @ 5:08 am

    From Lore Sander:

    Has somebody compared the so-called "portrait" with other "portraits" or better heads from Hadrian´s times? May be that coins can give an answer. The hair-do is very special. However, there are many more questions than answers, such as the finding place. Is it correct that it was found in a Roman metal workshop? Was it handed over to repair it? In which layer was it found? May be that I better ask the Museum´s people.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    August 3, 2023 @ 5:14 am



  14. Andreas Johansson said,

    August 3, 2023 @ 7:27 am


    In Swedish, ben is both "bone" and "leg". While context normally clarifies which is meant, it caused me some confusion as a child.

  15. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    August 3, 2023 @ 8:20 am

    Archaic (and dialectal — in the South?) meaning of Bein "bone" survives in the second-half of compounds. In addition to a number of anatomical terms for human (and animal) bones, Mitzka's edition gives Fischbein "whale-bone" , Falzbein (a tool in book-binding) and Eisbein. This last seems to be unrelated (according to Mitzka) to "ice", but goes back, via Latin loan-word, to Greek ἰσχία "hip-joints".

  16. Chris Button said,

    August 3, 2023 @ 10:35 am

    Greek eléphās m., both "elephant" and "ivory".

    I suspect that connection also holds for 象 and 牙 in Chinese (regardless of external connections beyond Chinese).

  17. Sean M said,

    August 3, 2023 @ 11:03 am

    The Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt, where the details will be published, seems to have become Open Access as of 2023 https://journals.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/index.php/ak/index

  18. Monscampus said,

    August 3, 2023 @ 5:51 pm

    @Coby, @Andreas

    Nothing has morphed. Like in Swedish, Bein still means leg as well as bone. Some compounds were mentioned above, there are also Nasenbein, Schulterbein, Steißbein, Beinhaus etc. or Gebeine for bones of the dead. Moreover Knochenarbeit for very hard work or Beinarbeit of soccer players.


  19. Monscampus said,

    August 3, 2023 @ 5:58 pm


    Eisbein is supposed to be a German staple dish (I beg to differ). In former times people who could not afford to buy skates used to carve them from the bones of this meat, hence the name Eis-Bein.

  20. David Marjanović said,

    August 9, 2023 @ 6:34 am

    It's interesting that the word Bein for 'bone' still has that meaning in Yiddish, while in modern German it has morphed to mean 'leg'; 'bone' is Knochen.

    The meaning "bone" remains in various dialects; the same dialects (and others) lack a word for "leg", as distinct from "foot", altogether. Bein also remains in compounds as mentioned above, including anatomical names.

    Eisbein is supposed to be a German staple dish (I beg to differ).

    Apparently it was in the mid-20th century.

    In former times people who could not afford to buy skates used to carve them from the bones of this meat, hence the name Eis-Bein.

    Sounds unlikely.

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