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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Rare Celtic and Phoenician names add credibility to the Iruña-Veleia findings

Some years ago a locally important discovery hit the news: the oldest texts (other than patronymics) in Basque language had been found at the Roman Age site of
Iruña-Veleia, Araba, at the historical border between the tribes of Caristii and Autrigones. There was more: a calvarium (one of the earliest of its kind) and even Egyptian hieroglyphs but what seemed more important of all was the finding of disposed ostrakas (pottery fragments used to write short texts) with texts in Basque language, a confirmation, it seemed, that the Basque language had been spoken among the ill-known tribes of the Western Basque Country in Roman times.

This issue had always been controversial, as the evidence was virtually nil, and the Spanish nationalist school prefered to consider them Celts, while the Basque nationalist school thought of them as likely Basques. Similar debates existed and still exist around the identity of the ancient Cantabri who fought against Caesar twice, once allied with "their relatives" the confirmed Basque-speakers Aquitani.

Location of Iruña-Veleia in Roman Age tribal context and modern Basque Country

The discovery was soon contested by philologists who argued that such constructions were "too modern" for Basque language. Of course, nothing is known of how was Basque spoken before at least the 11th century, when the first rare texts appear, because all the evidence is patronymic and toponymic but linguists always have some theories and these findings didn't seem to fit in them well enough.

Furthermore the chief archaeologist, Eliseo Gil, seems to have done many unusual things, never publishing a proper paper, admittedly falsifying one ostraka as a joke and maybe some other odd stuff. I am not really sure of the details because the issue is very complex, full of crossed accusations and confusing information. Gil was sued for scam and acquitted, though he may have some other trials pending and his reputation has probably been irreversibly damaged.

But, as I say, the matter is far from clear and multiple articles have appeared in the press and Internet defending either position. My impression is that the archaeologists were rather informal and suddenly they found themselves thrown into an inquisitorial process of multiple dimensions (academic, judicial and mediatic) that was just too much. But I may be wrong.

Whatever the case a new neutral voice from the field of linguistics (key in the academic discussion, as the main "evidence" against the findings is a linguistic criticism) has now arisen in favor of the veracity of the findings: Héctor Iglesias, from the University of Bordeaux, argued at Tribuna de Álava (in Spanish, found via En el ángulo oscuro), that there are some clear indications that the findings cannot be mere falsifications:

  • The inscription DENOS can only be for him a Celtic name, known just to a handful of specialists.
  • The inscription MISCAR or MISCART can only be the name of the Phoenician version of the god Mercury/Hermes, better known to laymen as Melkart, but known with this ortography again only to very few experts.
  • The inscription RIAMO DALIA DEIDRE can only refer to the also Celtic name Deirdre, still in use in Irish and considered plausible by expert Celticists to have existed in antiquity.

He argues that these, only a few examples from his thick study on the matter (still unpublished because of huge political pressure), are evidence that there is no such falsification: it would be almost impossible that falsifcator would know all that.

If so, we would be confronted with a true academic scandal of huge proportions and multiple political ramifications, not anymore because certain archaeologist has (allegedly) created the Basque "Piltdown man" out of nothing, destroying his own career in the attempt, but because the Academy and other powerful institutions including surely politicians and judges, may have caused huge damage to scientific research (and of course to the implicated scientists) for political and other murky reasons. This would not be new at all when it comes to research associated to ethnic minorities that the states want to neutralize but I have never heard before any such brutal scandal in Basque studies, what makes necessary that the issue is openly debated as it must be: in scientific terms and publically.

Note: lots of documentation on the Iruña-Veleia controversy can be found here (in Spanish).

Update: the paper of Héctor Iglesias is in fact published in French and Heraus has been so kind of providing a link: H. Iglesias LES INSCRIPTIONS DE VELEIA-IRUÑA (PDF).

Important update (Dec 30): you can sign a petition (already with almost 2000 signatures) asking the authorities to do things properly to clarify the matter. The petition is available in Basque, Spanish and English languages.


Heraus said...

Iglesias, a French-Galician linguist has indeed proved that Gorrochategui's claims were highly dubious and just based on the fact that he did not want to see new hypotheses emerging, even though he did it with much honesty. Iglesias' conclusions are that those alleged forgeries would be too clever to be false.

Here's a link to his article (in French but you might grasp some bits) :

Maju said...

Whoa! Thanks a lot for mentioning it, Heraus. I just fear it will take me a lot of effort to read it with my limited French knowledge. It is more than 200 pages!

However, even if I cannot read it properly, I will add the link to the post and will also provide the link in the comments section of the blog where I found the news (hopefully others will be able to read French better than I can).

Anyhow, just for the record, your link brings to the index page (accueil), but I had no trouble finding it (and another article of Iglesias that appears to defend that some Iberian inscriptions are readable in Basque).

Somehow all this issue beats me (too much confusion and most strange issues) but I'm sure that in due time it will be clarified. I'm highly inclined to believe in the truth of the findings and truly evil intentions in those who are discrediting it... but I lack the means to discern properly.

Thanks again.

Kepler said...

They are always fascinating, those articles about language and history.
Thanks for them and keep posting more like those!

Maju said...

Just to mention that I forgot about the SOS Veleia petition that I have added now to this post as update and that has already gathered almost 2000 signatures, largely from academics.