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The decipherment of some recently found ostraca from Post-Roman North Africa

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  • UserDr Sabine Ziegler, Saxonian Academy of Sciences at Leipzig / Friedrich-Schiller-University of Jena
  • ClockWednesday 30 April 2014, 17:15-19:00
  • HouseFaculty of English, Room GR-06/07.

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During excavations of a Roman fort at the limes Tripolitanus near the village Gheriat el-Garbia (roughly 300 km to the south of Tripolis) in the years 2009/2010 a team of Munich archaeologists unearthed 8 ostraca written in Latin current script, but not (mainly, see below) in Latin or Greek or any other hitherto well-known language, dating from the first half of the 5th century AD. This is likely because of the associated finds in the excavated stratum. The ostraca are written in scriptio continua (except for some lists) and show a few peculiar letters or letter forms not known to Latin script in this area. Each ostracon is written in a characteristic ductus so that we can distinguish 8 scribes. One of these ostraca is long enough (roughly 160 characters) to take it as a starting point for deciphering. While working on these ostraca I tried to find a method by which as a first step it could be possible to work out the word boundaries. The second step was to identify words or functional elements (the so-called synsemantika). This method is mainly based on principles of linguistic typology and information or discourse structure of texts. By applying this method I could identify the language of the ostraca as a new variety of late Punic which I call “South Punic”. Two of the ostraca show a mixture of Latin and South Punic words looking like short vocabulary exercises. The hitherto known Punic language varieties are attested only fragmentarily and mainly in funeral or monumental inscriptions in the Phoenician consonant script or (after the Roman conquest of Carthago in 146 BC) in Latin script. The discovery and decipherment of these few ostraca adds a contribution to our knowledge of this badly documented area which should not be underestimated. They show that 1. Latin scribal tradition was still vivid in Post-Roman times, 2. a regional scribal tradition had developed in this area, 3. both Latin and South Punic were spoken, and 4. they exhibit a new variety of Punic vernacular different from the fragmentary funeral and monumental inscriptions from Carthago and the neighbouring regions which increases our knowledge of late Punic. Literature: M. Mackensen, “New fieldwork at the Severan fort of Myd(-)/ Gheriat el-Garbia on the limes Tripolitanus”, Libyan Studies 43, 2012, 41-60. M. Mackensen/S. Ziegler (forthc.), “Die spätantike Besiedlung in Gheriat el-Garbia und die Entzifferung der südpunischen Ostraka” (working title), Mitt. DAI Rom 119, 2013.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Endangered Languages and Cultures Group series.

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