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World’s Oldest Smiley Face May Decorate a Hittite Jug

Researchers did not notice the cheery, 3,700-year-old expression until they restored the ceramic

(Turco-Italian Archaeological Expedition at Karkemish)
smithsonian.com

The Hittites, a culture that ruled much of present-day Turkey and Syria during Biblical times, might be best known for waging war on the Israelites and Egyptians and for their skill handling war chariots. When it comes to the day-to-day life of Hittites, though, archaeologists know comparatively little. But a newly restored jug shows that they weren’t just grim-faced warriors. The 3,700-year-old piece of ceramic has what is believed to be a smiley face painted on it, reports Amanda Borschel-Dan at The Times of Israel.

Archaeologists have been excavating the Hittite city of Karkemish along the border of Turkey and Syria for seven years now, unearthing all types of artifacts and ceramics. According to ​Zuhal Uzundere Kocalar​ at Turkey's state-run news service, the Anadolu Agency, the researchers did not notice the smiley face until restorers put the fragments of the round, off-white jug with a small handle and short neck back together.

“We have found a variety of [vessels] and urns. The most interesting of them is a pot dating back to 1700 BC that features an image of a 'smile' on it,” Nicolo Marchetti, an archaeology professor at the University of Bologna in Italy, tells Kocalar. “The pot was used for drinking sherbet [sweet drink]. Most probably, [this depicts] the oldest smile of the world.”

Surprisingly, in our own emoji-besotted culture, there’s been something of an academic competition to find the world’s oldest ancestor of the smiley face emoji. Back in February, Lauren Young at Smithsonian.com reported that a smiley-face "emoji" was found in Slovakia, placed by the signature of lawyer in 1635. There were also reports that poet Robert Herrick made his own colon parenthesis scribble in 1648, though that idea was ultimately debunked.

Most people would recognize the three marks on the Hittite jug as a smiley face, though Marchetti is not forcing the interpretation. “The smiling face is undoubtedly there. There are no other traces of painting on the flask. It has no parallels in ancient ceramic art of the area,” he tells Laura Geggel at LiveScience. “As for the interpretation, you may certainly choose your own.”

The dig at Karkemish will come to an end soon, and Borschel-Dan reports that there are plans to turn the area into an archaeological park complete with cafes and rest areas. The smiley-faced jug will be housed at a local museum for now and transferred to the new park when it is complete.

“Tourists will find the opportunity to visit the remnants of the ancient palace and temple, an old excavation house, a street paved with Roman columns, several statues and walls decorated with eagle-headed gryphon reliefs,” Marchetti says.

No word yet on whether the cafes will serve up sherbet in smiley-face cups.

Editor's note, August 10, 2017: This story has been updated to reflect that Nicolo Marchetti is an archaeology professor at the University of Bologna and not Bologno. We regret the error.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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