In summer 2021, archaeologists in northern Spain were excited to unearth a flat, hand-shaped artifact made of bronze from a dig site not far from Pamplona.
But only later, when they began the careful restoration process, did the hand’s true significance come to light: After cleaning away the ancient sediment and dirt, researchers discovered lines of text inscribed across the 2,100-year-old object that may help unravel the mysterious origins of the modern-day Basque language, known as Euskara.
Archaeologists first announced the discovery of the artifact—which they nicknamed the Hand of Irulegi—in November 2022. Now, in a peer-reviewed paper published Tuesday in the journal Antiquity, they suggest the language written on the hand predates Euskara and “shares its roots.”
The team identified at least five words on the hand, written with 18 characters, per Live Science’s Tom Metcalfe. The first, sorioneku, closely resembles the Basque word zorioneko, which means “fortunate.”
“The hand would’ve had a ritual function, either to attract good luck or as an offering to an Indigenous god or goddess of fortune,” study co-author Mattin Aiestaran, an archaeologist at the University of the Basque Country in Spain, says in a statement, as reported by Live Science.
In addition, the last word on the hand is eráukon, which the team believes is similar to the Basque verb zeraukon, meaning “to give.”
But not everyone is convinced the words on the hand are related to Euskara. Other linguists who were not involved in the research argue there simply are not enough words on the hand to draw any definitive conclusions, reports New Scientist’s Michael Marshall.
Beyond that, skeptics question the link between the hand’s sorioneku and the Basque word zorioneko. Though Basque words and phrases do evolve over time, they usually follow the same, predictable pattern—and the purported transition from sorioneku to zorioneko does not match up with that typical path.
“We are hoping that more inscriptions will appear,” says Céline Mounole, a linguist at the University of Pau who co-wrote a critique of the team’s initial conclusions about the hand, to New Scientist. “In this case, we would be able to know more about this language and its possible relation with the Basque language.”
A protective amulet
Archaeologists suspect the hand hung above the door of a mud-brick house more than 2,000 years ago, likely as an “amulet of protection,” as Joseph Wilson wrote for the Associated Press in 2022.
The hand’s creator used a technique known as stippling, which involves making many small dots to create a shape or image. Before making the dots, however, the author first traced the letters with a sharp instrument, a technique known as sgraffito. These methods are “practically unknown … in all the ancient epigraphy of the Western world,” Javier Velaza, a philologist at the University of Barcelona, said in a November 2022 statement from the Aranzadi Science Society, which has been excavating the site since 2017.
The hand likely survived so long because two warring Roman groups set fire to the ancient settlement during the Sertorian War, which lasted from 80 to 72 B.C.E. The flames sealed the village’s mud-brick buildings—and, in doing so, preserved artifacts for the ages.
Turning ideas of the Basques ‘upside down’
Beyond the possible connection to the Basque language, archaeologists also believe the hand may shed new light on the Vascones, a late Iron Age tribe that researchers believe gave rise to Basque culture. The Vascones lived in what is now Spain’s Navarra region.
Archaeologists had previously assumed that the Vascones did not use writing—other than for the purpose of creating coins—until the Romans introduced the Latin alphabet. But the characters engraved on the Hand of Irulegi suggest otherwise.
“This piece turns upside down what until now we thought about the Basques and writing,” says Joaquín Gorrochategui, a philologist at the University of the Basque Country, in the 2022 statement. “We were almost convinced that the Basques were illiterate in ancient times.”
The researchers suggest the writing on the Hand of Irulegi is in the Vasconic language, making it the oldest and longest such inscription known to date.
Mysteries of the Basque language
The Basques are a group of people—and their descendants—who lived in northern Spain and southwest France near the Bay of Biscay and the Pyrenees Mountains. This 125-mile-wide region is known as “Basque Country,” or Euskal Herria in Euskara, according to the Basque Museum and Cultural Center in Boise, Idaho.
Many Basques still live in Europe. However, thousands have also emigrated from their homeland to the United States since the late 1800s, creating thriving Basque communities in places like Idaho, California and Nevada.
The Basque language has endured for centuries, despite attempts throughout history to snuff it out. Experts consider Basque a “language isolate,” which means it is unrelated to any other world languages, including those spoken nearby, such as French and Spanish. Today, an estimated 900,000 people still speak it.
“Nobody is able to say where [the language] comes from,” Pello Salaburu, former director of the Basque Language Institute at the University of the Basque Country in Spain, previously told BBC Travel’s Anna Bitong. “There are no clear conclusions.”