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'The Huns had their own alphabet Tamga,' says professor

Posted May. 04, 2017 07:17,   

Updated May. 04, 2017 07:32

It has long been a tradition for agricultural people to differentiate them from nomadic people by the use of their own alphabets. For example, the ancient Chinese regarded nomadic empires as barbaric tribes for not having a sophisticated alphabet-based communication system and depending only on verbal understandings even for administrative orders. However, new archaeological findings about nomadic empires, such as the Huns, have suggested that nomadic peoples at least had a simple alphabet system.

Kang In-uk, professor of archaeology at Kyung Hee University, has suggested that the Huns had their own alphabet in his recent paper titled “The Alphabet of the Huns and Development of Eurasian Nomads.” Kang’s interesting hypothesis is receiving fresh attention as it goes against the conventional belief that the Huns did not have a written alphabet.

According to Kang’s research, letter-engraved lacquerware was discovered at a tomb of the Huns in Noin-Ula, 100 kilometers away from Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. The lacquerware, imported from China, had inscriptions of the Chinese character and Tamga of the Huns on its bottom. Tamga is unique symbols used by nomadic peoples, who used these symbols as stamp or seal to identify their livestock belonging to a specific owner. In addition, similar Tamga inscriptions were found on a die discovered at the Huns’ tomb in Gol Mod, Mongolia. “Tamga symbols are being discovered in sites where the Huns expanded and conquered,” Kang explained. “These symbols are in the shape of a rising sun and seem to represent the king.”

At the same time, it has been suggested that the use of alphabets for administrative affairs might have slowed the mobility and a fast-decision making process of nomadic peoples, which are thought to be the biggest advantage of nomadic cultures. For example, the Han, which had expanded along the Silk Road, provided ample labor and spent much time for record-keeping and storage. The Han had to move many wooden tablets whenever they relocated their strategic posts across a wide desert area.

Instead, the Huns, which governed nomadic peoples wandering wide regions, chose to adopt simple and quick verbal communication to make instructions. In other words, nomadic peoples used alphabets only for ritual ceremony or expression‎ of a social class. Tamga inscriptions on grave goods are case in a point. “The Huns abandoned an alphabet-based administrative organizational structure and system and was able to expand rapidly across the grassland and build its empire,” Kang said.

Sang-Un Kim sukim@donga.com