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Ugarit Inscriptions

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East What is This? Provides comprehensive coverage of the history and scope of archaeology in the Near East.

Ugarit Inscriptions

Inscriptions in nine languages and/or writing systems have been found at the site of Ras Shamra, ancient Ugarit. The inscriptions are in Ugaritic, Akkadian, Sumerian, Hurrian, Egyptian, hieroglyphic Hittite, Hittite, Cypro-Minoan, and Phoenician. With the exception of some of the Egyptian inscriptions and the one in Phoenician, most date to the last two centuries of primary occupation at the site (c. 1400–1186 BCE). In addition to these writings from the site's floruit, a number of coins, dating from Alexander to the present, have been found there or in the area (Ugaritica, vol. 7, Paris, 1978, pp. 181–185).

Of these languages/scripts the largest corpora belong to Akkadian and Ugaritic. Because the site was abandoned at the end of the Late Bronze Age, with only relatively ephemeral occupations thereafter, one would not expect to find Phoenician inscriptions. Indeed, only one is known, associated with a later occupation, perhaps imported from elsewhere (TEO 414 [TEO = Bordreuil and Pardee, 1989; see bibliography]). Six objects inscribed with “Cypro-Minoan” characters, in an essentially undeciphered script, were found at the site and a seventh is from the area (TEO 418). A single tablet bears an entirely Hittite inscription; another is a trilingual—a Sumerian literary text with Akkadian and Hittite versions; and a third is a bilingual wisdom text in Akkadian and Hittite (TEO 422; Laroche, 1968, pp. 769–784). Hieroglyphic Hittite, which is a different language from classical Hittite, is attested by some seven seal inscriptions, including one that is bilingual with Akkadian (TEO 418, 422). Approximately one hundred Egyptian inscriptions are mentioned in the excavation inventories (TEO 418). Those discovered in the early years received a good deal of publicity, but a comprehensive collection has never been published. They are mostly short dedicatory texts or inscribed scarabs; several consist of only a cartouche.

Hurrian inscriptions were apparently quite numerous at the site, although only fragments remain of many of them (Laroche, 1968, pp. 447–544). Peculiar to Hurrian is that both syllabic writing and the Ugaritic alphabetic system were used to represent it (TEO 418, 422). Equally unusual is the mixing of Hurrian and Ugaritic in ritual texts (TEO 418), a very different phenomenon from polyglot vocabularies or bilinguals, where one text is the more or less literal translation of the other. Although Sumerian was clearly part of the curriculum of a Levantine scribe in the Late Bronze Age, most of this erudition appears at Ugarit in conjunction with another language, either as the source text of a bilingual—the target language normally being Akkadian—or as one column in multilanguage vocabularies (some monolingual—i.e., Sumerian-only vocabularies exist). The Mesopotamian lexicographic tradition was well known at Ugarit (van Soldt, 1991, 747–753), where a major contribution to the genre was made—namely, the four-language vocabulary list, with columns for Sumerian, Akkadian, Hurrian, and Ugaritic words, all written in syllabic script (Huehnergard, 1987).

The two major languages in everyday use at Ugarit in the Late Bronze Age were the local language, known to modern scholars as Ugaritic, and Akkadian, the international lingua franca of the time. Hundreds of tablets and fragments inscribed in one or the other of these two languages exist. Occasionally, both languages appear on the same text, although this usage is largely limited to Ugaritic administrative texts, where a total may be expressed in syllabic script. This entry will focus on the fact that the form of the Akkadian language in use at Ugarit was peripheral (compared with its attestation in Mesopotamia) and on the distribution of texts written in Akkadian as compared with Ugaritic. [For fuller general treatments of the two languages, see Akkadian; Ugaritic.]

Two principal studies have been done in recent years of the Akkadian as written at Ugarit (Huehnergard 1989; van Soldt 1991). These must be used in conjunction with studies of texts in peripheral Akkadian originating from the same general time and area (Alalakh, Tell el-Amarna, and Emar; cf. Mari earlier, and, even earlier, the similar, though linguistically different, situation at Ebla). To date, only the el-Amarna texts have been the object of publications of the same quality as those on Ugarit Akkadian.

The dialectic features of Akkadian can be organized under two main headings, orthography and grammar. The first has to do with the Sumero-Akkadian syllabic writing, wherein the signs are polyvalent, permitting multiple writings of a given syllable. Local usages developed that can be described and quantified. Grammatical features, on the other hand, may reflect either outside origins and subsequent influences—for example, a Babylonian origin with Assyrian influences—or the effect of the local language on the lingua franca. The last influence is of particular interest, for it can reveal features of the substrate language that the alphabetic writing system does not reveal.

In general, the Akkadian texts from Ugarit are not so severely marked by the local language as is the case with many of the Amarna texts. [See Amarna Texts.] Were it not for the polyglot vocabularies, we would have relatively few Ugaritic words attested as glosses in Akkadian texts. Moreover, with the exception of a few lexical usages, the non-normative Akkadian features are for the most part attested in the other western peripheral corpora (Huehnergard, 1989, pp. 283–284).

The use of Ugaritic or Akkadian was decided, broadly speaking, by the intended reader/audience and by the function of the document. Thus, most international correspondence would be in Akkadian, whereas letters between Ugaritians would be in Ugaritic. Nearly one hundred documents are attested in Ugaritic, twice the number in Akkadian, providing a unique opportunity to compare the epistolary genre couched in a local language and in a lingua franca. It is true, of course, that a greater proportion of the Akkadian letters will represent usages of other areas because the tablets would have been sent to Ugarit from abroad (many of the texts edited by Jean Nougayrol in Palais Royal d'Ugarit, vol. 4, Paris, 1956, represent international correspondence). The question is open as to whether documents representing international correspondence in Ugaritic are translations or originals (whether the document actually carried to Ugarit was inscribed with one language or the other) and whether a scribe capable of writing Ugaritic would have been, for example, in the Hittite or Tyrian court. All that can be said for certain is that, to date, no doublets have been found—that is, an Akkadian original and a corresponding Ugaritic translation.

Akkadian was preferred for legal texts, not only for those of an international character, such as treaties or tribute lists, but also for those establishing a legally binding situation or marking a change of ownership between parties at Ugarit. Fewer than ten legal texts written in Ugaritic are known to exist, only a fraction of the total existing in Akkadian (much of Palais Royal d'Ugarit, vol. 3, published by Nougayrol in 1955, was devoted to land transfers in Akkadian). Most of these legal situations involved the king, either as a party to international agreements or as the highest legal authority at Ugarit—land transfers are usually expressed, fictitiously or not, as having been effected by the king himself (“on this day, King so-and-so has taken the property of Party1 and given it to Party2”).

Administrative documents are primarily in Ugaritic, but not exclusively so: nearly nine hundred such documents are known in Ugaritic (including fragments whose classification is not absolutely certain), about a hundred in Akkadian (many of the texts edited by Charles Virolleaud, [vols. 2 and 5] 1957 and 1965, respectively, are administrative texts in Ugaritic, while many of the texts edited by Nougayrol, vol. 6, 1970, are administrative and in Akkadian). The reason for the choice of one language over the other is usually not clear, in no small part because of the laconicity characterizing the genre in both languages. Many of the administrative documents are simple lists, of personal or place names, organized according to various criteria (e.g., personal names organized by occupation or place of origin). Frequently, each name on the list is followed by a number, indicating receipt or donation by this person or place of a certain commodity. The purpose of the document would usually, although not always, have been indicated in the heading of the text itself; unfortunately, the heading is often damaged or missing entirely, with the result that the entities designated by the numbers may be unknown or uncertain.

The distribution of religious and literary texts stands in contrast with the genres previously mentioned by being much more clearly demarcated: all texts reflecting local practice and belief are in Ugaritic; Akkadian is used only for literary texts of Mesopotamian origin (Nougayrol, 1968, pp. 265–319). Thus, the eighty-odd texts of a ritual, divinatory, or incantatory nature are all in Ugaritic, as are the mythological texts dealing with West Semitic deities and heros. Among the Ugaritic texts are several—such as those dealing with misformed births—that might be expected to have a Mesopotamian origin. No immediate source has been found for any of these, however, and the purity of the Ugaritic language, with virtually no trace of translational elements, argues for a long history of the genre in the local language.

The one area where local religious concerns overlap with Mesopotamian erudition is in that of identification of the divinities occurring in the two areas. Two kinds of texts exist in which local deities are identified with divinities known to Mesopotamian religious science. One is the polyglot vocabulary lists, written in syllabic script, where divine names are included alongside common nouns (Nougayrol, 1968, 246–249). The other is the so-called pantheon texts, which consist of simple lists of divine names. Two different such lists are known, each attested in more than one exemplar: they are monolingual, in Ugaritic or syllabic script, arranged in identical order in each language/writing system. One of these lists is attested twice in Ugaritic (RS [Ras Shamra] 1.017, 24.264) and once in syllabic script (RS 20.024). The other list is found in two exemplars but only in syllabic script (RS 26.142, 1992.2004). The ritual character of the lists is proven by an Ugaritic text containing, among other things, two lists of sacrifices to deities arranged in the same order as that of the two “pantheons.” Though the ritual function of the two lists is clear, and though their importance is proven by the multiple exemplars in different writing systems, the meaning of the groupings and of the associated rituals remains unclear.

[See also Mesopotamia, article on Ancient Mesopotamia; Ugarit.]


  • Arnaud, D., et al. “Ras Shamra.” In Dictionnaire de la Bible, supp. 9, cols. 1124–1466. Paris, 1979.
    See s.v. “Ugaritic.”
  • Bordreuil, Pierre, and Dennis Pardee. La trouvaille épigraphique de l'Ougarit [TEO], vol. 1, Concordance. Ras Shamra-Ougarit, 5. Paris, 1989.
    See s.v. “Ugaritic.” References to this publication in the present entry are to lists of texts of the type being described; consultation of the primary entry for each text number will provide essential data, including editio princeps
  • Huehnergard, John. Ugaritic Vocabulary in Syllabic Transcription. Harvard Semitic Studies, no. 32. Atlanta, 1987.
  • Huehnergard, John. The Akkadian of Ugarit. Harvard Semitic Studies, no. 34. Atlanta, 1989.
  • Laroche, Emmanuel. “Documents et langue hourrite provenant de Ras Shamra.” In Ugaritica, edited by Claude F.-A. Schaeffer, vol. 5, pp. 447–544. Mission de Ras Shamra, vol. 16. Paris, 1968.
  • Laroche, Emmanuel. “Textes de Ras Shamra en langue hittite.” In Ugaritica, edited by Claude F.-A. Schaeffer, vol. 5, pp. 447–544. Mission de Ras Shamra, vol. 16. Paris, 1968.
  • Nougayrol, Jean. “Textes suméro-accadiens des archives et bibliothèques privées d'Ugarit.” In Ugaritica, edited by Claude F.-A. Schaeffer, vol. 5, pp. 1–446. Mission de Ras Shamra, vol. 16. Paris, 1968.
  • Pardee, Dennis. Les textes rituels. Forthcoming.
    Full study of the ritual texts from Ugarit, including the pantheons and the primary ritual text related there unto (RS 24.643)
  • Soldt, W. H. van. Studies in the Akkadian of Ugarit: Dating and Grammar. Alter Orient und Altes Testament, vol. 40. Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1991.
  • Virolleaud, Charles. Le palais royal d'Ugarit. Vols. 2, 5, 6. edited by Claude F.-A. Schaeffer. Paris, 1957–1970.

Dennis Pardee

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