Armenologist Artak Movsisyan on Writing Systems in Urartu

Dr. Artak Movsisyan

Dr. Artak Movsisyan

By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

WATERTOWN — Artak Movsisyan is one of a very small number of specialists in the writing systems used in Armenia prior to the acceptance of Christianity. His doctoral thesis (1997) at Yerevan State University (YSU) was written on the hieroglyphic script of the kingdom of Urartu (Bianili). There are even fewer specialists on this topic. Movsisyan visited Boston and other US cities in early 2015, and after giving a lecture for Hamazkayin Armenian Educational and Cultural Society in Watertown, visited the Mirror-Spectator to talk about his work.

Movsisyan has been an associate professor of history at YSU since 1998 and a senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia. He also worked at the State Historical Museum of Armenia from 1991 to 1997. He is the author of many monographs and research articles in Armenian and other languages, including one translated into English as The Writing Culture of Pre-Christian Armenia (2006).

His 1998 volume on Urartian hieroglyphics was the first full book published on this topic, and in fact only several articles have been written on it too previously. This is in part because of the difficulty in collecting source materials, which are dispersed in three different countries. Many inscriptions are in museums and have not been published. Prior to Movsisyan, the Englishman Richard Barnett wrote an article after collecting 30 inscriptions. Movsisyan took this field to a new level, collecting 1,500, many of which were for the first time obtained from museums. He traveled four times to Western Armenia (present-day Turkey) for research. It is still only possible to read about 20 percent of the materials. Of 300 hieroglyphics, only 60 can be interpreted today.

Some of the inscriptions give the names of kings, or serve as captions for images of gods. Others are short texts, or lists. For example, information on the quantity of wine in clay jars might be listed. Most are on stone and clay, or bronze containers and plates, but seals of inscriptions on parchment have also been preserved.

The language in which the inscriptions were written is still being debated. Movsisyan believes that it may be ancient Armenian, with Indo-European meanings and some similarities to (Indo-European) Hittite and Luwian hieroglyphics. He believes that the Armenian language was being used during the ninth to seven centuries BC. While the hieroglyphics were in this language, he finds that a different writing system being simultaneously used in Urartu — Urartian cuneiform – possibly could represent a different language which was not Armenian. Some scholars like Sarkis Ayvazian insist that even this cuneiform is representing a form of Armenian, but the majority of scholars do not accept this (even if some words in Armenian may be used). However, the pronunciation being used for these cuneiform inscriptions is the Assyrian one, and it is not certain whether this is the correct approach, according to Movsisyan. Further research is necessary.

There have been a few instances where the same item was described with both cuneiform and hieroglyphics, and this helped in decipherment. Movsisyan stated that elements of some of the more ancient rock carvings found in Armenia have been used in the hieroglyphics. It is also possible, he believes, that the same hieroglyphic writing was used by pagan priests in Armenia up until the adoption of Christianity and Mashtots’s invention of the Armenian alphabet.

A third writing system was also used by the Urartian initially, Assyro-Babylonian cuneiform. However, only ten such inscriptions have been collected, usually on stelae, with four on bilingual ones. In comparison, there are about 1,350 objects with Urartian cuneiform known at present.

In ancient times, the simultaneous use of a variety of writing systems was not unusual, and many other kingdoms did this.

Movsisyan feels that in the Urartian state, the origins of the ruling dynasty were not important. What is important is which ethnos’s interests was being represented by the rulers and the state—in this case, Movsisyan feels, it is the Armenian one, as he is a subscriber to the view that the origins of the Indo-Europeans lie in Armenia. This theory would mean that the Armenians are an autochthonous people.

When asked about the difficulties of being a scholar in general in present-day Armenia, Movsisyan explained that in general, scholars must have a third job outside of academia in order to make ends meet, which takes away time that could have been used for scholarship. With the majority of the state budget being allocated to the army, because of the tense situation with Azerbaijan, he felt that scholars had to suffer until the future of Armenia was secured. The military in Azerbaijan enjoys an annual budget greater than the entire Armenian state budget.

Some scholars work in private schools and teach to make extra money, or do translations. In general the number of scholars has greatly decreased compared to the Soviet period because of the difficult economic situation.

Movsisyan finds that Armenology is in general weak in reaching out to the masses, who do not read scholarly works. He finds that there is a lack of approachable and easily understandable films and books. For this reason, he has already prepared six documentary films, “Tigran the Great,” “Nemrut: The Great Holy Place of the Sun-King,” “From Rock Carvings to Alphabet,” “Artavazd II,” “The Capital Older than Rome” (Yerevan/Erebuni), and “Falsifiers of History: Azerbaijan.” His last two films were issued in five languages. All were financed by individual Armenian patrons. Movsisyan wrote each script, but different associations actually made the films. He is at present working on a film on Urartu, which will show some battles and other exciting information. In the past, Movsisyan had a television show on Armenian history on the H1 channel called “Our History Classes.”

For the same reason, he participating in writing textbooks in the Republic of Armenia for the ancient period, and also for the Armenians of New Julfa, Iran. As a history professor at YSU, he participated in pan-Armenian educational consultative meetings which take place once every two years in Armenia. Consequently, he planned a textbook for diaspora use with 34 lessons for a 34 week school year for Saturday or one day schools. It was published in Eastern Armenian in 2011, in Western Armenian with classical orthography in 2012, and in Russian in 2013. The Armenian government printed and sent these out for free. Now books will be translated into English, more for middle and high schools (12-18 year olds). He also plans others for younger readers. The diaspora division of the Ministry of Education and Science pays for them.

Many of the children who come to Armenia to participate in the Armenological Olympiad every two years have used his textbooks.