Earliest inscriptions from the Mongolian steppe

Dieter Maue, Mehmet Ölmez, Étienne de La Vaissière, Alexander Vovin

Earliest inscriptions from the Mongolian steppe

(60th Meeting of the PIAC, Székesfehérvár 2017)


General abstract for the panel

  • M. Ölmez: “On the discovery, the whereabouts, condition of the stones, and our expedition”
  • D. Maue: “The steppe Brāhmī – decipherment and peculiarities.”
  • A. Vovin: “The language of the Khüis tolgoi inscription.”
  • E. de la Vaissière: “Niri Kagan and the historical background of the Khüis tolgoi inscription.”

In 1975 two inscribed steles were discovered during an archaeological expedition under the direction of D. Novan near Khüis tolgoi, in the Arkhangay aimag of Mongolia. The identification of the script as Brāhmī raised the interest of the epigraphist Dieter MAUE as early of the 1980’s. Basing himself on new photographs, D. MAUE could provide a full transcription in 2012. But it was only in the summer of 2014 that an international team of scholars could be gathered under the lead of Dieter MAUE, with a historian, Étienne de LA VAISSIÈRE, two historical linguists, Mehmet ÖLMEZ and Alexander VOVIN, accompanied by two technical specialists in 3D photography from Germany, to visit and document these steles, now in the collection of the National Institute of Archaeology in Ulaanbaatar and also the well-known but not deciphered Brāhmī part of the Bugut inscription, presently standing in the middle of the courtyard of the provincial museum of Arkhangay Aimag Provincial Museum in Tsetserleg.

Neither of the inscriptions represents an easy ride to its decipherment. But with improved results based on the reading facilitated by the 3D photography, we trust that we are now in position to make a next step as compared with our predecessors who claimed that both inscriptions are either completely unreadable, or represent a completely unknown language, or could even potentially be in Sanskrit.

There are advantages and disadvantages in each of the two cases. Bugut is a bilingual inscription, but it is far cry from a Rosetta stone. Three sides are covered by the text in Sogdian which is more or less well preserved, and has been studied by Livshitz and Yoshida. The forth side is in the unknown language, and it is badly eroded. As a result, all beginnings and ends of lines are irretrievably lost, and only very few words and a number of single signs are still visible in the middle, but enough to disprove the hypothesis of a Sanskrit sūtra.

Khüis tolgoi, in contrast, is a monolingual inscription. It consists of two stones. One is found to the right of the entrance to the National Institute of Archaeology. We currently believe that it is the first stone of the inscription, but the script is badly defaced due to the long exposure to the elements. For practical reasons it was impossible to take 3D pictures. Therefore, we had to concentrate on the second stone that is stored in the basement of the institute.

The time frame for both inscriptions is close: they date back to the first Turkic Khanate, therefore although much smaller, they definitely predate Orkhon inscriptions of the second Turkic khanate. If the Bugut inscription is well-dated to 581-2, thanks to the Sogdian part, it seems that the Khüis tolgoi might have been written shortly afterwards: Niri qaghan (†603-4) is mentioned twice in it, so that this might be an inscription from the short-lived Tiele qaghanate, which defeated Niri qaghan, or the slightly later Xueyantuo qaghanate. It should not be an inscription by the Ashinas Turkic qaghans as these qaghans made use of Sogdian in their inscriptions.

The major question that led us to Mongolia was the identity of the language of these two inscriptions. It was immediately clear that it was not Chinese, Old Turkic, any form of Iranian, Tocharian, or Tibetan. This left us with three possible options: Mongolian (or more exactly some form of para-Mongolic), Ruan-ruan, and something completely unknown. Although the last possibility cannot be completely ruled out, it is highly unlikely, because the early usage of writing in nomadic and semi-nomadic empires of Inner Asia in most cases demonstrates the usage of the language of the preceding power on the steppe in spite of the fact that that power was defeated if not completely destroyed by the newcomers. The most obvious and spectacular cases attested by textual usage and not solely by loanwords are that: a) the earliest Jurchen inscription (Langjun) is in Khitan, and b) Manchus using Mongol as a written language before finally revising Mongol alphabet to adopt to writing Manchu. This leaves us with two options: the non-Sogdian language of the Bugut inscription and the language of the Khüis tolgoi inscription (there are strong grounds to believe that both are inscribed in the same language): Ruan-ruan and para-Mongolic.

We come to a preliminary and very cautious conclusion that the language in question is some form of Tabɣač, which is otherwise only poorly known in the Chinese transcription. But the Tabɣač data strongly suggest that it was a form of para-Mongolic much closer related to Mongolic than, e. g., Khitan. Our conclusion is predominantly based on some very idiosyncratic Mongolic morphology, like the genitive –u after –n stems, as well as on some specific Mongolic morphology, like converb in –ju, and, in addition, on few possibly common lexical items, although so far these appear to be far and between, like Khüis tolgoi törö- ‘to be born’, cf. MM törü- ‘id.’

In our PIAC communication we present our linguistic analysis and philological interpretation of the Khüis tolgoi inscription, because the proper analysis of the non-Sogdian part of the Bugut inscription is better postponed until the detailed linguistic analysis of the Sogdian part is completed.