2,100-Year-Old Bronze Hand Found In Spain Is Inscribed With A Mysterious Ancient Language

Published February 29, 2024
Updated March 1, 2024

Researchers say the bronze hand features the earliest written example of Vasconic, a mysterious ancient European language group that may be related to modern Basque.

Bronze Hand Amulet

Aiestaran, M. et. al/Antiquity Publications Researchers examine the bronze amulet, which bears mysterious Vasconic inscriptions.

In 2021, researchers were excavating an ancient settlement in Spain’s Navarre region when they discovered a bronze amulet shaped like a hand. Now, they believe it bears the oldest known inscription written in a Vasconic language.

Vasconic, an ancient language group spoken primarily by the pre-Roman Vascones people near the Pyrenees mountains, has long been a mystery for linguists. Examples of the language group are scarce — only a few inscriptions on ancient coins and altar stones have ever been found.

Researchers are hopeful that the bronze amulet’s inscription will shed more light on life in pre-Roman societies in this region and their connection to the modern-day Basque language.

How The Amulet Was Discovered

Researchers discovered the bronze amulet in Irulegi, an Iron-Age settlement in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains.

“Its long sequence of occupation and excellent state of preservation make it one of the most significant fortified settlements in the western Pyrenees,” researchers wrote in their study of the bronze amulet, now published in Antiquity.

Despite the region’s historical significance, the study’s authors say it has received little archaeological attention over the years. Researchers planned the 2021 excavation to better understand the lives of people living at the settlement during the Iron Age.

“In particular, beyond insights from the Roman-period literature, very little is understood about the language, writing, identity, and beliefs of these pre-Roman Vasconic communities,” they explained in the study.

Researchers struck gold when they uncovered the “Hand of Irulegi” amulet, which bears an inscription that they believe represents the oldest example of Vasconic ever found. What’s more, detailed analysis of this inscription suggests that it is likely related to the modern-day Basque language.

Bronze Hand

Aiestaran, M. et. al/Antiquity Publications The bronze amulet measures about 5.5 inches long and 5 inches wide.

A Potential Purpose Of The Hand of Irulegi

The first word on the bronze amulet, written in Latin script, is “sorioneku” — similar to the Basque word “zorioneko,” which means “good fortune.” Because of this similarity, researchers hypothesize that the two words hold similar meaning and that ancient Vascones may have hung this amulet at the entrance of a building for good luck.

“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,” Mattin Aiestaran, an archaeologist at the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao and the study’s lead author, told Live Science.

Researchers also noted that a hole at the base of the hand appears to be where it would have been nailed to the wall. Based on that hole’s position, they believe the amulet was made to be displayed with its five fingers pointing downward.

So far, researchers have only deciphered the first word of the inscription, but they have identified at least five words written using 18 characters. The use of the Latin script also demonstrates the presence of Romans in the region at the time of the hand’s creation.

Basque And The Lost Language Of The Vascones

Excavation Team

Aiestaran, M. et. al/Antiquity Publications The excavation team digging up the bronze amulet in 2021.

Most modern European languages stem from the Indo-European family of languages. These include Slavic languages like Russian and Ukrainian, as well as Germanic, Celtic, and Latin languages.

Linguists consider the Basque language a “language isolate,” meaning it has no direct connection to any modern-day language. In fact, it is the last of the “Paleo-European” languages, a group of languages that pre-date those of the Indo-European family.

For years, linguists have speculated on the origin of Basque, but no hypothesis has been proven true, making this recent discovery all the more exciting.

According to researchers, the inscription on the bronze amulet may provide a link between ancient Vasconic languages and modern-day Basque.

“We really have learnt something new,” linguist Peter Trudgill, a former professor at Switzerland’s University of Fribourg, told Live Science. “We know so little about Vasconic languages and peoples that this is genuinely a very valuable contribution.”

“The discovery of the Hand of Irulegi has opened a new horizon to unravel the history behind the most enigmatic language still alive in Europe: the Basque language,” said Mikel Edeso Egia, a representative of the Aranzadi Science Society which coordinated the research team, according to Newsweek. “Unearthing this exceptional object has brought significant advances in the archaeological and linguistic worlds. But it has also opened up many new questions.”

After reading about the discovery of the bronze hand, dive into the story of the Rosetta Stone and how its uncovering led to the decoding of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Then, explore the nine greatest archaeological finds of 2023.

Amber Breese
Amber Breese is an Editorial Fellow for All That's Interesting. She graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in political science, history, and Russian. Previously, she worked as a content creator for America House Kyiv, a Ukrainian organization focused on inspiring and engaging youth through cultural exchanges.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.