The History of the Hittite Writing System

Scholars have always been daunted by the Hittite writing system, since Hittite texts were written in seven different languages, including three Indo-European ones (Matthews, p.454); Hittite, Luwian, Palaic, Hattian, Hurrian, Akkadian and Sumerian. These last four were mainly used for writing, with the hieroglyphs mainly reserved for high-status seals and rock-cut inscriptions. For the purposes of this article, I will discuss the origins and history of the Hittite hieroglyphs. 

The deciphering of the Hittite hieroglyphs, like that of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, needed the equivalent of the Rosetta Stone in order to understand this mysterious language. Until the work of Archibald Henry Sayce (1845 – 1933), this language was lost in time.

The equivalent of the Rosetta Stone was found in 1876, when Sayce studied a small silver plate from the collection of a certain M. Alexandre Jovanoff. “This object bore in intaglio the design of a human figure, certain strange signs and a cuneiform inscription” (Barnett, p.56).Sayce recognised five Hittite hieroglyphs whilst being surrounded by a line of cuneiform. The cuneiform text read “Tarriktimme, Lord of the land of Er-me-e” (Barnett, p.56). Here was the key to deciphering the Hittite hieroglyphs. Here was the Hittite Rosetta Stone.

The Karatepe inscriptions, dating from the 8th century BCE, are written in both Phoenician and Hittite hieroglyphic. These, too, are key in understanding the language. According to one scholar, “the corresponding Hittite hieroglyph depicts a stag or some other antlered animal” (Barre, p.466) and this shows the relationship between the stag hieroglyph and the protective deity of Resep (or Lamma in cuneiform).

After Sayce’s decipherment, other scholars began to take an interest in the hieroglyphs, including the Assyrologist Carl Frank and the Italian lecturer Piero Meriggi. Meriggi grouped and analysed the signs and noticed several things; including the fact that ideograms normally consisted of but one sign, yet at times they consisted of a pair, treated as a single compound (Barnett, p.69). The most important discovery Meriggi found was the word for ‘son’. This hieroglyph was quite common in Hittite inscriptions, but other scholars had dismissed it as a group for a title.

It was due to these three men that the studies of the Hittite hieroglyphs were examined, deciphered and understood.


Barnett, R. D. (1953) Karatepe, the Key to the Hittite Hieroglyphs, Anatolian Studies, British Institute at Ankara.

Barre, M. L. (1978) dLAMMA and Resep at Ugarit: The Hittite Connection, Journal of the American Oriental Society, American Oriental Society.

Matthews, Rodger (2005) The Human Past – The Rise of Civilization in Southwest Asia, Thames & Hudson, London.