The Hittites were perhaps the world’s first historians. On numerous clay tablets recovered largely over the last century by archaeologists, they wrote down what we today recognize as history, rather than merely relating myths or the acts of the gods.a Much of what we know about the Hittites, therefore, comes from the pen (or stylus) of the Hittites themselves.

The earliest excavations on the site of Hattusa were conducted by the German archaeologist Hugo Winckler in the first decade of the 20th century. They brought to light thousands of tablets, often fragmentary, from Hattusa’s palace and temple archives. A total of eight languages are represented in the tablets, all inscribed in the cuneiform script developed in Mesopotamia around 3000 B.C.

Many of the tablets found at Hattusa are written in Akkadian, a Semitic language used by the Babylonians and Assyrians. During the Late Bronze Age, Akkadian also functioned as the international language of diplomacy; many of these tablets are thus correspondence between Hittite kings and their vassal states in Syria or foreign kingdoms (such tablets have also been found, for example, at Tell el-Amarna, Egypt, site of the pharaoh Akhenaten’s capital).

Most of the tablets, however, are written in a language that was unknown to Hattusa’s first excavators. This language turned out to be Hittite, the language of the Hittites themselves (though they called it Nesite). The Hittite language was deciphered during the First World War by a Czech scholar named BedrŠich Hrozny´, who concluded (correctly) that it was a member of the Indo-European family of languages and thus related to Sanskrit, Greek and Latin.

The tablets vary widely in content: historical annals, treaties and diplomatic correspondence, collections of laws and prayers, ritual texts, lists of festivals, literary and mythological texts, and lists of towns with ties to the Hittite empire, such as the 13th-century B.C. tablet shown. In 1986, an intact bronze tablet—the first metal tablet from the Hittite world—was discovered near Hattusa’s Sphinx Gate. This tablet is inscribed with the text of a treaty between the Hittite king Tudhaliya IV (1237–1209 B.C.) and his cousin Kurunta, ruler of the Hittite appanage kingdom of Tarhuntassa.

On seals and in monumental rock-cut inscriptions, the Hittites used a hieroglyphic script written in the Luwian language. Luwian is an Indo-European language closely related to Hittite. The only writing found so far in Late Bronze Age Troy, for example, is a bronze seal inscribed with Luwian hieroglyphics.b

Hittite archives have also come to light in outlying parts of the Hittite empire (at Emar on the Euphrates River in modern Syria, for instance) and at administrative centers in and near the Hittite homeland. Archaeologists recently found over 3,000 tablets at the site of ancient Sapinuwa (modern Ortaköy), northeast of Hattusa. Although these tablets have not yet been published, provincial archives from other sites have taught us much about the day-to-day administration of the kingdom’s provinces and the lives of local officials. —T.B.