KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Archaeologists said on Tuesday they had discovered three ancient statues in Sudan with inscriptions that could bring them closer to deciphering one of Africa's oldest languages.
The stone rams, representing the god Amun, were carved during the Meroe empire, a period of kingly rule that lasted from about 300 BC to AD 450 and left hundreds of remains along the River Nile north of Khartoum.
Vincent Rondot, director of the dig carried out by the French Section of Sudan's Directorate of Antiquities, said each statue displayed an inscription written in Meroitic script, the oldest written language in sub-Saharan Africa.
"It is one of the last antique languages that we still don't understand ... we can read it. We have no problem pronouncing the letters. But we can't understand it, apart from a few long words and the names of people," he told reporters in Khartoum.
Sudan has more pyramids than neighboring Egypt, but few people visit its remote sites, and repeated internal conflicts have made excavation difficult.
Rondot said the dig at el-Hassa, the site of a Meroitic town, had uncovered the first complete version of a royal dedication, previously found only on fragments of carvings from the same period.
He said experts were still trying to work out the meaning of the words by comparing them with broken remnants of similar royal dedications in the same script.
"It's an important discovery ... quite an achievement," Rondot said.
The statues were found three weeks ago under a sand dune at the site of a temple to the god Amun, an all-powerful deity represented by the ram in Sudan.
The site is close to Sudan's Meroe pyramids, a cluster of more than 50 granite tombs 200 kms (120 miles) north of the capital that are one of the main attractions for Sudan's few tourists.
Rondot said the dig, funded by the French foreign ministry, would also provide vital information on the reign of a little-known king, Amanakhareqerem, mentioned in the inscriptions on the rams.
"Before we started the dig we only had four documents in his name ... We don't even know where he was buried," he said. "We are beginning to understand the importance of that king."
Editing by Katie Nguyen and Tim Pearce