The Tărtăria tablets (Romanian pronunciation: [tərtəˈri.a]) are three tablets, reportedly discovered in 1961 at a Neolithic site in the village of Tărtăria (about 30 km (19 mi) from Alba Iulia), in Romania.
The dating of the tablets is difficult as they cannot be carbon-dated and the stratigraphy is uncertain. A few scientists suppose that they may date to around 5300 BC.
The tablets bear incised symbols and have been the subject of considerable controversy among archaeologists, some of whom claimed in the past that the symbols represent the earliest known form of writing in the world. The symbols are thought to be Vinča symbols, although some scholars have considered them to be Sumerian. The signs are Sumerian proto-cuneiform-like, so quasi-Sumerian.
Two of the tablets are rectangular and the third is round. They are all small, the round one being only 6 cm (2 1⁄2 in) across, and two—the round one and one rectangular tablet—have holes drilled through them.
The "V"-shaped sign is missing in Figure 1 (upper left quadrant). (A. Záhonyi, 2019)[dubious ]
All three have symbols inscribed only on one face. The unpierced rectangular tablet depicts a horned animal, an unclear figure, and a vegetal motif, a branch or tree. The others have a variety of mainly abstract symbols.
In 1961 members of a team led by Nicolae Vlassa, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Transylvanian History, Cluj-Napoca in charge of the site excavations, are reported to have unearthed three inscribed but unfired clay tablets, together with 26 clay and stone figurines and a shell bracelet, accompanied by the burnt,[dubious ] broken, and disarticulated bones of an adult female sometimes referred to as "Milady Tărtăria".
There have been disputes as to whether the tablets were actually found at the site and Vlassa was never willing to discuss the circumstances of the find or the stratigraphy.
Claims of forgery
The authenticity of the engravings was disputed from the beginning. A recent claim of forgery is based on the similarity between some of the symbols and reproductions of Sumerian symbols in popular Romanian literature available at the time of the discovery.
Previous discoveries of Vinča symbols
The Vinča symbols have been known since the late 19th century excavation by Zsófia Torma (1832–1899) at the Neolithic site of Turdaș (Hungarian: Tordos) in Transylvania, at the time part of Austria-Hungary, the type site of the Tordos culture, part of what is better known as the Vinča culture.
Workers at the conservation department of the Cluj museum baked the originally unbaked clay tablets to preserve them. This made direct dating of the tablets themselves through carbon 14 method impossible.
The tablets are generally believed to have belonged to the Vinča-Turdaș culture, which was originally thought to have originated around 2700 BC by Serbian and Romanian archaeologists. The discovery caused great interest in the archeological world as it predated the first Minoan writing, the oldest known writing in Europe.
Subsequent radiocarbon dating of the other Tărtăria finds, extended by association also to the tablets, pushed the date of the site (and therefore of the whole Vinča culture) much further back, to as long ago as 5500 BC, the time of the early Eridu phase of the Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia. Still, this is disputed in the light of apparently contradictory stratigraphic evidence.
If the symbols are indeed a form of writing, then writing in the Danubian culture would far predate the earliest Sumerian cuneiform script or Egyptian hieroglyphs. They would thus be the world's earliest known form of writing. This claim remains controversial.
Societal development and the need for a writing system
A problem is that there are no independent indications of literacy existing in the Balkans at this period. Sarunas Milisauskas comments that "it is extremely difficult to demonstrate archaeologically whether a corpus of symbols constitutes a writing system" and notes that the first known writing systems were all developed by early states to facilitate record-keeping in complex organised societies in the Middle East and Mediterranean. There is no evidence of organised states in the European Neolithic, thus it is unlikely they would have needed the administrative systems facilitated by writing. David Anthony notes that Chinese characters were first used for ritual and commemorative purposes associated with the 'sacred power' of kings; it is possible that a similar usage accounts for the Tărtăria symbols.
Hypothesis of Danubian culture
The term Danubian culture was proposed by V. Gordon Childe to describe the first agrarian society in central and eastern Europe. This hypothesis and the appearance of writing in this space is supported by Marco Merlini, Harald Haarmann, Joan Marler, Gheorghe Lazarovici, and many others.
This group of artefacts, including the tablets, have some relation with the culture developed in the Black Sea – Aegean area. Similar artefacts are found in Bulgaria (e.g. the Gradeshnitsa tablets) and northern Greece (the Dispilio Tablet). The material and the style used for the Tartaria artefacts show some similarities to those used in the Cyclades area, as two of the statuettes are made of alabaster.
Links to Sumerian culture
Colin Renfrew argues that the apparent similarities with Sumerian symbols are deceptive: "To me, the comparison made between the signs on the Tărtăria tablets and those of proto-literate Sumeria carry very little weight. They are all simple pictographs, and a sign for a goat in one culture is bound to look much like the sign for a goat in another. To call these Balkan signs 'writing' is perhaps to imply that they had an independent significance of their own communicable to another person without oral contact. This I doubt."
Writing system - pro and con
The meaning (if any) of the symbols is unknown, and their nature has been the subject of much debate.
If they do comprise a script, it is not known what kind of writing system they represent.
Scholars who conclude that the inscribed symbols are writing are basing their assessment on a few assumptions which are not universally endorsed.
- The existence of similar signs on other artifacts of the Danube civilization suggest that there was an inventory of standard shapes used by scribes.
- The symbols are highly standardised and have a rectilinear shape comparable to that manifested by archaic writing systems.
- The information communicated by each character was specific, with an unequivocal meaning.
- The inscriptions are sequenced in rows, whether horizontal, vertical or circular.
Purpose and meaning
Ownership marks or religious meaning
An alternative suggestion is that they may have been merely uncomprehending imitations of more advanced cultures, although this explanation is made rather unlikely by the great antiquity of the tablets — there were no known literate cultures at the time from which the symbols could have been adopted.
- Gradeshnitsa tablets
- Dispilio Tablet
- Sitovo inscription
- Prehistoric Romania
- Prehistory of Transylvania
- Cucuteni-Trypillian culture
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Friedrich Klára: The Mystery of Tatárlaka (Dobogó-Historical journal, 2004/9.-2005/6.) Friedrich Klára - Szakács Gábor: Graved in stone, carved in wood...(2005)
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Tărtăria tablets.|
- Crişan, Ioana, Signs on Tărtăria Tablets found in the Romanian folkloric art, IT: PreHistory.
- Merlini, Marco, Milady Tărtăria and the discovery of the Tărtăria Tablets, IT: PreHistory.
- Archaic Greek alphabets (image), GR: Web Topos.