Tărtăria tablets

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Neolithic clay amulet (retouched), part of the Tărtăria tablets set, supposedly dated to 5500–2750 BC and associated with the Turdaş-Vinča culture.

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.[1]

The dating of the tablets is difficult as they cannot be carbon-dated and the stratigraphy is uncertain. A few scientists[1] 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.[2] The signs are Sumerian proto-cuneiform-like, so quasi-Sumerian.[3]


Two of the tablets are rectangular and the third is round.[4] They are all small, the round one being only 6 cm (2 12 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.[4] 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.[5]


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".[6]

There is no consensus on the interpretation of the burial, but it has been suggested that the body was, if not that of a shaman or spirit-medium, that of a local most respected wise person.[5]

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.[6]

Claims of forgery[edit]

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.[7]

Previous discoveries of Vinča symbols[edit]

The Vinča symbols have been known since the late 19th century excavation by Zsófia Torma (1832–1899)[8] 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.[9]

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.[10] Still, this is disputed in the light of apparently contradictory stratigraphic evidence.[11]

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[edit]

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.[12]

Hypothesis of Danubian culture[edit]

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,[13] Harald Haarmann, Joan Marler,[14] Gheorghe Lazarovici,[15] and many others.

Possibly related finds in the region[edit]

This group of artefacts, including the tablets, have some relation with the culture developed in the Black SeaAegean 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.[citation needed]

Links to Sumerian culture[edit]

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."[16]

Writing system - pro and con[edit]

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.

Pro arguments[edit]

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.

Some archaeologists who support the idea that they do represent writing, notably Marija Gimbutas, have proposed that they are fragments of a system dubbed the Old European Script.


Others consider the pictograms to be accompanied by random scribbles.[dubious ][10]

Purpose and meaning[edit]

Vlassa interpreted one of the Tărtăria tablets as a hunting scene and the other two with signs as a kind of primitive writing similar to the early pictograms of the Sumerians.[citation needed]

Ownership marks or religious meaning[edit]

Some have suggested that the symbols may have been used as marks of ownership or as the focus of religious rituals.[10]

Meaningless imitations[edit]

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.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Merlini & Lazarovici 2008, p. 111.
  2. ^ Merlini & Lazarovici 2008, pp. 127–129.
  3. ^ A.Falkenstein, A.A.Vaiman & Rau Eugen.
  4. ^ a b Merlini & Lazarovici 2008, p. 116.
  5. ^ a b Alasdair W. R. Whittle, Europe in the Neolithic: The Creation of New Worlds, p. 101. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  6. ^ a b Merlini & Lazarovici 2008, pp. 111–117.
  7. ^ Qasim, Erika: Die Tărtăria-Täfelchen – eine Neubewertung. In: Das Altertum, ISSN 0002-6646, vol. 58, 4 (2013), p. 307–318
  8. ^ Gimbutas & Dexter 2001, p. 50.
  9. ^ Merlini & Lazarovici 2008, pp. 118–119.
  10. ^ a b c d Carl J. Becker, A Modern Theory Of Language Evolution, p. 346 (iUniverse, 2004).
  11. ^ H. W. F. Saggs, Civilization Before Greece and Rome, p. 75 (Yale University Press, 1998).
  12. ^ Sarunas Milisauskas, European Prehistory: A Survey, pp. 236–37 (Kluwer Academic / Plenum Publishers, 2002)
  13. ^ Marco Merlini “La scrittura è natta in Europa”, Avverbi, Roma, 2004
  14. ^ Harald Haarmann, Joan Marler, An introduction to the study of the Danube Script, Journal of Archeomythology, Vol.4, 2008
  15. ^ Gheorghe Lazarovici, Cornelia-Magda Lazarovici, Marco Merlini. TĂRTĂRIA and the sacred tablets, Editura Mega, Cluj-Napoca, 2011 ISBN 978-606-543-160-7
  16. ^ Colin Renfrew, Before civilization: The radiocarbon revolution and prehistoric Europe, p. 186 (Jonathan Cape, 1973)
  • Haarmann, H (1990), "Writing from Old Europe", The Journal of Indo-European Studies
  • Jongbloed, Dominique (2011), Civilisations antédiluviennes (in French), Alphée ed
  • Makkay, J (1969), "The Late Neolithic Tordos Group of Signs", Alba Regia, pp. 9–50.
  • Makkay, J (1984), Early Stamp Seals in South-East Europe, Budapest.
  • Merlini, Marco; Lazarovici, Gheorghe (2008). "Settling discovery circumstances, dating and utilization of the Tărtăria tablets" (PDF). Acta Terrae Septemcastrensis. Sibiu, Romania: Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu. VII. ISSN 1583-1817.
  • Paliga S., The tablets of Tǎrtǎria. An enigma ? A reconsideration and further perspectives, Dialogues d'histoire ancienne, vol. 19, n°1, 1993. pp. 9-43; doi : 10.3406/dha.1993.2073
  • Winn, Sham MM (1973), The Signs of the Vinca Culture.
  • Winn, Sham MM (1981), Pre-writing in Southeast Europe: The Sign System of the Vinca culture, BAR.
  • Evans, A (1895), Cretan pictographs and prae-Phoenician script. With an account of a sepulchral deposit at Hagios Onuphrios near Phaestos in its relation primitive Cretan and Aegean culture, G.P.Putnams sons, p. 166.
  • Mandics, Gy., Záhonyi, A.: The message oh Tartaria and Tordos. Fríg (Pilisvörösvár, Hungary), 2018.
  • G.Papakitsos, I.Kenanidis: A Comparative Linguistic Study about the Sumerian Influence on the Creation of the Aegean Scripts. Article (PDF Available) · February 2015 ...
  • Minoan Sumerian | Giannhs Kenanidhs - Academia.edu
  • A. A. Vaiman. On the Quasi-Sumerian tablets from Tartaria. Археологические вести. Спб, 1994. Вып. 3. Аннотации. — ИИМК РАН
  • A.Falkenstein 1965 : Zu den Tontafeln aus Târtària, Germania 43 : 269-273.
  • Denise Schmandt-Besserat Before Writing, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1992.olume I: From Counting to Cuneiform.

Friedrich Klára: The Mystery of Tatárlaka (Dobogó-Historical journal, 2004/9.-2005/6.) Friedrich Klára - Szakács Gábor: Graved in stone, carved in wood...(2005)

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