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The Vinča symbols, sometimes called the Vinča signs, Vinča script, Vinča-Turdaș script, Old European script, etc., are a set of symbols found on Neolithic era (6th to 5th millennia BC) artifacts from the Vinča culture of Central Europe and Southeastern Europe.
The symbols are mostly considered as constituting the oldest excavated example of "proto-writing" in the world; that is, they probably conveyed a message but did not encode language, predating the development of writing proper by more than a thousand years.
In 1875, archaeological excavations led by the Hungarian archeologist Zsófia Torma (1840–1899) at Tordos (today Turdaș, Romania) unearthed a cache of objects inscribed with previously unknown symbols. In 1908, a similar cache was found during excavations conducted by Miloje Vasić (1869–1956) in Vinča, a suburb of Belgrade (Serbia), some 120 km from Turdaș. Later, more such fragments were found in Banjica, another part of Belgrade. Since 1875, over one hundred and fifty Vinča sites have been identified in Serbia alone, but many, including Vinča itself, have not been fully excavated. Thus, the culture of the whole area is called the Vinča culture, and the symbols are often called the Vinča-Turdaș script.
The discovery of the Tărtăria tablets in Romania by Nicolae Vlassa in 1961 reignited the debate. Vlassa believed the inscriptions to be pictograms and other items found at the same place were subsequently carbon-dated to before 4000 BC (while the tablets themselves cannot be dated by physical or chemical methods), thirteen hundred years earlier than the date he expected, and earlier even than the writing systems of the Sumerians and Minoans. However, the authenticity of these tablets is disputed. To date, more than a thousand fragments with similar inscriptions have been found on various archaeological sites throughout south-eastern Europe, notably in Greece (Dispilio Tablet), Bulgaria, Romania, eastern Hungary, Moldova, and southern Ukraine.
Most of the inscriptions are on pottery, with the remainder appearing on ceramic spindle whorls, figurines, and a small collection of other objects. Over 85% of the inscriptions consist of a single symbol. The symbols themselves consist of a variety of abstract and representative pictograms, including zoomorphic (animal-like) representations, combs or brush patterns and abstract symbols such as swastikas, crosses and chevrons. Other objects include groups of symbols, of which some are arranged in no particularly obvious pattern, with the result that neither the order nor the direction of the signs in these groups is readily determinable. The usage of symbols varies significantly between objects: symbols that appear by themselves tend almost exclusively to appear on pots, while symbols that are grouped with other symbols tend to appear on whorls.
The importance of these findings lies in the fact that the bulk of the Vinča symbols was created in the period between 4500 and 4000 BC, with the ones on the Tărtăria clay tablets even dating back to around 5300 BC. This means that the Vinča finds predate the proto-Sumerian pictographic script from Uruk (modern Iraq), which is usually considered as the oldest known script, by more than a thousand years. Analyses of the symbols showed that they have little similarity with Near Eastern writing, leading to the view that these symbols and the Sumerian script probably arose independently. Although a large number of symbols are known, most artifacts contain so few symbols that they are very unlikely to represent a complete text. Possibly the only exception is the Sitovo inscription in Bulgaria, the dating of which is disputed; regardless, even that inscription has only around 50 symbols. It is unknown which language used the symbols, or indeed whether they stand for a language in the first place.
A databank of Vinca inscriptions, DatDas, has been developed by Marco Merlini:
"DatDas organizes a catalogue of 5,421 actual signs. These are recorded from a corpus of 1,178 inscriptions composed of two or more signs and 971 inscribed artifacts (some finds have two or more inscriptions)."
Meaning of the symbols
The nature and purpose of the symbols is a mystery. Although attempts have been made to interpret the symbols, there is no agreement as to what they might mean. At first it was thought that the symbols were simple property marks, meaning "this belongs to X". A prominent holder of this view is archaeologist Peter Biehl. This theory is now mostly abandoned, as the same symbols have been repeatedly found throughout the territory of the Vinča culture, in locations hundreds of kilometers and years away from each other. The prevailing theory is that the symbols were used for religious purposes in a traditional agricultural society. If so, the fact that the same symbols were used for centuries with little change suggests that the ritual meaning and culture represented by the symbols likewise remained constant for a very long time, with no need for further development. The use of the symbols appears to have been abandoned (along with the objects on which they appear) at the start of the Bronze Age, suggesting that the new technology brought with it significant changes in social organization and beliefs.
One argument in favour of the ritual explanation is that the objects on which the symbols appear do not seem to have had much long-term significance to their owners - they are commonly found in pits and other refuse areas. Certain objects, principally figurines, are most usually found buried under houses. This is consistent with the supposition that they were prepared for household religious ceremonies in which the signs incised on the objects represent expressions: a desire, request, vow, etc. After the ceremony was completed, the object would either have no further significance (hence would be disposed of) or would be buried ritually (which some have interpreted as votive offerings).
Some of the "comb" or "brush" symbols, which collectively compose as much as a sixth of all the symbols so far discovered, may represent numbers. Some scholars have pointed out that over a quarter of the inscriptions are located on the bottom of a pot, an ostensibly unlikely place for a religious inscription. The Vinča culture appears to have traded its wares quite widely with other cultures (as demonstrated by the widespread distribution of inscribed pots), so it is possible that the "numerical" symbols conveyed information about the value of the pots or their contents. Other cultures, such as the Minoans and Sumerians, used their scripts primarily as accounting tools; the Vinča symbols may have served a similar purpose.
Other symbols (principally those restricted to the base of pots) are wholly unique. Such signs may denote the contents, provenance/destination or manufacturer/owner of the pot.
Marija Gimbutas and Vinča as pre-writing
The primary advocate of the idea that the markings represent writing, and the person who coined the name "Old European Script", was Marija Gimbutas (1921–1994), an important 20th century archaeologist and advocate of the hypothesis that the "Kurgan culture" (actually a cluster of many related cultures and horizons) of the Pontic steppe was the archaeological expression of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. She reconstructed a hypothetical pre-Indo-European "Old European civilization", which she defines as having occupied the area between the Dniester valley and the Sicily-Crete line. Gimbutas observed that neolithic European iconography was predominantly female—a trend also visible in the inscribed figurines of the Vinča culture—and concluded the existence of a "matristic" (woman-centered, but not necessarily matriarchal) culture that worshipped a range of goddesses and gods. (Gimbutas did not posit a single universal Great Goddess.) She also incorporated the Vinča markings into her model of Old Europe, suggesting that they might either be the writing system for an Old European language, or, more probably, a kind of "pre-writing" symbolic system. However, Vinča logographics themselves have not been found on an area wider than southeastern Hungary, western Romania, and western Bulgaria, as described by Winn.
- Tărtăria tablets, the most complex examples of these signs
- Jiahu symbols, an even older example sometimes claimed as proto-writing
- Banpo symbols, located not far from site of Jiahu discovery; also claimed as proto-writing
- Vinča culture
- Dispilio tablet
- Kamyana Mohyla, Ukraine, petroglyphs from 20th century BC
- Old European cultures
- List of undeciphered writing systems
- Gradeshnitsa tablets
- Prehistoric Romania
- Prehistoric Serbia
- Sitovo inscription
- Gimbutas, Marija. 1974. The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe 7000–3500 BCE, Mythos, Legends and Cult Images
- Griffen, Toby D., Deciphering the Vinca Script , 2007.
- Winn, Shan M.M. 1981. Pre-writing in Southeastern Europe: the sign system of the Vinča culture, ca. 4000 BCE
Notes and references
- Tasić, Nikola, Dragoslav Srejović, and Bratislav Stojanović. "Vinča: Centre of the Neolithic Culture of the Danubian Region". Belgrade: Centar za arheoloska istrazivanja Filozofskog fakulteta, 1990. http://www.rastko.rs/arheologija/vinca/vinca_eng.html (accessed 2009.06.22).
- Merlini, Marco; Lazarovici, Gheorghe: Settling discovery circumstances, dating and utilization of the Tărtăria tablets (PDF; 10.8 MB). In: Acta Terrae Septemcastrensis. Band: VII. 2008. Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu. ISSN 1583-1817
- Qasim, Erika: Die Tărtăria-Täfelchen – eine Neubewertung. In: Das Altertum, ISSN 0002-6646, vol. 58, 4 (2013), p. 307–318
- Haarmann, Harald: "Geschichte der Schrift", C.H. Beck, 2002, ISBN 3-406-47998-7, p. 20
- Merlini, Marco (2009). "Introduction to the Danube script". Academia.edu. Retrieved 5 September 2013.
- Gimbutas, Marija (1974). The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe: 6500 to 3500 BCE: Myths and Cult Images (2nd ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 17.
- Winn, Shan M (1981). Pre-writing in Southeastern Europe: The Sign System of the Vinča Culture ca. 4000 BCE. Calgary: Western Publishers. p. 15.
- 2008 Symposium The Danube Script: Neo-Eneolithic Writing in Southeastern Europe. Held in Romania
- Vinca-Tordos symbols at omniglot.com, including a font created by Romanian linguist Sorin Paliga
- The Old European Script: Further evidence - Shan M. M. Winn