The Earliest known writing system: The Tartaria Tablets - History Key

The Earliest known writing system: The Tartaria Tablets

During 1961, a very important discovery was made in Romania. The Romanian archaeologist Nicolae Vlassa recovered three tablets from the Neolithic site located in the Tartaria village, about 30 km from Alba Iulia. The discovered tablets were dated around 5300 BC and attributed to the Vinca Culture, also known as the Turdas culture or Turdas-Vinca culture, which was widespread in Central and Southeastern Europe.

Many zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figurines and hallmarks were related to the Turdas-Vinca culture, including the Vinca symbols, which are considered the earliest form of proto-writing, being also the symbols present on the Tartaria tablets.

The Tartaria Tablets
The three Tartaria tablets © Image Source:

Since their discovery, the Tartaria tablets generated numerous debates related to the symbols carved on them. It seems that the Ancient Sumerian writing could be dethroned from the “earliest writing form” position. The scientists think that the three tablets present a writing system that predates the Sumerian one by at least 2,000 years.

The tablets measure about 6 cm or 2,5 inches across, two of them being rectangular while only one is shaped in a round form. All of them are inscribed on only one side, the round one is the only reporting a drilled hole through it. From the ones in rectangular form, some figures can be distinguished: a horned animal, a vegetal motif (could be a branch or a tree) and an unclear figure. Besides those, all kinds of unidentified abstract symbols can be spotted on them.

But we must consider that the Tartaria tablets were not discovered alone. The context, from which they were recovered, revealed also some more objects, including 26 clay and stone figurines, a shell bracelet and human bones.

Sketch of the Tartaria tablets
Sketch of the Tartaria tablets © Image Source:

Among the much interested in the Tartaria tablets mystery, there is Harald Haarmann, a German linguistic and cultural scientist, vice-president of the Institute of Archaeomythology. Haarmann, who can be considered without doubt a specialist in ancient scripts, believes that the Danube script is the oldest writing on the planet Earth. For Haarmann, the Tartaria tablets are a “product” related to the “Danube civilization”.

“The Danube script is compared with the ancient Sumerian pictography (of the archaic period between c. 3200 and 2700 BC), the Proto-Elamite script (c. 3050-2700 BC), early Egyptian hieroglyphs (c. 3350-2600 BC), Cretan Linear A (c. 2500-1450 BC), the ancient Indus script (c. 2600-1800 BC), and ancient Chinese writing of the late Shang and western Chou dynasties (oracle bone inscriptions c.1200-780 BC). Parallelisms and resemblances are elaborated in a comprehensive typological scheme.” (Quote from Harald Haarmann)

There are three main arguments when it comes to relating the Tartaria tablets to the earliest form of writing:

1. Similar signs discovered on other artifacts found across the Balkans (and belonging to the Danube civilization) confirms that a precise form of inventory was in use, one using standard shapes and forms.

2. If we compare the characters from the Tartaria tablets to other forms of archaic writings, we could clearly spot a high degree of standardization.

3. The writings from the three tablets were clearly sequenced in horizontal or vertical rows. Each character had a specific role and meaning.

Anyway, if the symbols on the Tartaria tablets have any meaning, it still unknown. Among many theories, it was suggested that the place of their discovery was, in fact, the burial place of a shaman or spirit medium, or most probably of a respected person from that area.

The Tartaria symbols compared to others early writing forms
The Tartaria symbols compared to others early writing forms © Image Source:

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