Raluca Besliu discusses the history of the Tartaria Tablets, a subject of controversy given their rivalling of Sumerian as the oldest form of writing in the world. The discovery might even lead to re-examination of the traditional view of the ‘cradle of civilisation’. Can this reshape our concepts about the marginalised east?
The Sumerians may not have been the first people to invent the earliest form of writing, which allegedly appeared c. 3500 B.C.E. The Tartaria tablets, found in the western part of Romania and dating back to around 5300 B.C.E, according to radiocarbon dating, suggest that it was in Eastern Europe that writing first appeared. Some experts have dubbed the writing the Old European Script or the Danube Script. The tablets have been linked to the Neolithic Turdas-Vinca culture (c. 4500-3700 B.C.E), spread across several Romanian provinces, the south of Serbia, the southeast of Hungary, the northwest of Bulgaria and other countries.
If the signs on the Tartaria tablets and these other locations are recognized as script, the Turdas-Vinca culture would become the first high culture in the world, dethroning Mesopotamia as ‘the cradle of civilization.’ It would also lead to the creation of a new paradigm of civilization research, with Eastern European countries at its core. Vlassa, the discoverer of the tablets, believes that they offer a chance of creating a cultural and chronological synchronization of Europe and the Near East, in terms of their reciprocal influences, and the merger and divergence between their civilisations.
Given the current socio-political and cultural marginalization of Eastern European countries in the European Union, many of which are not even members yet, this discovery could also reshape their status, at least from a cultural perspective, not just on their continent, but in the world as well.
The three inscribed Tartaria tablets were discovered in 1961 in a ritual pit, alongside several clay and stone offerings as well as the broken bones of an old woman, a priestess or revered holy woman.
They are still shrouded in controversy. Some Mesopotamian experts believe that the Tartaria tablets are only decorations, heraldic family emblems that do not attempt to render speech in written signs. Other experts believe that the tablets contain an early form of Sumerian writing, because they contain pictograms identical to the ones at Djemet-Nas, while being very distinct from the common pottery symbols found throughout southeastern Europe, both in function and in form.
Harald Haarmann, a German linguist, cultural scientist and Mesopotamian expert strongly believes that the Tartaria tablets are writings. He based his conclusions on the fact that there are 700 characters known in the Danube Script, inscribed on the Tartaria tablets and other objects found in different locations, approximately the same number as Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Contradicting the argument that they are Sumerian writing and not part of the Vinca culture, the Tartaria tablets are not the only inscribed objects from that period of time found in the region. There are many other places where the discovery of tablets containing similar signs implies that the Tartaria tablets were not incidental, but part of an enterprise, and supports the existence of a shared southeast European culture.
In 2009, Professor Dumitru Ionita claimed to have discovered a Neolithic workshop manufacturing tablets at Vadu Rau in Romania’s Bistrita Valley, with many tablets being found. The total number of tablets discovered at Vadu Rau is around 120, with some of them carrying inscriptions almost identical to the ones at Tartaria. At the end of 2012, in the ‘Miercurea Sibiu 2’ site, archaeologists discovered a Neolithic housing complex, where several ceramic-preparation ovens were found as well as thousands of ceramic fragments. One of the ceramic fragments contained signs, which the director of the Sibiu Brukental Museum deemed to be writing, not mere decorations. What is remarkable about this fragment is that it dates back to 6200-6000 B.C.E, making it even older than the Tartaria tablets. When analyzed, the ceramic fragment might reveal itself to be contain the Turdas-Vinca script or perhaps an altogether different form of writing.
According to Ioana Crisan, the widespread use of the signs found on the Tartaria tablets supports the argument that they are a script, as it suggests that the scribes made use of an inventory and that their depiction follows precise standard shapes. She has further emphasized that, in the majority of the inscriptions found at Tartaria and elsewhere, the Danube Script had a linear organisation, shared with other pre-classic writings, such as the Minoan Linear A, while its characters showed a great degree of stylization and a rectilinear shape.
Apart from challenging the existing cradle of culture, the Tartaria tablets might also call into question the reason why writing appeared in the first place. It is currently widely accepted that writing appeared in Mesopotamia as a record-keeping vehicle for commercial transactions or administrative procedures. However, some scientists believe that the writing on the Tartaria tablets has a cultic character, implying that writing could have originally been used for ritualistic or religious purposes. It is, therefore sacred writing, expressed through ideograms, but also through signs and symbols, which might represent words or estates. These experts claim that the tablets and other objects found at the Tartaria ritual pit belong to the cult inventory of a priestess and to different cults relating to fertility and fecundity. Marija Gimbas, a reputed Lithuanian-American archaeologist, also stressed in one of her best books, ‘The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe,’ that the Danube writing was associated with religious functions.
Raluca Besliu is a freelance journalist with an interest in Romanian and Eastern European politics, refugee and human rights issues. She graduated from the University of Oxford with a Master’s degree in refugee and forced migration issues in 2012.