Tartaria tablets

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One of the Tartaria tablets
One of the Tartaria tablets

The three Tărtăria tablets are probably amulets or votive tablets, which bear incised symbols that are believed by some to be a very early form of writing. The tablets are named after Tărtăria, Transylvania, Romania, where they were found. The tablets combine pictograms with abstract symbols.

In 1961, near Tartaria, a small rural Transylvanian village of 5,000 inhabitants some kilometres from the well-known site of Turda, Nicolae Vlassa, an archaeologist at the Cluj Museum, unearthed three clay tablets, covered with strange signs, together with a small cache of offerings, accompanying the charred bones of a mature human, estimated to be 35-40 years old. The accompanying artefacts, suggest this person was a great priest or a shaman and that he was cremated during a sacrificial ritual.

Vlassa dated his find ca 4500 BC and associated it with the so-called Vinca culture, interpreting the Tartaria tablets as a hunting scene and the other two with signs, as a kind of primitive writing that he related to the Ancient Near East. Similar artifacts have been found at Vinca, Serbia and a number of other locations in the southern Balkans. If Vlassa's dating is correct, and if the symbols are a form of writing, then writing in the Danubian culture would predate the earliest Sumerian cuneiform or Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Scholars who conclude that the inscribed symbols are writing base their assessment on a few conclusions, which are not universally endorsed. First, that similar signs on other artefacts of the Danube civilisation, suggest that there was an inventory of precise standard shapes of which scribes made use. Second, the characters of this proto-European script, when compared to other archaic writings, manifest a high degree of standardization and a rectilinear shape. Third, that the information communicated by each character was a specific one with a unequivocal meaning. Finally, that the inscriptions are sequenced in rows, whether horizontal, vertical or circular.

Others consider the pictograms to be accompanied by random scribbles. Their meaning (if any) is unknown. If they do comprise a script, it is also not known what kind of writing system they represent. Some archaeologists who support the idea that they do represent writing have proposed that they are fragments of a system dubbed the Old European Script.

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