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Vinca alphabet

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A clay vessel unearthed in Vinca, found at depth of 8.5 meters.

The Vinca alphabet (also known as the Old European Script or Vinca-Tordos script) is believed by some to be the writing system of the Vinca culture, which inhabited south-eastern Europe around 6000-4000 BC.

Table of contents
1 The discovery of the Old European Script
2 What do the symbols mean?
3 Old European Script - controversial issues
4 References
5 External links

The discovery of the Old European Script

In 1875, archaeological excavations led by Zsofia Torma at Tordos (now Turdas) in Transylvania unearthed a cache of objects inscribed in a previously unknown script. A similar cache was found during excavations conducted in 1908 in Vinca, a suburb of the Serbian city of Belgrade, some 120km from Tordos. Later, more such fragments were found in Banjica, another part of Belgrade. To date, more than a thousand fragments with inscriptions have been found on various archaeological sites throughout south-eastern Europe, notably in Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, eastern Hungary, Moldova, southern Ukraine and other locations in the former Yugoslavia.

Most of the inscriptions are on pottery, with the remainder appearing on whorls (flat cylindrical annuli), 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 symbols such as swastikas, crosses and chevrons. A few objects include groups of symbols, 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 oldest of them are dated around 4000 BC, around a thousand years before the proto-Sumerian pictographic script from Uruk (modern Iraq), which is usually considered as the oldest known script. Analyses of the symbols showed that they had little similarity with Near Eastern writing, leading to the view that they probably arose independently of the Sumerian civilization. There are some similarities between the symbols and other Neolithic symbologies found elsewhere, as far afield as Egypt, Crete and even China. However, Chinese scholars have suggested that such signs were produced by a convergent development of what might be called a precursor to writing which evolved independently in a number of societies.

Although a large number of symbols are known, not a single complete text written in this script is known to us. Possibly the only exception is a stone found near Sitovo in Bulgaria, the dating of which is disputed; regardless, the stone has only around 50 symbols. It is unknown which language used the script.

What do the symbols mean?

Clay amulet, one of the
Tartaria tablets unearthed near Tartaria, Romania, and dated to ca. 4500 B.C.
The nature and purpose of the Vinca-Tordos symbols is still something of a mystery. It is not even clear what kind of writing system they represent, whether an alphabet, syllabary, ideogram or some other form of writing. Although attempts have been made to decipher the script, there is no generally accepted translation or agreement as to what the symbols mean.

The prevailing theory is that is that the script was 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 of the script. The use of the symbols appear 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 appear 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 or whatever. 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 comprise 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 Vinca 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 Vinca script 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, provenence/destination or manufacturer/owner of the pot.

Old European Script - controversial issues

The Vinca symbols have not attracted as much attention as the arguably more glamorous Linear B of Crete and Easter Island's Rongo Rongo, both of which are still untranslated. However, it has still managed to stir some controversies of its own.

The main theorizer on the subject of the Old European Script (and the person who came up with the name for it) was Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994), renowned as a major 20th century archaeologist and a primary founder of modern Indo-European studies. She observed (correctly, as it turned out) that neolithic iconography was predominately female, a trend which is also visible in the inscribed figurines of the Vinca culture. She also proposed, very controversially, that the Indo-European culture originated in Pontus (the Black Sea coast of modern Turkey) rather than the more generally accepted Kurgan region of eastern Europe. Her theories attracted controversy - and even derision - among the archaeological profession, to a point where (as Wendy Griffin has observed) "her theories tend to be judged as either absolutely true or absolutely false." Discussions of her theories have thus tended to become very politicized among archaeologists. Partly for this reason, it is not universally accepted that the Vinca symbols do in fact constitute a writing system as opposed to some kind of decorations.

An altogether odder controversy concerns the theories of Dr. Radivoje Pešić from Belgrade. In his book "The Vinca Alphabet," he proposes that all of the Vinca signs exist in the Etruscan alphabet, and conversely, that all Etruscan letters are found among Vinca signs. This is, however, not taken seriously by the vast majority of Etruscan and classical academics, who attribute the origins of the Etruscan script to an early version of the Greek alphabet, as demonstrated by the high degree of similarity of the letters. Pešić's critics have claimed that he is motivated by an nationalistic desire to claim a Slavic presence in the Balkans far earlier than the usually accepted date; hence, for instance, his claim that the poet Homer must have spoken a Slavonic dialect (Pešić, 1989).


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