Vinča symbols

Vinča symbols

The Vinča symbols, sometimes called the Vinča script or Old European script (also Vinča signs, Vinča-Turdaş script, etc.) are a set of symbols found on Neolithic era (6th to 5th millennia BCE) artifacts from the Vinča culture of southeastern Europe.

The symbols are mostly considered as constituting an instance of "proto-writing"; that is, they probably conveyed a message but did not encode language, predating the development of writing proper by more than a millennium.



A drawing of a clay vessel unearthed in Vinča, found at depth of 8.5 meters.

In 1875, archaeological excavations led by the Hungarian archeologist Zsófia Torma (1840–1899) at Tordos, Hungary (today Turdaş, Romania) unearthed a cache of objects inscribed with previously unknown symbols. In 1908, a similar cache was found during excavations conducted by Miloje Vasic (1869–1956) in Vinča, a suburb of Belgrade (Serbia), some 120 km from Tordos. Later, more such fragments were found in Banjica, another part of Belgrade. Since, over one hundred and fifty Vinča sites have been identified in Serbia alone, but many, including Vinča itself, have not been fully excavated.[1] Thus, the culture of the whole area is called the Vinča culture, and the script is often called the Vinča-Tordos script.

The discovery of the Tartaria tablets in Romania by Nicolae Vlassa in 1961 reignited the debate. Vlassa believed the inscriptions to be pictograms and the finds were subsequently carbon-dated to before 4000 BCE, thirteen hundred years earlier than the date he expected, and earlier even than the writing systems of the Sumerians and Minoans. 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, former Yugoslavia, Romania, eastern Hungary, Moldova, and southern Ukraine.

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 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.

Fragment of a clay vessel with an "M"-looking incision.

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.[2] 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. There are, however, some similarities between the Vinča signs and other Neolithic symbologies found elsewhere, as far afield as Egypt, Crete and even China, but scholars have suggested that such signs were produced by a convergent development of proto-writing which evolved independently in a number of societies.

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.

Meaning of the symbols

Clay amulet, one of the Tărtăria tablets unearthed near Tărtăria, Romania, and dated to ca. 4500 BCE

The nature and purpose of the symbols is a mystery. It is dubious that they constitute a writing system. If they do, it is not known whether they represent an alphabet, syllabary, ideograms or some other form of writing. Although attempts have been made to decipher the symbols, there is no generally accepted translation or agreement as to what they mean.

At first it was thought that the symbols were simply used as property marks, with no more meaning than "this belongs to X"; a prominent holder of this view is archaeologist Peter Biehl. This theory is now mostly abandoned, as same symbols have been repeatedly found on the whole territory of Vinča culture, on 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 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, 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),[citation needed] an important 20th century archaeologist and advocate of the notion that the Kurgan culture of Central Asia was an early culture of 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.[3] 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 and western Bulgaria, as described by Winn.[4]

Fringe literature

Like most suspected undeciphered writing systems, the Vinča symbols have attracted the attention of fringe as well as serious authors. Griffen (2005) claims to have deciphered three symbols as logographs. He proposes that different numbers of strokes—which resemble tally marks—mean "bear", "bird", or "goddess". He compares two spindles, Jela 1 and 2, with similar sets of radiating strokes, and sees similar strokes on bear and bird figurines. He interprets the spindle inscriptions as reading "bear — goddess — bird — goddess — bear — goddess–goddess", which he interprets as meaning "bear goddess and bird goddess: bear goddess indeed", or "the bear goddess and the bird goddess are really a single bear goddess". Griffen compares the amalgamation of a goddess with bearlike and birdlike attributes in Greek Artemis.

See also


  • 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 [1], 2007.
  • Winn, Shan M.M. 1981. Pre-writing in Southeastern Europe: the sign system of the Vinča culture, ca. 4000 BCE

Notes and references

  1. ^ Tasic, Nikola, Dragoslav Srejovic, and Bratislav Stojanovic. "Vinča: Centre of the Neolithic Culture of the Danubian Region". Belgrade: Centar za arheoloska istrazivanja Filozofskog fakulteta, 1990. (accessed 2009.06.22).
  2. ^ Haarmann, Harald: "Geschichte der Schrift", C.H. Beck, 2002, ISBN 3406479987, p. 20
  3. ^ 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. 
  4. ^ Winn, Shan M (1981). Pre-writing in Southeastern Europe: The Sign System of the Vinča Culture ca. 4000 BCE. Calgary: Western Publishers. p. 15. 

External links

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