7,000-Year-Old Ceramic Fragment with Signs, Symbols and Swastika May Be One of the Oldest Examples of Writing
While excavating the ancient Roman site of Ad Putea in modern Riben, Bulgaria, researchers made a startling discovery – an artifact that they believe may be one of the earliest attempts of writing in the world. This intriguing piece was found in a previously unknown settlement that lay below the Roman site.
Archaeology in Bulgaria reports that the artifact in question is a fragment of a ceramic vessel that has been dated back to the Chalcolithic period (Aeneolithic, Copper Age) some 7,000 years ago. The piece is said to depict pictographic signs, including a swastika, amongst other “pre-alphabetic” signs.
Before discussing the current find further, it is important to note that as John Black has written on Ancient Origins, although the swastika is a controversial symbol today and often associated in the western world with crimes against humanity; it is a symbol that has been revered by Hindus and Buddhists across the Asian continent (and by their followers around the globe). The symbol has also been used by ancient Greeks, Nordic tribes, and some early Christians such as the Teutonic Order. Obviously they held a different opinion of this ancient symbol. John Black explains:
“The word ‘swastika’ is a Sanskrit word (‘svasktika’) meaning ‘It is’, ‘Well Being’, ‘Good Existence, and ‘Good Luck’ […] In Buddhism, the swastika is a symbol of good fortune, prosperity, abundance and eternity. It is directly related to Buddha and can be found carved on statues on the soles of his feet and on his heart. It is said that it contains Buddha’s mind.”
In Christian catacombs in Rome, the swastika is found alongside words meaning “Life of Life”. It is also associated with Odin in Nordic myths, the sun by Phoenicians, and was “a symbol linking heaven and earth, with the right arm pointing to heaven and its left arm pointing to Earth” that was used by Pythagoras in ancient Greece.
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John Black goes on to write that:
“The earliest swastika ever found was uncovered in Mezine, Ukraine, carved on an ivory figurine, which dates an incredible 12,000 years, and one of the earliest cultures that are known to have used the Swastika was a Neolithic culture in Southern Europe, in the area that is now Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, known as the Vinča Culture, which dates back around 8,000 years.”
Fragment of a clay vessel of the Vinča Culture with an "M"-looking incision. (Nikola Smolenski/CC BY SA 3.0)
The public will have to wait until early 2017 to see the recently uncovered ceramic fragment with the proposed writing for themselves. The researchers say that the artifact will only be available for viewing (and probably analysis) within the archaeological community until after a conference at the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.
Despite suggestions of some earlier depictions of symbols such as the aforementioned swastika, Volodya Popov, Director of the Pleven Regional Museum of History, believes that the earliest writing actually emerged in Northwest Bulgaria. Apart from the ceramic fragment, he says that about 120 “similar artifacts” have already been discovered in the region. He told Archaeology in Bulgaria:
“The first pictographic writing emerged here, in the Balkans, and, more precisely in this region of Northwest Bulgaria. All this information suggests that the proto-writing that developed into the linear writing of Sumer and the hieroglyphs of Egypt 2,000 years later started here.”
Limestone tablet engraved with pictographic writing. It comes from the city of Kish (Iraq) and is dated to 3500 BC. (Public Domain)
Archaeology in Bulgaria suggests that the most famous archaeological artifacts with pre-alphabetic writing found in Northwest Bulgaria to date are the ‘Gradeshnitsa Tablets’ which were discovered in 1969 near the town of Gradeshnitsa, Vratsa District.
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The same website also provides another example in Chalcolithic ceramic vessels found with “possibly proto-writing signs” that were unearthed in a 7,000-year-old settlement in the town of Telish. This site was excavated in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s by Ventsislav Gergov.
According to Archaeology in Bulgaria, Popov also said that the artifact “is 2,000 years older than the writing of Ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. It could prove that the first ever instance of written transfer of information occurred on the territory of today’s Bulgaria and the Balkan Peninsula.”
Another example of prehistoric writing that has been proposed as one of the “earliest” is the Dispilio tablet (5260 BC), which was discovered in 1993 in a Neolithic lake settlement in Northern Greece near the city of Kastoria. The text on the tablet is a type of engraved writing which appears to be a form of writing that pre-existed the Linear B writing used by Mycenaean Greeks.
Wooden Dispilio tablet found at archeological site in Dispilio, Greece. (Yorgos Facorellis/CC BY 3.0)
The Tartaria Tablets (2700 BC or 5500 BC) were found at a Neolithic site in Romania, and have also been proposed as some of the first examples of writing. The tablets are inscribed on only one side, and the inscriptions resemble a horned animal, an unclear figure, a vegetal motif, a branch or tree, and a variety of mainly abstract symbols.
It will be interesting to see what arises from the current discovery of the ceramic fragment and how archaeologists will use this new artifact in combination with past discoveries as they continue the difficult task of revealing the origins of the earliest writings.
Top Image: Main: Ruins of the Ancient Roman fortress and road station Ad Putea in Riben in Northern Bulgaria. Photo: Pleven Regional Museum of History Facebook Page. Inset: The face (Vassia Atanassova – Spiritia/CC BY SA 3.0) and back of the nearly 7,000-year-old Gradeshnitsa tablet (Vassia Atanassova – Spiritia/CC BY SA 3.0)