Writing is one of the greatest inventions of humankind and is the foundation of progress. With this invention, human beings gained the ability to record and transmit information to future generations. This has made civilization possible. As to the question of who first developed a writing system, the Tărtăria tablets found in Romania may give us a clue.
The Tărtăria tablets
The Tărtăria tablets were discovered in 1961 by archaeologist Nicolae Vlassa of the National Museum of Transylvanian History, Cluj-Napoca, while conducting an excavation at a Romanian Neolithic site. The inscriptions are believed to be the Vinča symbols, belonging to the Vinča culture that was widespread in Central and Southeastern Europe during the 6th to 5th millennium B.C.
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Each tablet is 2.5 inches across, with two tablets being rectangular in shape and the other of them being round. Two tablets also have holes in them. All three of them have inscriptions only on one side. A few scholars have argued that the inscriptions on the tablets indicate a writing system. They base such conclusions on four arguments.
One, every inscription appears to be sequenced in rows typical to a system of writing. Two, a single character seems to have just one meaning. Three, some of the standard shapes on the tablets bear resemblance to those used by scribes on artifacts excavated from the Danube civilization that existed between 5500 B.C. to 3500 B.C. in Europe. Four, the symbols on the tablets have been arranged in a rectilinear shape similar to other known archaic writing methods. Despite such solid arguments, the Tărtăria tablets have their own share of skeptics.
Are the Tărtăria tablets just symbols?
“Many experts do not consider the Vinča symbols to be a true writing system — which can be defined as a visual representation of language through an established selection of markings. Instead, most researchers define them as proto-writing (early writing) — a system of glyphs (simplified pictures) that represent objects and concepts, conveying information,” according to International Business Times.
There are also scholars who see the inscriptions as just religious symbols due to the fact that the tablets were discovered in a burial site. The human bones found during excavation are believed to belong to a high priest who was buried after serving his time. The two tablets with holes in them are speculated to have been worn by the priest during a religious ceremony.
Doubts have also been raised regarding the tablet’s true antiquity. This largely has to do with the fact that in their initial state, the tablets were covered in limestone and were exposed to high humidity. As a consequence, the tablets were pretty soft to touch. In their zeal to best preserve the tablets, workers at the conservation department baked them. Because of this, carbon dating the tablets accurately became an impossibility. No photos were taken prior to the baking.
So, how have the Tărtăria tablets been dated to the 5th to 6th millennium B.C.? One of the artifacts discovered together with the tablets was dated to around 5500 B.C. Only by association with this artifact have the tablets been deemed to be this old. As such, their “true” antiquity remains a mystery, making the Tărtăria tablets’ claim of containing the world’s oldest writing system an unsettled matter.