September 24, 2012

Chalcolithic Iberian script?

La Zarcita vessel
This is not really news but something that has been around since the 1950s but that, because of the attitude of (excessive?) scientific prudence of the researchers has never been known except to a few specialists. 

A few years ago however, Dr. Ana María Vázquez Hoys, re-discovered the inscribed artifacts in the Museum of Huelva, proposing that maybe there was a Chalcolithic script in Southern Iberia some in the 4th or 3rd millenium BCE, some two millennia before it is commonly accepted that writing arrived to Iberia, via the Phoenicians (but with scripts that have at best a very oblique connection with the Phoenician abjad).

Personally, I just learned about them today, thanks to an archaeology series in state TV, that is almost always worth watching in spite of the horrible schedule (early in the morning).

Of course the inscribed artifacts are isolated anomalous findings, much as is the case with the even older Vinča symbols from the Neolithic Balcans, but they are well documented and the inscriptions, whatever they are or mean, are very real.

One of the inscribed artifacts is a round ceramic piece with a canalization along its diameter it, arguably resembling a vagina and initially described as "arrow polisher" but that could well have some sort of ritual purpose. This object originated in San Bartolomé de la Casa (Huelva province).

San Bartolomé inscribed "vulva"

Tracing of the signs above by Vázquez Hoys

The other object is a legged tray or vessel, also made of local clay with pyrite granules, only shows a few characters. It has the same Megalithic period chronology and was found in La Zarcita (Huelva prov.) It probably had ritual use as well.

Outline of La Zarcita vessel, showing the inscriptions (by Vázquez Hoys)

Main online source: UNED page on the matter by Dr. Vázquez Hoys[es].


  1. Maju,

    The script before the word Reverso, looks somewhat like Ogham - especially the little cross lines...

    1. It's a quite subjective appreciation, I'd say.

  2. Have the experts made any suggestions regarding where the script fits in the larger linguistic context? (e.g. possible sources (if any), possible derviatives, possible uses, spoken language affiliations).

    1. No. It's not even certain it is a script, although I'd say so. Particularly the are characters resembling later Iberian or other Mediterranean scripts, like the mirrored "1" (possibly phoneme /g/ or maybe /l/), the "legged" N (/n/?), the inverted "V" (/a/, /l/?), etc. But others, Conroy's "Ogham-like" ones specially are very odd.

      Something I heard Dr. Vázquez claim on TV was that there is possible "cursive" style, which is otherwise something quite modern (Medieval?)

      Well, just open to interpretation, you know. It's often impossible or almost to decipher an unknown script, much less if so little evidence and with so many doubts about its true nature.

  3. But others, Conroy's "Ogham-like" ones specially are very odd.

    Perhaps not so odd if you consider that Ogham seems to be proto-Q-Celtic (like Celtiberian)and that early Iberian scripts also seem to have some resemblance (excessive use of bars and fine crosses, extra geometric patterns not present in other Mediterranean scripts, etc.).

    Perhaps knowledge of some of the script's idiosyncrasies persisted to early Celtic times.

    To me, the "script" looks like something a priest would do who had some exposure to an actual early writing system, but didn't develop full grasp of it, yet was able to make some signs to better memorize some liturgical text (or something highly speculative along those lines... ;)

    1. I certainly do not see any "Ogham" in these signs. The only possible similitude would be that two or three of the signs have some perpendicular short bars. This, which is exceptional in the Huelva set, is the norm in Ogham instead, with its letters all following an almost regular pattern. Never mind the San Bartolomé "cursive" style, when Ogham is so angular instead.

      I have seen possible similitudes with other later Mediterranean alphabets like Iberian or even Phoenician. Actually Vázquez appeared in TV to suspect a possible, although unproven, Iberian influence in the transformation of the Ugarit cuneiform abjad into the Phoenician linear abdjad, mother of all later scripts in West Eurasia.

      However one would also have to consider Eteocretan and Eteocypriot scripts, which are also pre-Phoenician in their linearity. But the fact that the transformation is simultaneous with the legendary founding of Gadir (Cádiz), first ever Phoenician colony according to their own traditions (although archaeologically unproven until 200-300 years later in fact), could indicate some sort of interaction.

      However personally I'd look at Eteocypriot as key influence in the transformation from cuneiform to linear script and maybe also into the genesis of the Iberian script, which is only somewhat related to the much simpler Phoenician abjad.

      Another possible connection could be with the Berber script (???) but this one is known only from the late Iron Age on.

      As for the "Celtic connection" that is essentially unthinkable because in that period Celts did not even exist at all. Proto-Celts are thought to coalesce near the Rhine in the early Bronze Age and expand successively with the Urnfields (diffuse Western IE), Hallstatt (Iberian and maybe Auvernian Celtic, Lusitanian and maybe Illyrian) and, of course, La Tène (most Celts outside their Central European homeland: both Gauls, Britain & Ireland, Moesia, etc.

      Iberian Celts only wrote rarely (and quite arguably, I'm not sure all said to be "Celtiberian" is even Indoeuropean) and used others' scripts (notably Iberian), totally unrelated to Ogham.

      On the later impression you have, I would not dare to issue any consolidated opinion but maybe the fact that they used cursive actually suggest comfort and security in the act of writing and reading. When I was a toddler and felt still insecure about writing I always preferred "square" capital types over small cursive ones. Cursive, if that can be confirmed, should actually suggest people very much used to the act of writing, much as Egyptian hieratic and demotic (and similar simplifications adapted to loose handwriting) imply as well.

  4. @Maju,

    Some of the cursive types look a little like Arabic to me?

    The La Zarcita looks a little like Hebrew to me?

    But on further review, how about this script from Byblos:

    1. What can I say... the first as my first reply: very subjective. I can identify (?) the three characters mentioned above and maybe others remind of some Iberian characters, which are not really different from Phoenician or Etruscan ones if my memory is correct.

      That Biblos script I did not know but may be similar to Iberian or other Mediterranean scripts. It's beyond my capacity to decide on that, specially as I am following two different live streams on the protests of Madrid as I write this... go figure!

  5. Angularity and cursive styles probably has as much to do with the conventional medium of writing as anything else. You write differently when making impressions in drying mud, than you do chiseling stone, than you do spreading ink across rice paper or vellum.

    The scripts that appears in Boston and Philadelphia on grave stones in early colonial America almost looks like a different language compared to the script in which the Declaration of Independence was written, even though they were written at the same time in the same place in the same language quite possibly in some cases by the same people (or at least by people who had been taught to write as classmates of each other in the same schools).

  6. As for the "Celtic connection" that is essentially unthinkable because in that period Celts did not even exist at all.

    I meant going forward in time, that some of the local idiosyncrasies of early writing could have been preserved in the Celtic world - analogously to how Runes preserved Old Italic elements that much predate their first finds.

    At any rate, I agree with you that there is an obvious Eastern Mediterranean (even pre-Phoenician) center of "modern" writing evolution.


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