In 1961, archaeologist Nicolae Vlassa discovered what may be direct evidence of the earliest forms of writing in the world. While conducting an archeological excavation at a Neolithic site in Romania, Vlassa’s team uncovered three small clay tablets containing indecipherable etchings, now known as the Tartaria Tablets. There have been varying interpretations of the meanings of the etchings on the tablets. Some believe the etchings are a primitive form of writing, while others believe they are pictograms, random scribbles, religious symbols, or symbols of ownership.
The tablets are each about 2 ½ inches across. Two are rectangular, and one is round. The round tablet and one rectangular tablet have holes drilled through them. The clay tablets were unbaked, and were discovered along with 26 clay and stone figurines, a shell bracelet, and damaged human bones. Some believe that the tablets were actually found within a sacrificial burial pit. 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.
There is uncertainty as to the dating of the tablets. The conservation unit at the Cluj Museum in Romania baked the tablets to preserve them, and to make carbon-14 dating possible. Initially, the tablets were thought to have originated as part of the Vinča-Turdaș culture, dating back to 2700 BC. Through carbon dating, however, the tablets were shown to have possibly originated as far back as 5500 BC during the time of the early Eridu phase of the Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia. Due to contradictory stratigraphic evidence, the estimations based on carbon dating are disputed.
There is much scholarly debate as to the meaning of the inscriptions on the tablets. Some scholars have concluded that the inscriptions are an early form of writing. They base this conclusion upon four assumptions. First, the inscriptions appear to be sequenced in rows. Second, each character appears to have one unequivocal meaning. Third, there are standard shapes that were used by scribes on other artifacts from the Danube civilization. And fourth, the symbols create a rectilinear shape that is comparable to other archaic writing systems. While these assumptions lead to the conclusion that the inscriptions were an early form of writing, it is not known what type of writing they represent.
Other scholars view the inscriptions to be a set of pictograms and random scribbles. Due to speculation that the tablets were found at a sacrificial burial site, many believe that the symbols were of a religious context. Some scholars believe that the human bones found with the tablets were those of a priest, a shaman, a spirit-medium, or a high dignitary. Shunning Vlassa’s description of a ritual sacrifice, some scholars believe that this person died in a fire, and was then buried with the tablets because they were of importance to him while he had lived. Others still believe that the bones were those of a “supreme priest” who was burned alive at the completion of his serving time, in accordance with the Sumerian tradition, in honor of the great God Saue. It has even been suggested that the two tablets with holes drilled in them may have been worn simultaneously, in an overlapping pattern, during some sort of initiation ceremony.
Much debate over the dating of the tablets stems from inconsistencies shrouding the discovery and subsequent baking of the tablets. Oddly, Vlassa was not actually present when the tablets were uncovered. The reason for his absence at the time was never explained. The tablets were found in a pit that contained high humidity, and were covered in limestone. For this reason, the tablets were soft upon discovery. Before any photos were taken, the tablets were baked with a well-meaning, but overly-hasty intent to preserve them. Perhaps further analysis prior to baking would have provided answers to some of the questions that remain to this day. It has been argued that rather than making carbon dating possible, the baking has made it impossible for the tablets to ever make it through carbon testing.
Overall, analysis of the Tartaria Tablets has led to many interesting hypotheses about early human culture, and the emergence of communication by writing. While ancient artifacts may initially appear to answer many questions about human civilization, in this instance, it is clear that some finds ultimately lead us to more questions than answers.