Writing in Neolithic Europe; an Aegean origin?

For many years the earliest writing was assumed to have originated in Uruk, in Sumeria, Mesopotamia c. 3100 BC. Evidence from Egypt has now dated writing to c. 3400-3200 BC, while evidence from the Indus Valley suggests a date of 3500 BC for the development of writing there. 

In the 1980s, a system of writing was noticed in the Balkans of the Final Neolithic period. This was identified as “pre-writing” by Shan Winn (1981) and Emilia Masson (1984) who considered whether this constituted a Vinča “script.” They each concluded that the Vinča signs represented a “precursor” to writing.

Tartaria Tablets, Transylvania.pngThe Tărtăria Tablets, Transylvania

In 1961, at Tărtăria in Romania, three baked clay tablets were found which were initially considered by some to have similarities with inscribed artefacts from Mesopotamia, but are now generally seen as local documents. The Tărtăria Tablets are now dated to the Vinča culture, c. 5300 B.C.*, i.e., within the European Neolithic period (see Lazarovici and Merlini 2008: 39 -52).

It therefore appears that the Tărtăria Tablets and associated signs of proto-writing from the Balkans, dated to the Neolithic period, are up to two thousand years before the appearance of writing in Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Indus Valley.s Proto-writing in the Balkans comes from places in Romania (Turdaș, Tărtăria , Gumelnița) and Bulgaria (Gradešnica, Karanovo), along with Vinča in Yugoslavia, which have connections with the Neolithic farming communities of Sitagroi and Nea Nikomedeia in northern Greece, as well as with Troy and Poliochni on Lemnos. There are more than one thousand widespread signs from more than one hundred sites in the Balkans during the Transitional Copper Age.

Dispilio Tablet, KastoriaDispilio Tablet, Kastoria

ln 1994, the “inscription” from the University of Thessaloniki’s excavations at Dispilio on the shore of Kastoria Lake in Macedonia, northern Greece, was first published. This was dated by the Dimokritos Laboratory in Athens to c. 5260 BC according to C-14 readings. The “inscription” from Dispilio was subsequently republished a number of times (see, e.g., Hourmouziades 1996, 2002), along with what seems to be another ‘inscribed’ object (Figure below). Thus, the question was raised as to whether there may have been a script in Final Neolithic Greece, as there appears to have been in the neighboring contemporary Balkans and as there later was in Bronze Age Greece and Crete.

Dispilio InscriptionDispilio inscribed object

In 1997, the Hellenic police confiscated a “Neolithic Treasure” which was put on display at the Athens Archaeological Museum. This “Neolithic Treasure” consisted of 53 gold objects (it is not known if they were found together) which could be dated to the Final Neolithic/Chalcolithic/Transitional Period c. 4500-3200 BC. One of these, #72, has marks which some would consider possibly to be signs of a script. The most likely provenance of these objects is considered to be Macedonia or Thessaly in northern Greece. The same Neolithic gallery of the Athens Archaeological Museum, re-opened in the summer of 2004, contains clay stamps from Sesklo. Their existence presupposes a developed network of social and communal institutions. The owner of a stamp may have held a position in society,and might have used the the stamp to safeguard a private or communal product. The designs of the stamp are geometric, chiefly zigzag lines. Particularly interesting is a stamp on the top of a large spool, of which the cylindrical body is also full of incisions, perhaps early signs or symbols.

ln 1996, the best introductory and comprehensive work on Neolithic Greece was published by the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens. This work, Neolithic Culture in Greece (Papathanassopoulos 1996) covered subjects such as habitation, agriculture, tools, pottery, stone vessels, weaving basketry, metallurgy, figurines and models, jewellery, exchanges and relations, burial customs and perhaps most importantly, in regard to writing, seals-as well as an extensive catalogue of 333 objects. This work offered a panorama of Neolithic civilization in Greece, based upon more than one thousand sites, by a new generation of scholars, and was the first attempt at such an overview in almost a quarter of a century since the works of D. R. Theocharis.

Reference should also be made to the important work of D. Schmandt-Besserat (1978) who systematically studied thousands of clay tokens from the Neolithic period and claimed to have identified an administrative system that could be described as prewriting.

The largest collection of fourth millennium tokens is from Uruk which has also produced the first evidence of writing in Mesopotamia c. 3100 BC., thus supporting the link from tokens to writing and indeed justifying the term “pre-writing.” For the “inscriptions” from Final Neolithic Greece, along with the Tărtăria Tablets and Vinča Signs from the Balkans, however, the term “proto-writing” is perhaps more appropriate as they may well be the first stages of a script as opposed to the administratively related but distinct token system.

(Source: “Was There a Script in Final Neolithic Greece?”, by Gareth Owens)


*[NovoScriptorium: From a research we did, this dating is highly debatable and it is not generally acceptable, nor it is a proper one, i.e. it does not derive from e.g. C-14, but instead, from a rather controversial stratigraphy. An interesting paper to read about this is titled “New archaeological data refering to Tărtăria tablets“, by Gheorghe Lazarovici, Marco Merlini (2005). From the paper titled “The tablets of Tǎrtǎria. An enigma? A reconsideration and further perspectives“, by Sorin Paliga (1993), we read:

The immediate conclusion is that the stratigraphical context in which the three tablets were found suggests a later position, therefore not c. 5300-5000 B.C. (by comparison with other radiocarbon dated Vinca layers) as some archaeologists believe, but a date around 4800 B.C, eventually later if we must really admit a mixed stratigraphy at Tartaria. In the absence of C-14 dates it is pointless to speculate on this detail‘.

Additionally, in the paper titled “Settling discovery circumstances, dating and utilization of the Tărtăria tablets“, by Marco Merlini and Gheorghe Lazarovici (2008), we read:

The fact is that the tablets have never been analyzed by radiocarbon and they cannot be submitted to this analysis any more. After the discovery, the tablets were soft and appeared covered with calcareous deposits due to the humidity in the pit. A well-meaning but hasty restorer (Josif Korody) confused a matter mixed with calcium, as in fact the tablets are (pulverized live calcium mixed with water in order to bind clay, sand, and different minerals), with a calcium crust due to the moisture of the pit. Therefore, he put them under hydrochloric acid treatment that removed not only the surface calcium as a slip but also destroyed their internal structure.’, while we also read that ‘The Danube script flourished up to about 3500 BC‘.]


“i) The first subgroup consists of a piece of wet cedar wood (cedrus sp.) with an almost quadrilateral shape measuring 23×19.2×2 cm. that bears traces of fire. The tablet was found during the July 1993 excavation campaign in a trial trench into the water very near the lake shore. There are archaeological finds and traces of anthropogenic activity into the water in the entire area (Sofronidou 2009). This trench was performed some meters away from the northwestern side of the Eastern trench. An excavation square (D158dc) was framed using wooden boards and the water was continuously pumped away. When the mud was gradually removed, the wooden tablet appeared floating on the water surface that was still entering inside the framed area, passing through and over the wooden boards due to the waters rippling. On the surface of the artifact, which is characterized as the front one, up to 10 rows of linear vertical and horizontal carved “signs” can be distinguished. Similar carved signs can also be seen on the upper thin side of the tablet. The signs were preserved due to the anaerobic condition of the tablet’s taphonomic environment. However, during the drying process most of their engraving depth has been lost.”

“The most unexpected of the finds, a cedar tablet [from] the lake carved with 10 rows of “signs” was 14C dated to 5202 +/- 123 B.C., and is the oldest known engraved wooden tablet. In addition, clay tablets and other clay finds engraved with similar signs were also unearthed from layers dated either to the end of the Middle Neolithic or to the Late Neolithic I period. The dating of the Dispilio engraved finds is similar to those that appeared in southeastern Europe around 5300 BC, some 2000 yr earlier than any other known writing. These signs and inscriptions are considered by some scholars a specific script of literacy (Winn 1981; Merlini 2005; Lazarovici and Merlini 2005; Owens 2009). If this proves to be a primary source of written communication, the history of writing should be reconsidered and Neolithic societies should not be considered “societies without writing”.

The find has been C14 dated to c.5260 B.C.

Is it possible to try and approach the “Dispilio Inscription” (“DI”) as the best preserved and most substantial example of the “Neolithic Script(s)” (“NS”), including the “Tartaria Tablets” (“TT”), as a ‘Code of Communication’ in Neolithic West Macedonia in North Greece, Hellas, in the Stone Age Balkans in South East Europe?

The C14 dated (Dimokritos Athens Hellas etc p.511, Y Y.Facorellis, M.Sofronidou, G.Hourmouziadis (+) 2014) “Dispilio Inscription” (“DI”) “Neolithic Script(s)” (“NS”) is 2000 years older than the earliest ‘writing’ known so far from Sumer in Mesopotamia (c.3100 B.C.), predynastic Egypt (c.3400-3200 B.C.) and the Indus Valley (c.3500 B.C.).

Does the “Dispilio Inscription” (“DI”) belong to the “Neolithic Script(s)” (“NS”), including the “Tartaria Tablets” (“TT”), of the Stone Age Balkans? Previous scholars talked about a sacred/symbolic script of Old Europe. Is the “Dispilio Inscription” (“DI”) actually an example of the “Neolithic Script(s)” (“NS”) i.e. the ‘script’ that was prevalent around the Danube in South East Europe including West Macedonia in North Greece/Hellas in the Stone Age and is this actually a ‘script’ i.e. representing phonetically the spoken language of Neolithic Dispilio, or is the “Dispilio Inscription” (“DI”) and “Neolithic Script(s)” (“NS”), including the “Tartaria Tablets” (“TT”) perhaps a symbolic code of communication but not a phonetic script, even recording a spoken language but rather representing abstract ideas, art, map, something sacred and/or symbolic, could it be art which is a code of communication, portraying a message understood by those who ‘wrote’ it and by those who ‘read’ it standing upright on its base for all to see?

The “Dispilio Inscription” (“DI”) of the “Neolithic Script(s)” (“NS”) was conserved and preserved for future generations by the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki, after its discovery in the lakeside area north of the Neolithic ‘peribolos’/temenos in square D158dc. All research and subsequent study must progress from the drawing from the first photograph taken before it subsequently dried out.

Merlini, 2009, called the signs “Danube Script” (as opposed to Winn ‘Sacred Script’, 1973, and Haarmann ‘Old European Writing’, 1995) and saw it as a ‘symbolic script’ i.e. Sacred Script of Old Europe as advocated by Gimbutas et alii (Tartaria Tablets).

Merlini talked about the “Danube Script” as a system of writing in ‘statu nascenti’ (i.e. in a formative stage of development) and not as ‘pre-writing’ or ‘proto-writing’ c.f. website and book re ‘Danube Civilization’ and ‘Danube Script’ map, for the core area of the ‘Danube Civilization’ flanking the Danube and comprising Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, South Ukraine, Slovakia, East Czech Republic, East Austria, States of Former Yugoslavia, Albania and West Macedonia in North Greece, Hellas. The ‘Danube Civilization’ cultural area extends further to include South Italy, West Asia Minor and South Greece and the Aegean, i.e. not just the Danube but extends to Adriatic, Aegean and Black Sea Areas in the Stone Age, i.e. “Neolithic Script(s)” (“NS”), including the “Dispilio Inscription” (“DI”) and the “Tartaria Tablets” (“TT”).

If the “Dispilio Inscription” (“DI”), like the “Tartaria Tablets” (“TT”), belongs to the “Neolithic Script(s)” (“NS”) corpus is it possible to do a transcription to go along with photos and drawing to see if it can indeed be ‘read’ using Merlini’s corpus of signs?

The corpus/dbase of Winn (1973, 242 signs), Haarmann (1995, 232 signs), Merlini 2009 (292 signs), suggest between 200 and 300 signs. There are 3 systems of writing in the world.

i) Alphabetic Scripts = 10s of signs max c.75.

ii) Syllabic Scripts = 100s of signs.

iii) Ideographic script = 1000s of signs.

The “Dispilio Inscription” (“DI”) of “Neolithic Script(s)” (“NS”) is most probably neither an alphabetic nor an ideographic script, so by a process of elimination, it is most likely to be a syllabic script (maximum 232-242-292, probably substantially less) if it is indeed ‘writing’, phonetically representing a spoken language.

Is it possible to isolate the signs on the “Dispilio Inscription” (“DI”) and try to see them as “Neolithic Script(s)” (“NS”) in the corpus of Merlini, can one then read the “Dispilio Inscription” (“DI”) signs as “Neolithic Script(s)” (“NS”), which would show that they belong to the “Neolithic Script(s)” (“NS”), including the “Tartaria Tablets” (“TT”), of the Balkans in the Stone Age in the 6th to 4th Millennium BC. If indeed they can be ‘read’ do they represent a syllabic script i.e. phonetically representing the spoken language of Neolithic Dispilio.


Did the “Neolithic Script(s)” actually inspire the latter Syllabic Scripts of the Aegean and Cyprus 25 (LB, LA, “CH”, PD+AA, CM 0-1(LC)-2(Enkomi)-3(Ugarit) and CS) and is there perhaps an intellectual connection26. Is the “Dispilio Inscription” (“DI”) “Neolithic Script(s)” (“NS”), including the “Tartaria Tablets” (“TT”), 6th to 4th Millennia the intellectual ancestor of the Aegean Linear syllabic scripts of the Second Millennium, and should the possibility be considered that there may even be an epigraphic missing link, yet to be discovered from the Third Millennium B.C. Aegean.

Does the “Dispilio Inscription” (“DI”) as an example of “Neolithic Script” (“NS”) record a written syllabic language for all to see standing on its base in view – centrally organized in a Neolithic Farming community – or is it even symbolic and or sacred i.e. art and religion = civilization. Are there indeed c.10 rows of 10 signs = 100 signs? Can one commence ‘studying’ the “Dispilio Inscription” (“DI”) “Neolithic Script(s)” (“NS”) before attempting the “reading” or even the “understanding” of it?

(Source: “The “Dispilio Inscription” c.5260 +/- 40 B.C. and the “Neolithic Script(s)”
in West Macedonia, North Greece, Hellas”, by A.Blanta & G.Owens)


Last but not least, we firmly suggest a careful read of the following piece of recent (June 2019) research work (http://users.teilar.gr/~g1951d/Aegean.pdf). Among other interesting observable conclusions, one will notice that some of the Dispilio signs show direct relation to the later on Aegean scripts such as Linear A.

In conclusion:

-The Dispilio inscription indeed appears to have been some form of writing, most likely syllabic.

-The Dispilio inscription is, so far, the oldest written monument in the World.

-The Neolithic expansion, as is generally accepted in our time, started from the Aegean towards the North and not the opposite (of course, there also exists the controversial issue of some supposed initial migrations from Anatolia-Near East which, as we have presented with the help of officially published material, do not seem to be the case. It is more likely that domesticated seeds and animals were adopted by the Aegeans, through Trade, from the East rather than that the Aegeans were…substituted by some ‘ghost’ Eastern population that does not at all culturally-archaeologically appear in the Aegean or Southeastern Europe during the Neolithic). Therefore we must derive that Writing expanded from the Aegean to the North and not the opposite as some researchers have suggested in the past.

-It is suggested, if the above are in the correct direction, that future archaeological excavations in the Aegean-Greek peninsula must discover inscriptions and forms of Writing between the 6th and the 2nd millennium, to fill a logical evolutionary gap.

We also firmly suggest a read of our following articles:









Linear A

Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides & Isidoros Aggelos


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