Scripts / Writing

Vinca symbols The Vinca symbols, sometimes called the Vinca signs, Vinca script, Vinca-Turda? script, Old European script, etc., are a set of symbols found on Neolithic era (6th to 5th millennia BCE) artifacts from the Vinca culture of Central Europe and Southeastern Europe.

The symbols are mostly considered as constituting the oldest excavated example of "proto-writing" in the world; that is, they probably conveyed a message but did not encode language, predating the development of writing proper by more than a thousand years.

"Vinca "M"" by Nikola Smolenski - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 rs via Commons -

The importance of these findings lies in the fact that the bulk of the Vinca symbols was created in the period between 4500 and 4000 BC, with the ones on the Tartaria clay tablets even dating back to around 5300 BC.[4] This means that the Vinca finds predate the proto-Sumerian pictographic script from Uruk (modern Iraq), which is usually considered as the oldest known script, by more than a thousand years. Analyses of the symbols showed that they have little similarity with Near Eastern writing, leading to the view that these symbols and the Sumerian script probably arose independently. Although a large number of symbols are known, most artifacts contain so few symbols that they are very unlikely to represent a complete text. Possibly the only exception is the Sitovo inscription in Bulgaria, the dating of which is disputed; regardless, even that inscription has only around 50 symbols. It is unknown which language used the symbols, or indeed whether they stand for a language in the first place.

Old European / Vinca / Danube script The Vinca symbols have been found on many of the artefacts excavated from sites in south-east Europe, in particular from Vinca near Belgrade, but also in Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, eastern Hungary, Moldova, southern Ukraine and the former Yugoslavia. The artefacts date from between the 7th and 4th millennia BC and those decorated with these symbols are between 8,000 and 6,500 years old.

Some scholars believe that the Vinca symbols represent the earliest form of writing ever found, predating ancient Egyptian and Sumerian writing by thousands of years. Since the inscriptions are all short and appear on objects found in burial sites, and the language represented is not known, it is highly unlikely they will ever be deciphered.

Cretan Writing The Mediterranean island of Crete is home to several ancient writings which are only partially deciphered. The oldest epigraphic documents were found on small seal stones, called ‘Cretan hieroglyph’ by Arthur evans who first studied them (figure 24). The excavation of Knossos, the centre of Minoan culture in Crete, and other sites in central and eastern Crete brought to light a number of inscriptions which illustrate the development of Cretan writing. Dating from the end of the third millennium bce, the hieroglyphs are thought to form a logographic script much like hittite hieroglyphic. Many of the signs depict natural objects such as animals. What seems to be a variety of the plastic seal inscriptions is a more linear script found on baked clay tablets. Some 45 of these so-called ‘proto-linear’ signs could be identified with hieroglyphs. Both scripts consist of about 90 signs. Their exact relationship is yet to be determined.

During the Middle Minoan period (about 1700-1550 bce) the proto-linear signs developed into two scripts known as linear A and linear B (figure 25). The former was used up to about 1450 bce and the latter up to about 1200 bce. Although Linear A inscriptions were found throughout central and eastern Crete while Linear B is only attested in Knossos, the latter is deemed more important because the documents are more numerous and because it could be deciphered. Yet another writing of Cretan origin is found on a single document, the famous phaistos disk, which has defied all attempts at decipherment.

In sum, the Minoan culture of Crete has produced at least five different writings, most of which, however, are sparsely documented and therefore poorly understood. All Minoan inscriptions pre-date Greek alphabetic writing. However fragmentary and partially undeciphered, they are of great significance for the history of writing since they constitute the first instances of writing in the Aegean Sea and in the Greek language.

Linear A Crete was the cradle of the Minoan civilization that flourished between 2000 BCE and 1200 BCE. In addition to vivid frescoes, grand palaces, and even indoor plumbing, the Minoans also developed the first written systems of Europe, the ornamental Cretan Hieroglyphs, and the stylized Linear A. Although visually quite different and inscribed on different media for distinct purposes, Cretan Hieroglyphs and Linear A were likely very closely related and in fact might be two scripts of the same writing system, but we do not know enough about either system to draw any conclusions at this time.

In addition, Linear A is even more similar to Linear B, the writing system of Mycenaean Greeks. Linear A has roughly 90 symbols, thus most likely a syllabary with a handful of logograms much like Linear B. In fact, Linear A shares a large number of signs with Linear B (about 80%) and interpretation of Linear A signs using Linear B values have been attempted to a reasonable degree of success. It became very clear that Linear A did not represent a Greek language like Linear B. Instead the language of Liner A is unlike any known language.

Because of the unknown language underyling Linear A, scholars turned to functional comparison with Linear B. One major similarity to Linear B is the fact that most of the Linear A inscriptions are accounting lists of goods. These texts provide thus far the best understanding of Linear A.

Cretan Hieroglyphs Bronze Age Crete was home to the powerful seafaring civilization known to the modern world as the Minoans. As the first literate culture of Europe, the Minoans employed not one but two related writing systems. The more commonly known system is Linear A due to the rectilinear shape of its symbols. The second system, more ancient but less well-known and even less understood, is called Cretan Hieroglyphs. It is so called because of the relatively naturalistic style of the characters, as compared to the more "abstract" forms in Linear A. Many signs resemble natural objects like body parts, plants, animals, implements, weapons, ships, as well as more abstract symbols.

Linear A Linear A is one of two currently undeciphered writing systems used in ancient Greece (Cretan hieroglyphic is the other). Linear A was the primary script used in palace and religious writings of the Minoan civilization. It was discovered by archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. It is the origin of the Linear B script, which was later used by the Mycenaean civilization.

In the 1950s, Linear B was largely deciphered and found to encode an early form of Greek. Although the two systems share many symbols, this did not lead to a subsequent decipherment of Linear A. Using the values associated with Linear B in Linear A mainly produces unintelligible words. If it uses the same or similar syllabic values as Linear B, then its underlying language appears unrelated to any known language. This has been dubbed the Minoan language.

Linear A has been unearthed chiefly on Crete, but also at other sites in Greece, as well as Turkey and Israel. The extant corpus, comprising some 1427 specimens totalling 7362–7396 signs, if scaled to standard type, would fit on a single sheet of paper.

Jiahu symbols Jiahu symbols (Chinese: pinyin: Jiahú qìkè fúhào) refer to the 16 distinct markings on prehistoric artifacts found in Jiahu, a neolithic Peiligang culture site found in Henan, China, and excavated in 1999. The Jiahu site dates to 6600 BC. The archaeologists who made the original finds believed the markings to be similar in form to some characters used in the much later oracle bone script (e.g. similar markings of ? "eye", ? "sun; day"), but most doubt that the markings represent systematic writing.[1] A 2003 report in Antiquity interpreted them "not as writing itself, but as features of a lengthy period of sign-use which led eventually to a fully-fledged system of writing."

Undeciphered writing systems

Send comments to, Colby Glass, MLIS, PhDc, Professor Emeritus