E.S. Wynn is an editor and the author of over seventy books in print.
The Vinča culture, also known as the Turdaș culture, was a Neolithic culture and part of the Old European (Pre-Proto-Indo-European) Danubian culture complex which rose to prominence around 7,000 years ago. The Vinča Script, (or Vinča Runes) are a series of proto-writing symbols argued to be some of the oldest in the world (or some of the oldest in Europe, at least) and arguably one of the main precursors of what would become the Elder Futhark, or oldest runes of the Germanic Tribes. The Tărtăria Tablets (including the Calendar Amulet) were found in 1961 in Romania, but the debate still rages on as to how much information these Old European runes actually convey, and whether or not they constitute evidence that the Vinča were the first to create a written language.
When the politics of fragile nationalism get tied up in anthropology and archaeology, people tend to rush right out and try to claim "firsts." A race begins to solidify in the history books that a certain group of ancestors living in a certain area were the first to create something. When it comes to written language, there's still a lot of argument about which people were the first to turn spoken words into writing. Examples of notches cut in stone or clay are held out as definitive proof that a particular culture invented writing, but when one looks at the profusion of artifacts spread over the Eurasian Continent and African Continent, two things become clear: while the Vinča certainly seem to have been the first to make specific, repeated notches in clay (setting aside scratch-designs that may be protolingustic in nature on cave walls in France, the Swabian Jura or even going back as far as the Neanderthals) clay is unlikely to be the first and original medium that language was written down in. Wood, hides and skins may have been the first tablets to bear meaningful marks because of their ease and softness. Studies of Sumerian linguistic technology also indicates that, before there was writing, there were notation marks and memory aides, most composed of tokens of varying sizes and shapes pressed into fist-sized balls of clay.
The idea of "who was first" often obscures the true nature of humanity, that we borrow useful technologies (words included) from each other relentlessly. Even in our modern age, languages borrow words heavily from one another, and our languages are full of endless examples of relic words borrowed from other languages going all the way back into precursor languages and beyond.
To assume that this wasn't happening when the first expressions of writing and proto-writing appeared is folly, especially when you consider that the first people to make and keep written records were clergy and merchants, both classes of people which are known for traveling widely and for interacting regularly with people from all classes of society as well as those from distant lands. Looking at the countless examples of cultural diffusion in the historical record, I think it is extremely likely that basic notations and memory aides became more complex as new ideas and new systems of written notation were created and spread from culture to culture. You see this in all the oldest languages, especially when you compare the early symbol marks of Proto-Cuneiform to the marks of the Vinča, and also when you cross-compare other Vinča symbols with those of Venetic, Raetic, Hugarian/Bosnian runic scripts, Camunic, Lepontic and Turkic runes. Even the Dalrunes are an example of this, borrowing steadily more and more from Latin until the runic nature was almost wholly obscured. With all this in mind, a picture begins to form of diffusion on a large scale, both temporally and geographically. As clergy and merchants from different cultures came into contact with one another, and as military forces occupied or overwhelmed other cultures, tools of language were exchanged and new hybrids were created. The Elder Futhark Rune system is one such hybrid, with some of its deepest roots visible in the script markings used by the Vinča.
How Runes Differ From Letters
Studying the runes has been a bit of a passion of mine for a while. Runic scripts tend to echo the animistic mindset of a time when spirituality and writing were much more firmly interlinked than they are now. To us, letters equate to phonemes (sounds) and nothing more. An "A" is an "A" and "B" is a "B", but to the Old Norse, the vikings and other related people, an "A" wasn't just an letter that made a sound. It was Ansuz, the sacred breath of the creator, and the line that connects us to our ancestors. Ansuz, the equivalent to "A" in our own language, had a whole host of associations that made it more like a word rather than a letter. Every rune has its "meaning," it's conceptual framework of associations, and we see this in all of the earliest forms of language. Even the arrangement of the letters in our own English alphabet was decided because of the spiritual implications of the alignment.
The Old European (Vinča) script has been considered uncrackable due to the extreme age of the writing, the sparse, typically short samples that have been found, and the great variety of variation in symbols, but I think that an additional barrier to understanding which is not typically considered is actually how people are viewing these runes. Instead of seeing them as runes, as symbols with a linguistic element, researchers tend to see them only as phonetic in nature and wonder why the words they shape are either very short, compose only strings of nonsense, or both.
The problem is, if you want to understand the proto-writing of the Vinča, you have to think like a viking.
Of Vikings and Vinča
About 5,500 years separate the Vikings and the Vinča, so how could the workings of one's written language possibly give any insight into the workings of the other? Even beyond that, the purists out there will quickly point out the fact that the Vikings didn't even use the Elder Futhark-- it predates them! This, I would argue, makes it perfect.
Even after fifty centuries, we see traces of the Old European script (or runes) in the Elder Futhark, not to mention the greater body of European culture (Slavic, Celtic, Germanic, etc.) It's a written script that is both phonetic and spiritually symbolic. This makes the Elder Futhark the perfect bridge between us (with our purely phonetic script) and the Old European script, which is probably more symbolic than phonetic. By cross-comparing symbols through various "runic" European scripts likely related to both the Vinča and Elder Futhark scripts, we can begin to find a number of phonetic associations that don't change much over the intervening time. Sure, there are plenty of phonetic changes that do occur, but with a little bit of correction for those (like a conversion of a D to a T, or a C to a G, etc.) a wiggly understanding of Vinča rune associations begins to take shape. Now, certainly, we're less interested in the phonetics than we are in the symbolic meanings, as phonetic associations with letters are more likely to change over time than symbolic associations are with runes, but they are by no means an irrelevant consideration.
Working with a hand-made chart converting concepts to Elder Futhark Runes and then converting Elder Futhark Runes to Vinča runes, I decided to tackle the enigmatic "amulet" of the Tărtăria Tablets found in 1961. For me, this artifact has always held a great deal of fascination for me, so I chose it as the first test for my translation system. Much to my surprise, it yielded its secrets to me with relative ease, and helped me hone my translation system a little in the process. Within an hour, it was clear I was dealing with something that was, at the very least, a calendar.
A Year In Clay
The first quadrant I tackled was the one in the upper lefthand side. It seemed the most obvious candidate for testing my translation system as the two runes in it are pretty consistent through the runic scripts I was measuring against the Vinča script (and against each other.) These two symbols are the "H" and "R" runes, which in the Elder Futhark have associations of storms (cold storms, hail, etc.) and rushing movement. To me, and in context later (which I believe is important) this indicated storms, perhaps rushing wind (or blizzards, if you will, reading right to left.)
Quadrant two (upper right) threw me for a loop until I realized that the "notched arrow" symbol was probably the Proto-Sumerian symbol for "great" (as in spiritual greatness) paired with the Vinča runes "R-R-NG-S". Comparing these to Elder Futhark equivalents, we get clear reminders of rushing, of movement, fertility and the coming of the sun. The repeating of runes to create a design and a string of "nonsense" is something we see through the Elder Futhark and beyond as a form of spiritual expression, typically carved on wands or in the form of bindrunes cut to bring about certain outcomes. R-R-NG-S might not have a phonetic meaning, but it certainly has a symbolic meaning resulting from all the runes crammed into it.
The third quadrant appears to be partially worn away on the far edge, and the meaning of what we can see is more opaque than in the first two quadrants. There is, however, a clear Proto-Sumerian symbol present in the quadrant, (it's phonetic meaning - SU, being perhaps transmutable into S-U in the Elder Futhark, giving us perhaps a reminder of "Intense Sun".) The meaning of the other symbol, the "dancer" partially worn off by age, still eludes me. I have a hunch it may be entirely symbolic, a pictogram perhaps of a worshiper with arms to the sky in a traditional posture we see applied in spiritual practice all across the world, even in Vinča idols and artifacts. Perhaps it is reminiscent of the sun cult that was common in Old Europe at the time, with worshipers celebrating the Summer Solstice.
The fourth and final quadrant seemed to be an indicator of autumn, but even then it seems a bit hazy. One of the figures is either an incomplete F rune (incomplete because of damage) or is a kind of bindrune hybrid of the NG and D runes. If it's an F rune, it is a nod to the sun-wheel, perhaps to something involving sheep / goats (if it's linked with the Proto-Sumerian symbol of a circle with a cross in the middle of it) or both. It seems to have a clear link to livestock abundance either way, likely indicating a link to the autumn meat harvest, the culling of livestock in preparation for winter. Other symbols in the fourth quadrant are a double showing of the J rune (flow, cycles, harvest - Perhaps the fruit harvest and the grain harvest?) and a single mark which may indicate a wheat stalk or be the Proto-Sumerian symbol for GY (perhaps being associated with gift [Gebo in the Elder Futhark.]) I'm more inclined to believe the former rather than the latter, but I'm certainly open to either interpretation being true, or perhaps even both of them being true simultaneously.
The Final Analysis
There is still much work to be done when it comes to completely deciphering the Vinča Runic Script, but I think deeper analysis of the amulet clearly reveals it is not only a calendar, but also an impressive amalgam of the written markings of a number of cultures openly trading ideas with each other. The very presence of Proto-Sumerian symbols side-by-side with Old European Script Runes is a powerful testament to how friendly different groups were with each other seven thousand years ago, and how free the exchange of ideas must have been at that time. In a way, the cooperation evidenced in the Tărtăria Calendar Amulet should be a message to us, in our present day, that as our ancestors were able to move beyond nationalistic identities to cooperate with each other freely and across borders to broaden communication among themselves and their neighbors, so too can we work together to usher in a brighter, broader future for our people and for our children. All our divisions are ultimately only man made, serving only to separate us from each other in ways that are often more destructive than constructive.
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