What Did Palaeo-European Peoples Write? Local Languages of the Western Mediterranean

Gabriela de Tord Basterra

Unlike the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the people who inhabited Western Europe before the Roman conquests did not develop a written literature; as a result, our knowledge of these communities is limited. We can recreate some aspects of local cultures through archaeological research, or indirectly, through the accounts of Greek and Roman authors. But we must ask ourselves whether these accounts really reflect those societies, or are merely inadequate descriptions made by outsiders who do not understand the cultures they are writing about.

Studying inscriptions in local languages provides glimpses of fundamental aspects of these Palaeo-European cultures: we get to know the names of these men and women, what they called their gods and goddesses, what some of their habits were, and how they might have organized their societies. Inscriptions also allow us to reconstruct linguistic families, and therefore to track the origins and evolution of these communities.

Palaeo-European epigraphic studies are neither a new nor a popular research subject among ancient historians; however, the field has changed since the inauguration of the Ancient European Languages and Writings (AELAW) project, directed by professor Francisco Beltrán from the University of Zaragoza (Spain) and financed by the European network COST and Horizon 2020. This project created a network of researchers and academics from 14 European countries and developed a database with the collected data.[1]

This piece will introduce in brief aspects of more than twenty local ‘fragmentary’ languages from the ancient Western Mediterranean; these are referred to as ‘fragmentary’ because of the scarcity of available documents to enable them to be deciphered completely.

Map of local languages in the Western Mediterranean (G. de Tord Basterra).

Northern Italy

The most widespread and best-known of all Palaeo-European epigraphic cultures is Etruscan. This was a Non-Indo-European language which has been documented in more than 10,000 inscriptions found in Italy – from Tuscany, the Po Valley, Latium, Umbria, and even Campania – that were written between the 7th and 1st centuries BC. The Etruscans wrote in their own local alphabet, but there are also some late inscriptions that have been transcribed in the Latin alphabet. Most of the surviving texts are property inscriptions, as well as funerary and religious ones; these have been inscribed on a wide variety of objects. Particularly interesting are Etruscan monumental sarcophagi, decorated mirrors, and the golden laminae from Pyrgi.

Golden tablets from Pyrgi with Etruscan and Punic inscriptions (Villa Giulia Museum, Rome, Italy).

The Raetic language was spoken in the Italian provinces of Veneto, Trentino, and Alto-Adige, but traces can also be found in Southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. More than 300 inscriptions in this Non-Indo-European language were written between the 6th and 1st centuries BC in local alphabets. This language, which is difficult to decipher, has been attested in inscriptions on pottery, antler, bones, and especially bronze objects, such as the Sanzeno votive figures.[2] Raetic inscriptions on stone objects are less common; this is not the case with the neighbouring epigraphic culture of Camunic, a language attested in 300 texts, written in the Camunic alphabet between 500 and 100 BC. The texts in this language consist mainly of rock inscriptions located in the Valcamonica Valley, and all of them are considered to be religious.

Moving to Indo-European languages, we may start with the Venetic language, which is attested from the 6th to 1st century BC in the Italian regions of Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and even the Austrian state of Carinthia. There are more than 350 inscriptions in this language: most are in the Venetic writing system, although some of the latest ones are inscribed in the Latin alphabet. These texts are mainly funerary, religious, and property inscriptions, written on stone, bronze, and pottery.

Some of the best known Venetic inscriptions are the bronze sheets and writing styluses that were discovered in the sanctuary of Este, with formulary texts dedicated to the local goddess Reitia by people with Venetic personal names, most of them women, as in the illustration below. The text reads Fougontai Fougontna donasto Reitiai. Fougontna is the name of the donor, donasto the verb “to donate”, Reitia the goddess receiving the gift, and Fougonta the woman in which honour the offering was made.

Bronze stylus from Este with Venetic inscription: Lin.Ven. Es 40 (G. de Tord Basterra).

Two Celtic languages (Celtic being another branch of the Indo-European linguistic tree) are documented in the Northern Italian regions of Piemonte and Lombardy and in the Swiss cantons of Ticino and Graubünden: Lepontic and Cisalpine Gaulish. Both of these are written in the Lugano alphabet. Experts are unsure of how to differentiate between them, and usually unite them under the name “Cisalpine Celtic”. Some distinctions between them have lately been identified, but they are not decisive.[3]

Also Indo-European is the Ligurian language, which is not attested in the epigraphical record, but revealed by literary sources and toponomastics to be a language spoken in the Italian region of Liguria between 600 and 400 BC.

The languages of Iron Age Italy.

Central Italy

There were many other languages in the Italian Peninsula. One of the most prolific Indo-European linguistic families is the Sabellian languages group, which includes Umbrian, South Picene, Oscan, and a group of dialects: Volscian, Marsian, Sabine, Paelignian, Hernican, Vestinian, and Marrucinian. All of these were spoken around the region of Abruzzo. Most of the inscriptions in these dialects were written during the Late Republican period, in the Latin alphabet.

Umbrian is attested between the 4th and 1st centuries BC in the Italian region of Umbria; its main types of texts were funerary and religious inscriptions, including some interesting public texts. Among more than 50 Umbrian texts, the most significant inscriptions are the Tabulae Iguvinae, six large bronze tablets found in Gubbio: these record a list of religious prescriptions detailing rituals and ceremonies.

Detail of one of the Iguvine Tablets with Umbrian religious prescriptions (Palazzo dei Consoli, Gubbio, Italy).

South Picene, an archaic language attested between 600 and 400 BC, has been found in no more than twenty texts in the Italian regions of Marche and Abruzzo, including a group of what appear to be funerary steles inscribed with texts in the local alphabet.

In addition to Latin, another local language was spoken in Lazio: Faliscan. This Indo-European language is documented in almost 500 inscriptions, mostly on bronze, pottery, and stone, including funerary and religious texts, as well as the signatures of craftsmen and property owners.

The Agnone Tablet, which contains a long religious text in Oscan which names different deities, 3rd/2nd cent. BC (British Museum, London).

Southern Italy and Sicily

Another of the Sabellian languages, Oscan, can be traced between the 5th and 1st centuries BC in Central and Southern Italy, especially in Abruzzo, Molise, and Campania, where texts were inscribed in the Oscan alphabet, and in Basilicata, Calabria, and Sicily, where they were use the Greek alphabet. The Oscan is one of the most prolific epigraphic cultures (more than 600 texts survive), including a wide variety of objects and types of inscriptions: large stone pedestals and altars, blocks with philanthropic inscriptions, small bronze tablets and figurines with religious dedications, and lead sheets with curses, among others. Pompeii, Pietrabbondante, Capua, and Rossano di Vaglio are sites where archaeologists have found large epigraphic ensembles.

Another Indo-European language is Messapic, attested from 6th to 2nd century BC in Puglia. There are more than 600 inscriptions in Messapic, mostly funerary, and written in a modification of the Greek alphabet. There are also religious texts, such as the rock inscriptions from Grotta della Poesia, an open-air sanctuary in a promontory cave near the sea.

The Grotta della Poesia, where Messapic inscriptions were found.

Continuing our southward route, we proceed to Sicily, which boasted a unique mixture of languages and cultures throughout antiquity. As Paolo Poccetti notes: “The attempt to draw any linguistic picture of Sicily poses a serious challenge to ethnological approaches and studies in contact languages.”[4] Traditionally, three local languages have been identified: Elymian, Sikel, and Sikan. However, latest theories suggest that any distinction between them might be illusory.[5] The number of inscriptions in Sicily is extremely low, and the quality of these texts is very poor.[6]

Elymian was documented in more than a hundred texts around the Western part of Sicily, mostly on coin legends and pottery, with religious messages or property signatures. Sikel was spoken in Central and Eastern Sicily, and can be seen on objects made of ceramic, stone, and occasionally bronze. Their main types of inscriptions record property marks, weight indications, and religious texts. As I said, Sikan is still a mystery to us.

A map of Archaic Sicily.

Gaul and the Iberian Peninsula

In contrast with the great variety of languages found in Italy and the Iberian Peninsula, there is only one language attested with certainty throughout the vast territory of Gaul: Gaulish. This Celtic language was written in two different periods and alphabets: in Southern Gaul, from the end of the 3rd to the 1st century BC in the Greek alphabet; in Northern Gaul, between the 1st century BC and the 2nd century AD, all in the Latin alphabet.[7] One of the best known inscriptions in this language is the Coligny Calendar.

Calendar from Coligny with Gaulish festivities (Musée d’Archéologie du Jura, Lons-le-Saunier, France).

Numerous languages are attested in the Iberian Peninsula, some highly prolific in terms of evidence, while others barely register. For example, there are no inscriptions in Vasconic-Aquitanian, apart from the possible case of the recently discovered “Hand of Irulegui”, but this Non-Indo-European language can certainly be seen in the toponomastics around the western Pyrenees, in northern Spain and southwestern France. On the other hand, the Iberian language is attested in more than 2,000 texts written from the 5th to the 1st centuries BC along the eastern coast of Spain, from the south of France to the easternmost region of Andalusia. It is recognized in ceramics, lead sheets, coins, and stone stelae, mostly written in the Iberian writing systems.

The Celtiberian language is documented around the Ebro Valley. This Celtic language is found in more than 500 texts from the 2nd century BC, in both the Celtiberian writing system and the Latin alphabet. The main type of texts were property marks, but bronze tablets with legal texts, such as the ones from Botorrita and Novallas, are the most fascinating survivals.

‘Bronce de Botorrita I’, a Celtiberian inscription with legal text (Zaragoza Museum, Spain).

Yet another Indo-European language is Lusitanian, whose remains are located in the Western part of the Iberian Peninsula, mainly modern Portugal. Although only a few inscriptions survive that were written fully in this language, code-switching is detected in more than twenty texts, where one part of the inscription is in Latin and the other, say the name of a god, is in Lusitanian. All of these inscriptions are religious texts engraved on stone altars, written in the Latin alphabet and dated between the 2nd century BC and 2nd century AD.

An altar from Viseu, in ancient Lusitania, whose inscription is in Latin and Lusitanian; the Lusitanian section reads “For the goddesses and gods from Viseu” (drawn by G. de Tord Basterra; Viseu, Portugal).

One final mystery language is Tartessian, whose remains are located in the Spanish provinces of Huelva, Seville, Badajoz, Cadiz, and southern Portugal. It is found mainly on stone stelae and on ceramics dating between 600 and 400 BC, containing what seems to be funerary and property texts. Yet the language, for now, has resisted successful decipherment.

As this brief overview has shown, the Western Mediterranean was an exciting puzzle of different cultures, peoples, and languages; researchers are still trying to pull all these pieces together in order to see the whole picture.[8]

Gabriela de Tord is a postdoctoral researcher from the Universities of Zaragoza and Barcelona. Her main topic of research is epigraphy, especially religious inscriptions in Palaeo-European languages. She participated in the AELAW network and is currently working on two other European projects: SELECT and xFORMAL.

Further Reading

If you want to know more about this topic, I recommend the AELAW booklet collection. At this moment, more than ten booklets have been published (some translated into multiple languages), in which scholars explain, in a few pages, all you need to know about the language, the writing system, and the epigraphic habits of each Paleo-European culture, with a brief chronological overview and geographic introduction. There you will find more bibliographies about these languages, and explanations of some of their more difficult inscriptions. Information can also be found in volume 20 (2020) of the journal Palaeohispanica.


1 For more on this project, see here. This paper is based on data collected from the AELAW languages database.
2 Visit the online resource Thesaurus Inscriptionum Raeticarum for more information.
3 As explained in LexLep, “Since a clear-cut differentiation of Lepontic and Cisalpine Gaulish is not very clear from the merely linguistic evidence… in LexLep we restricted the classification of Lepontic to inscriptions that can be dated earlier than 400 BC.”
4 Poccetti (2012) 55.
5 The AELAW database only distinguish two Sicilian languages. Prag (2020, 534) says: “The gradual recognition of the problem is clearly demonstrated in the growing consensus that there is no basis, beyond the already mentioned literary tradition, to identify anything that survives as evidence for a Sikan language, distinct from Sikel.” On the other hand, Morandi (2017) identifies three languages in Sicily and separates Sikan from Sikel, presenting in his corpus a little list of texts in this language. For a brief synthesis of this discussion, see Prag (2020).
6 There are around 140 texts in Elymian according to the AELAW database; Prag (2020, 535) indicates that there might be as many as 400, but most of these are just letters or symbols that can hardly be considered texts. In Sikel, Marchesini (2009, 80) estimates 14 inscriptions, while Prag (2020, 535) suggests 50 and the AELAW database 90. In the AELAW database there are five recorded inscriptions in Sikan, even if the language is not registered in the language database.
7 Mullen and Ruiz Darasse (2018, 33–7) consider it difficult to determine the number of inscriptions in Gaulish because so many are too short to allow secure identification of the language. They believe that there are around 500 texts in ceramics, 100 in stone, and 44 in metal, in addition to many coin legends not included in the list.
8 Apart from these languages and writing systems, there is also Ogam,along with runes attested in some parts of Europe from a more recent period, and also some other languages which are not well attested, such as Tracian and Lemnian.