Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


edited by: Daniele F. Maras

  • Introduction
  • Ancient Writing Systems

The language spoken on the island of Lemnos, in the north Aegean Sea, is known from only a small number of inscriptions, dating from the 6th century BCE: the find spots are gathered around the centres of Hephaistia and Kaminia, where the two principal texts have been found.

Most of the documents are graffiti on potsherds, often consisting in one single word, and not easily framed in a lexical or onomastic context.

Greater understanding is possible for the major texts.

The stele from Kaminia has been studied by generations of scholars since 1884. It has two long texts, incised on the front face (around the figure of a warrior) and on one of the narrower side faces. The funerary function of the stele seems confirmed at least by part of the contents of text A, while text B, probably written by a different scribe, seems to have had a different function.

On the other hand, the base from Hephaistia has been most recently found in the archaic sanctuary of the town (Kabirion), in correspondence with the theatre, and announced in 2009: the short text, on two lines, records the votive dedication of a small statue (now lost), put on the small pier supporting the inscription.

From the point of view of lexicon, there is certain correspondence with Etruscan in some of the terms present in the inscription, which can therefore be easily translated:

At Kaminia:

naφoθ[s?] ~ Etr. nefts = “nephew or grandson” (here, perhaps, more generically “descendant”)

śialχveis ~ Etr. sealχvis = “40”

avis ~ Etr. avils = “year” (genitive case)

sivai ~ Etr. zivas = “alive”

-m ~ Etr. -m = “and, but” (enclitic conjiunction)


At Hephaistia:

heloke ~ Etr. helu  = “built, erected (?)” (de Simone’s hypothesis)

Names mentioned in the text can have a Greek (or at least Aegean) origin, as proved by the parallel between Holaise/Holaiesi and ‘Υλαíος; but there is some possibility of comparison with Etruscan names, as in the case of Aker, comparable with Etruscan Θuker (and see also the transcription of Greek -io with Lemnian -ie, in the case of Holaie-).

Even more impressive are the morphological correspondences with Etruscan, as the terminations of cases:

-Ø = nominative/accusative (Lemn. aker, soromśaslaś ~ Etr. larθlarisavileθuker)

-s = genitive I (Lemn. holaies ~ Etr. avilesθukers)

-l­ = genitive II (Lemn. vanalasial ~ Etr. larθallarisal)

-si = pertinentive I (Lemn. holaiesihktaonosi ~ Etr. avilesi)

-le = pertinentive II (Lemn. φokiasale ~ Etr. larisale)

-i = locative (Lemn. seronai ~ Etr. mataliai)


or termination of verbs:

-ce/-ke = active past tense (Lemn. heloke ~ Etr. turuce)


Finally, text B on the stele from Kaminia opens with a dating formula using the name of a magistrate: holaiesi φokiasiale seronaiθ,which precisely corresponds to similar Etruscan formulas, as zilci velusi hulχniesi, “when V.H. was in charge as zilath”.

But there are also differences, mainly in the lexicon, that make Lemnian a different language from Etruscan, its contemporary. The lack of documents makes it difficult to evaluate the quantitative and qualitative impact of such dissimilarities, but in some cases they seem to be particularly significant. This is the case of the important word novaisna, which appears isolated in some graffiti in potsherds, alternating with Greek ‘Ιερóν, confirming its meaning as “sacred”; the word is not comparable with any Etruscan word (even though we know several different Etruscan terms meaning “sacred”, such as cvertinscvilalpan e ais-).

In any case, on the grounds of the above-mentioned coincidences, we can say that the morphology and part of the lexicon of the Lemnian language (and some elements of syntax, as far as the texts provide evidence for it) are undoubtedly identical to Etruscan, from which the Lemnian language is distinguished only for some features.

This is the reason why Lemnian, together with Raetian, is deemed as the closest relation to the Etruscan language in the ancient Mediterranean: the three ancient languages have been gathered into one single linguistic group, called the ‘Tyrsenian (or Tyrsenic) group’.

Actually, ancient Greek authors were already aware of the relationship between Etruscan and Lemnian: as a matter of fact, starting from Hellanicus from Lesbos (5th century BCE), some sources used the name of Tyrrhenian to define the inhabitants of the Aegean islands of Lemnos, Imbros and Skyros, which other authors proposed to assimilate to the Pelasgians, whose relation with the Etruscans was likewise referred to in further sources. 

Therefore, a recent tradition of studies put together historical information and linguistic evidence in order to hypothesize that a settlement of Tyrrhenian traders/pirates overran the original Pelasgian people on the island of Lemnos; the former left their trace in the language.

At first a fairly recent date, within 6th century BCE, was proposed for the supposed arrival of the Tyrrhenian sailors (M. Gras, 1976); but against this hypothesis some scholars noticed that the linguistic features of Lemnian have to be compared with the earliest phases of the Etruscan language (see for instance L. Agostiniani, 1986). Thus, C. de Simone maintained in several contributions that the arrival of Etruscan sailors on the island has to be brought forward to the 7th century BCE, and M. Gras wrote again on the subject with a better in-depth analysis, proposing a chronology as early as the 8th century BCE (M. Gras, 1985).

On the contrary, other scholars support the theory of a common origin from the pre-Greek substratum (H. Rix), occasionally giving credit to some hypotheses of a movement from the Greek area and from Asia Minor. But it is not possible to exclude that further, lost languages have to be taken into consideration, as potential ‘bridges’ between the Etruscan-Raetian group and the north-Aegean area, through the Adriatic and Balkan regions.

Ancient Writing Systems

  1. Lemnian