Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


edited by: Coline Ruiz Darasse (translation revised by Melanie Rockenhaus)

  • Introduction
  • Ancient Writing Systems

The different writing systems found in the Iberian Peninsula were presumably used to write down various languages. Most of them have not yet been deciphered: 

- the 'Tartessian' language, written in the Southwestern script, has not been deciphered ;

- the Meridional (or Southeastern) script, the Greco-iberian script and the Levantine (or Northeastern) script seem to have been used to write down a related language, called Iberian. Javier de Hoz proposed the hypothesis that Iberian may have been used as a vehicular language. The multiculturalism in the wide area of use of these Paleohispanic scripts, particularly of the Levantine script, support the supposition that Iberian was used as a lingua franca among the various populations.


Iberian (and its probable dialects) is a non-Indo-European language.

At this point, all that can be said about Iberian is mostly descriptive. Structurally, Iberian was not an inflecting but rather an agglutinant language with a SOV structure, while scholars do not know if it was an accusative or an ergative language.


Iberian writing was semi-syllabic, which means that every consonant sign is followed by a vowel; thus the cluster muta cum liquida could not be written and a consonant was not placed in an absolute final position. All the same, the Greco-Iberian script, an Ionian alphabet used on some rare archeological sites on the Levantine coast to write Iberian, indicates that final consonants did exist.

There were two kinds of sibilants, written alternatively by a sign similar to the Greek sigma or by another sign similar to Phenician san

The phonemes /y/ and /w/ were rare or inexistant at the beginning of a syllable.

No form of aspiration has been noted.

There were two types of trills, transcribed with a diacritic sign (or in block capital). One sign was a simple rhombus (often half a rhombus), the other one was a rhombus with a downward stroke. Those two variants encourage philologists to think that there were two different articulations. Trills did not exist at the beginning of a word.

Recently, a study revealed the existence of a dual system in the Levantine script, which was used to write down the distinct articulation between voiced and voiceless sounds. Greco-Iberian script also noted this distinction.


Iberian language works with the addition of combining suffixes. The best understood are:

- belonging suffix : -Mi  ;

- origin suffix : -sken or sometimes -en ;

- number variant : -ar/-en ;

- agentive suffix : -te.

These suffixes combined with each other following a fixed order (-ar-en-Mi, for example).

There must have been other suffixes (like the probable suffix -ke) but the risk is that lack of knowledge of semantics could easily lead to the multiplication of suffixes by splitting every single syntagm.


Verbal morphology

Very rare material can be specified for the verbal morphology :

-the formula aretake (and its variants aretaki with distinct punctuations) seems to correspond, on a bilingual inscription from Tarragona (C.18.6), to the latin formula hic situs est.

- the verb, or more precisely the verbal element, ekiar, was found on artistic or crafted objects, and was mostly used with the suffix -te postposed.

- biterok which can be found on lead plaques and which may means "to give, to get, to demand".



Studies have allowed investigators to establish a glossary of words for which these meanings are most likely:

- ili/iltur/ars : all three mean "city";

- seltar (and variant siltar) which only appears on stone stelae, designates the grave or maybe the stele itself ;

- terms such as eban(en)/teban(en) are proposed as being the masculine (eban) or feminine (with a gender prefix -teban) "son" and "daughter".

For a synthesis on glossary, see Noemi Moncunill'PhD, 2007.


Syntax is a difficult point. It seems that the collocation of elements in a "determinant-determinated" order would express possession : e.g. : kalun seltar (E.10.1) : "Kalun's grave".


Ancient Writing Systems

  1. Iberian