Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


- 6th – 1st centuries BC

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

  • Introduction
  • Index
  • Further information

Sinarcas funeral stele.

      Palaeohispanic epigraphy is rich and diversified [see map of diffusion]. No less than five graphic variants were found in the Iberian Peninsula from the 7th century BC onward.

The most widespread graphic variant is called the Levantine script. Documented from Valencia to the shores of the Gulf of Lyon, it was used to write a non-Indo-European language called Iberian.

It is probable that the Meridional script (read from right to left) was used to transcribe one (or multiple ?) Iberian languages, but the inscriptions are too scarce and the signs too variable to be certain.

The Greco-Iberian script was the result of the precise use (in 4th century BC) of an Ionian alphabet to write the Iberian language.

The Southwestern script (sometimes called "Tartessian script") is even more difficult to understand. It is read from right to left and is redundant (syllabic signs are reduplicated by vowel signs). Attested on only twenty sites in South Portugal (Algarve and Baixo Alentejo), it was written with 28 signs. The spectacular stelae written in the Southwestern script are in an unidentified language.

The Celtiberian scripts (eastern and western) were used to transcribe the Celtiberian language.

Finally, after the Roman colonization of the Iberian Peninsula, Latin script was sometimes used to write local languages (Lusitanian, Celtiberian), or in some rare bilingual inscriptions.

Go to the online resources.

Online resources


Types of inscriptions

It is difficult to define the genre of a text in Paleohispanic epigraphy. Indeed, access to the lexical part of the language is still very limited and it was only from the (already hypothesized) knowledge of some morphemes, which were identified recurrently on similar supports or in analogous circumstances, that a typology of inscriptions could be established.

Moreover, this method may lead the researcher astray, as it encourages granting a specific function to a text due only to the presence of a morpheme and may tend to create false categories. That is the reason why this typology is mostly established based on the support materials and from parallels in others fragmentary epigraphy.

There are three main fields of use of Paleohispanic scripts: economic, religious and diplomatic/political.

Economic field is divided in three categories :

- the commercial part, referring to trade. Mercantile marks and contracts come within this category. The most famous lead plaque, from Pech Maho (IGF 135), belongs to this type of writing, and although not written in Iberian but in Greek, it mentions Iberian names. Other lead plaques (such as the one from L'Escala, Ampurias, BdHesp GI.10.11 = MLH III, C.1.24), can be considered letters, but their sense is lost to us,

- the productive part, referring to production and creation of things. Stamps and trademarks come within this category,

- the economic part, in the etymological sense of the term. This refers to the administration and management of a house. This category includes inscriptions of the organization, distribution and use of goods. Property marks are in this category.

The religious field can be illustrated by funeral stones or objects with a ritual character (such as the rhyton from Ullastret [BdHesp GI.15.09 = MLH III, C.2.8] or the inscription on grey clay from La Joncosa [BdHesp B.11.01]). In the same category, one can put the rock inscriptions from Cerdanya, which reflect a local and probably votive (de Hoz 2011, 432) use  nearly inexistent anywhere else in Paleohispanic epigraphy.

The political/diplomatic field has until now only been represented in Celtiberian inscriptions, the tesserae hospitalis. No tesserae hospitalis have been found in the Levantine Iberian area. Coinage can also form part of this category. In the same way, the Southwestern inscriptions can be considered as public epigraphy.

At the present time, there are no known Paleohispanic literary texts.

Types of supports

- Coins >
- Graffiti on instrumentum domesticum >
- Painted inscriptions >
- Trademarks and stamps >
- Lead plaques >
- Funeral stelae >
- Mosaics >
- Rock inscriptions >