Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


- 5th-1st cent. B.C.

edited by: Simona Marchesini (translation revised by Melanie Rockenhaus)

  • Introduction
  • Index
  • Further information

The bronze plate from Demlfeld, near Ampass (Innsbruck, Austria).

The term Rhaetic refers to the language and alphabet used in the eastern pre-alpine and alpine district in Northern Italy during the Iron Age (from the 5th to the 1st century B.C.). Overall about 230 inscribed objects have been found, containing about 280 texts. Many of the inscriptions (20%) are tokens or numbers. UThe geographic area where Rhaetic epigraphy has been found includes Trentino, Northern and Southern Tirol, the Engadin Valley and part of northwestern Veneto. The most important epigraphic sites are Sanzeno and Cles in the Non Valley (Trentino), Magrè near Vicenza, San Giorgio in Valpolicella near Verona (Veneto), Sluderno, Settequerce and S. Lorenzo di Sebato (South Tirol). In Austria, some inscriptions come from the district of Innsbruck (Demlfeld, Steinberg am Rofan). The areas of Rhaetic writing fit the archaeological definition both of the Fritzens-Sanzeno culture on one hand and the Magrè culture on the other.

Most Rhaetic inscriptions contain few letters, sometimes written in two or three lines. The inscriptions with the greatest number of letters are the bronze situla (bucket) from Cembra, with 50 letters and the small fish figure of bronze from Sanzeno, with 25 letters. Many texts are unfortunately very fragmentary and full of blanks, so that a thorough understanding of the texts is not yet possible. Since the texts are written in scriptio continua, without spaces between the words, it is a very laborious task to isolate every single word. Most words are attested only once or twice, so that it is sometimes impossible to assign them to a specific word class. In the many instances of proper names, instead, morphological traits have been identified. /p>

Thanks to recent linguistic analysis, the language expressed in the Rhaetic inscriptions is today considered as belonging to a new, non-Indo-European linguistic family, called Common Tyrrhenic, which includes Etruscan and the language of the Island of Lemnos as well.


Go to the online resources.

Online resources



The chronology of Rhaetic epigraphy spans about five centuries, starting from the second half of the 6th century B.C. to the Romanization in the 1st century B.C. (which corresponds to the “second Iron Age” in Northern Italy).

The attempt to assign a more detailed chronology to the whole epigraphic period has been very difficult until now, due both to the nature of most of the archaeological contexts and to the kind of available documentation. It is well known that in the Alpine region called Rhaetic few examples of necropolises have been found to date, and these usually provide the best chronological references. Even cult places, such as the typical open-air votive areas for burnt sacrifices (“Brandopferplätze”) of the Rhaetic region, where objects from previous ages were usually recycled many times for new cult rituals, allow only very broad chronological definitions of archaeological findings and contexts.

In recent times, the new examination of all Rhaetic inscriptions for their publication in a corpus (Monumenta Linguae Raeticae: “MLM”) has allowed researchers to process letter variables in an epigraphic seriation diagram divided into phases and with the relative chronology of all texts. Starting from this relative chronology, the identification of few, well-dated objects within each phase has allowed researchers to assign an absolute chronology to each phase and consequently to each inscription. The MLM work is still in progress and will soon (end 2014) be published, offering a new chronological proposal for all Rhaetic texts.

Alphabetic models

Since the first publications on Rhaetic epigraphy by T. Mommsen (1850), C. Pauli (1885) and J. Whatmough (PID, 1933), a Northern Etruscan model of the Rhaetic alphabet has been pointed out. The Etruscan matrix is evident in many graphemes. Nevertheless, as is usual in every loaned epigraphic set and especially in ancient Italy, locally many graphemes were deleted, modified and added. Cases of added signs include the Venetian zeta, which probably represented the voiced fricative /z/, the “staircase” sign (see the alphabet table) or the arrow sign (a vertical arrow), which also appears in the neighboring Camune alphabet. The distribution of these innovative signs appear only locally: the staircase sign is attested exclusively in the Magrè area (Vicenza), the arrow sign in the Sanzeno area (Trento). These as well as other grapheme variables allow researchers to distinguish the main epigraphic areas or districts: Sanzeno and Magrè.

It is noteworthy that the types of graphemes found in the Rhaetic region reflect phonological structures similar to those in the Etruscan language. This fact explains for example the necessity to distinguish two different kind of spirants (or sibilants) with two different graphemes: a three-stroke sigma and a san or tsade.

Text Classes

Most Rhaetic inscriptions include personal names, at least in the cases where it is possible to recognize specific name endings, such as the patronymics -nu for male or -na for female (probable).

Researchers have identified only a few categories of text types based on purpose, which in many cases would lead to the definition of the text class.

Among the text types there are the “upiku” texts, characterized by a verbal noun similar to Etruscan aliqu, mulu (“gift”, “offered”). These were clearly dedication texts, as the pertinentive of the beneficiary and the ablative of the offerer in these texts indicate. Since some of these texts come from sanctuaries, we can almost surely assert that they are votive dedication texts.

Many inscribed objects reveal only tokens, marks or numbers, sometimes in conjunction with proper texts. They were written on several object types, such as weapons, tools (instrumenta), bronze or clay vases. Some letters or other non-epigraphic signs (such as crosses and hut-formed signs) partly written in a  simple form, partly composed in ligatures or varied through small diacritics, seem to be production marks or other information linked to the production process itself.


Ductus and divisio verborum

The Rhaetic writing goes from right to left. In a few more recent cases (some dozen examples) there is a left-to-right ductus, and in some texts a few letters are written upside down. This creates difficulties in reading the texts, especially in the case of abbreviations or texts composed of only a few letters.

In about 20 cases, inter-verbal punctuation marks are attested, composed of two or three vertically aligned dots or more rarely a single stroke.