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The term Rhaetic refers to the language and alphabet used in the eastern pre-Alpine and Alpine districts in Northern Italy during the Iron Age (from the 5th to the Romanisation in the 1st century B.C.). Overall about 350 inscriptions have been found. Many of the inscriptions are tokens or numbers. The 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) and from the Bavarian Alps in recent years. The areas of Rhaetic writing fit the archaeological definition both of the Fritzens-Sanzeno culture on the 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 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.
Thanks to recent linguistic analysis, the language expressed in the Rhaetic inscriptions is today considered 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.
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The chronology of Rhaetic epigraphy spans about five centuries, 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, rare 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”, votive stakes) 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.
Recently, in the Monumenta Linguae Raeticae (MLR), the inscriptions have been subjected to epigraphic seriation, a procedure that, starting with the analysis of changes in alphabetical types over time, sequences them into phases allowing the dating of each individual phase. Within the various phases, in fact, certain dating elements can help in the chronological definition of the entire phase. There are three phases identified in the Rhaetic epigraphic tradition so far: Phase I (37 inscriptions): from the end of the 6th to the middle of the 5th century BC; Phase II (19 inscriptions): from the middle of the 5th to the end of the 3rd century BC; Phase III (4 inscriptions): 2nd-1st cent. B.C. Many inscriptions, ca. 80% of the total, remain however without epigraphic dating, either because they are very short texts and therefore cannot be dated, or because the letters used in them are not characteristic of a single phase but continue from the beginning to the end of the attestations. In these cases, the chronology is sometimes given by the epigraphic support itself.
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, many graphemes were deleted, modified and added locally. 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 appears only locally: the staircase sign is attested exclusively in the Magrè area (Vicenza), and the arrow sign in the Sanzeno area (Trento). These and 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.
Most Rhaetic inscriptions include personal names, usually used in dedication inscriptions or even used alone, at least in the cases where it is possible to recognise specific name endings, such as the patronymics -nu for male or -na for female (probable). No divine names with votive dedication inscriptions are known at present. In the inscribed bronze foil from Demlfeld (Ampass, Austria) from the votive context of a Brandopferplatz, a plurality of subjects are mentioned to whom the foil is dedicated: the Avašuera, who might be gods.
Unfortunately, given the fragmentary state of the preserved lexical classes, it is difficult, in the absence of onomastic suffixes, to understand the nature of the words that can be identified. These may be praenomina but also common nouns. It is the context, on a case-by-case basis, that makes it possible to narrow down the field of interpretation and thus attribute textual classes. A few inscriptions of a funerary character seem to be discernible in the necropolis of Vadena/Pfatten, where the personal name seems to be followed by a preterite verb in -ke.
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, characterised 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), and 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.
Another category identified is magic/religious texts from the private sphere. Astragals or animal bones in series, marked either by initials or short inscriptions, have been found in some residential contexts. The former is probably used in the divinatory practice of astragalomancy, while the latter has often been interpreted as sortes.
In many other cases of single words, these may be common names, indicating the object of the dedication.
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.