8,000-Year-Old Ceramic Slab with Possibly World’s Oldest Writing Discovered near Bulgaria’s Nova Zagora

This 8,000-year-old ceramic slab found recently in Southeast Bulgaria could contain the world’s oldest writing. Photo: Sliven District Administration

A small ceramic slab from the 6th millennium BC with written signs which might be the world’s oldest writing has been discovered by archaeologists at a prehistoric settlement near the town of Nova Zagora in Southeast Bulgaria.

The slab from Nova Zagora with what are seemingly written signs, which have not been decoded, is not unlike a number of other similar finds from various parts of Bulgaria, except that it appears to be oldest than all, the researchers note.

The most recent similar discovery was a 7,000-year-old ceramic fragment with pre-alphabetic writing found in 2016 in a newly discovered prehistoric settlement from the Chalcolithic (Aeneolithic, Copper Age) underneath the Ancient Roman road station Ad Putea at the town of Riben in Northern Bulgaria.

Back then Volodya Popov, the Director of the Pleven Regional Museum of History, argued that the fragment could contain the world’s oldest writing.

The newly discovered nearly 8,000-year-old ceramic slab with written signs, however, is said to be from the end of the Neolithic period.

“Other slabs with similar written inscriptions have been found in Karanovo, Gradeshnitsa, etc., but those are from the Chalcolithic (Copper-Stone Age), i.e. thousands of years later," says Nikolay Sirakov, Director of the Regional Museum of History in the city of Sliven in Northeast Bulgaria, as cited by BNT.

The prehistoric slab has inscriptions on both sides. Photo: Sliven District Administration

The slab with possibly the world’s oldest writing (i.e. pre-alphabetic writing) was discovered in October 2017 during the exploration of a prehistoric settlement near Bulgaria’s Nova Zagora by archaeologist from the National Museum of History in Sofia and the Sliven Regional Museum of History.

Its discovery was announced only on February 14, 2018, which in Bulgaria is celebrated as the Archaeologists’ Day.

The written signs were inscribed on both sides of the ceramic slab with a sharp object while the clay was still wet. They depict repeating patterns of symbols.

While the meaning of the written signs remains unknown, the symbols themselves are similar to those from the other slabs with prehistoric writing found in Bulgaria as well as in Romania and Serbia.

“These symbols, these signs are widely distributed not just in Bulgaria but also in Romania, in Serbia, all over the Balkan Peninsula, but those are from the 4th-5th millenium… There are similar signs which were inscribed on all kinds of artifacts," explains archaeologist Tatyana Kancheva who specializes in prehistory.

The archaeologists who came across the find hypothesize that the inscription from possibly the world’s oldest writing contains ritual calendar information having to do with the agricultural cycles of life.

That is why the artifacts with inscriptions were no mere decorations but were of great worth for the Neolithic people who preserved them in their homes.

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The slab with possibly the world’s oldest writing has been found at the site of a supposed Neolithic settlement near Bulgaria’s Nova Zagora. Photos: TV grabs from BNT

The 8,000-year-old slab with prehistoric writing is one of a total of 36 artifacts which were discovered on a river bank at the site of a supposed prehistoric settlement from the Neolithic near Bulgaria’s Nova Zagora last fall.

The other discoveries include decorations, loom weights, fishing net weights, and ceramic figurines, among others.

Sirakov points out that the Nova Zagora slab is much earlier than the writing of Ancient Sumer from the end of the 4th millennium – 3rd millennium BC.

It is noted that the inscription from Nova Zagora seems to be a form of writing that is “a more superior form of communication" than pictographs. Attempts to decode the inscription are yet to be made.

Probably the most famous archaeological artifacts with pre-alphabetic writing from Northwest Bulgaria so far have been the so called Gradeshnitsa Tablets (discovered in 1969 near the town of Gradeshnitsa, Vratsa District).

Impressive prehistoric artifacts with potentially pre-alphabetic writing have also been discovered in Southeast Bulgaria – for example, those from the so called Karanovo Culture, found near Karanovo, Sliven District, in Eastern Bulgaria, and the nearly 7,000-year-old ceramic prism with what might be pre-alphabetic writing unveiled to the public for the first time by the Regional Museum of History in Bulgaria’s Black Sea city of Burgas.

Another relevant example is the 7,000-year-old Chalcolithic settlement in the town of Telish, Pleven District (excavated in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s by archaeologist Ventsislav Gergov), whose research yielded an altar and ceramic vessels with possibly proto-writing signs.

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The 8,000-year-old ceramic slab with possibly the world’s oldest writing has been made part of the collection of the Sliven Regional Museum of History, and is to be exhibited in its permanent exhibition.

One of the most interesting other artifacts in the collection of the Sliven Regional Museum of History is a 4th century BC golden mask of an Ancient Thracian king discovered in a burial mound near the town of Topolchane back in 2007.

The city of Sliven in Southeast Bulgaria is the successor of Tuida, originaly an Ancient Thracian settlement which grew into a Late Roman, Early Byzantine, and medieval Bulgarian fortress.

The Roman fortress itself was built after the capital of the Roman Empire was moved from Rome to Constantinople in 325 AD. The Tuida Fortress was in use between the 4th and the 13th century AD, and in the 6th century AD it was equipped with a secret passage.

The ruins of the Tuida Fortress itself were partly restored by Sliven Municipality back in December 2014 to promote cultural tourism.

Learn more about the Tuida Fortress in Bulgaria’s Sliven in the Background Infonotes below!

Background Infonotes:

Тhe Tuida Fortress is a Late Roman, Early Byzantine and medieval Bulgarian fortress located on the Hisarlaka Hill in the eastern Bulgarian city of Sliven.

It was first excavated in 1982 by archaeologists from the Sliven Regional Museum of History and the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. The archaeologists have discovered there remains of a Late Iron Age Ancient Thracian settlement (6th-1st century BC) which in the Roman period turned into a market place; a 2nd-4th century Thracian settlement is cited in written sources as Tuida, Suida, or Tsoida. The name is believed to be of Thracian origin, though its precise ethymology is still unclear.

The Tuida Fortress was built after the capital of the Roman Empire was moved from Rome to Constantinople in 325 AD. It is known to have had a secret tunnel built in the 6th century AD leading to the Novoselska River located to the west, a tributary of the Tundzha River.

The Tuida Fortress avoided destruction during the invasion of the Goths in 378 AD but was destroyed in the invasions of the Huns in the 5th century AD. It was rebuilt during the reign of Roman Emperor Anastasius I (r. 491-518 AD), preserving but also enhancing the original architecture of the fortress. The Tuida Fortress was ultimately destroyed around 598-599 AD, most probably during an invasion of Avars and Slavs.

The territory around today’s Bulgarian city of Sliven was made part of Bulgaria, i.e. of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD), around 705 AD when Bulgarian Khan (or Kanas) Tervel gained the Zagore Region south of the Balkan Mountains after he helped Byzantine Emperor Justinian II the Slit-nosed (Rhinotmetos or Rhinotmetus) (r. 685-695 and 705-711 AD) regain his throne in Constantinople. Thus, a Bulgarian settlement, whose name remains unknown, was built on the place of the Tuida Fortress. A lead seal of Bulgarian Knyaz Boris I Mihail (r. 852-889 AD) has been found there.

The Bulgarians rebuilt the fortress walls and the aquaduct of Tuida, and erected new buildings inside the fortress that were covered with marble slabs produced by stone cutters in the then Bulgarian capital Veliki Preslav (“Great Preslav"). Several bricks with an Ancient Bulgar sign (resembling “|Y|") have been found there. Written sources indicated that Tuida was the seat of a bishop from the 4th century AD onwards.

After the original excavations of the Tuida Fortress first started in 1982, they were resumed in 2004. The archaeological finds there include, in addition to Knyaz Boris I’s lead seal, a number of iron tools, ceramic vessels, ornaments, coins, and bones from 14 species of wild and domesticated birds including Bonelli’s eagle (Aquila fasciata), western capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus), great bustard (Otis tarda), and common pheasant (Phasianus colchicus).

The archaeological excavations have revealed the fortress walls of Tuida, fortress towers and gates, remains of buildings, two marble pedestals dedicated to gods Apollo and Zeus which contain the name of the fortress as Tuida or Suida (known in written sources as Tsoida), a 3rd century AD inscription describing the settlement as a market place, a cult complex used between the 4th and the 13th century consisting of a three-nave one-apse Early Christian basilica and a unique baptistery decorated with murals and mosaics.

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