The Marsiliana Tablet Abecedarium

The Marsiliana Tablet Abecedarium (700 BCE)


The earliest Estruscan abecedarium, the Marsiliana d'Albegna tablet, which dates to c. 700 VCE. (View Larger)

The earliest Estruscan abecedarium, the Marsiliana d’Albegna tablet, which dates to c. 700 VCE. (View Larger)

It is not clear whether the process of adaptation of the Old Italic or Etruscan alphabet from the Greek alphabet took place in Italy in the city of Cumae, the first Greek colony on the mainland of Italy, or in Greece/Asia Minor. The Etruscan alphabet was a precursor of the Old Latin alphabet, the basis of the Latin alphabet.

“It was in any case a Western Greek alphabet. In the alphabets of the West, X had the sound value [ks], Ψ stood for [kʰ]; in Etruscan: X = [s], Ψ = [kʰ] or [kχ] (Rix 202-209).

“The earliest Etruscan abecedarium, the Marsiliana d’Albegna (near Grosseto) tablet which dates to c. 700 BCE, lists 26 letters corresponding to contemporary forms of the Greek alphabet which retained san and qoppa but which had not yet developed omega.

In transliteration: “A B G D E V Z H Θ I K L M N Ξ O P Ś Q R S T Y X Φ Ψ”

“21 of the 26 archaic Etruscan letters were adopted for Old Latin from the 7th century BCE, either directly from the Cumae alphabet, or via archaic Etruscan forms, compared to the classical Etruscan alphabet retaining B, D, K, O, Q, X but dropping Θ, Ś, Φ, Ψ, F (Etruscan U is Latin V, Etruscan V is Latin F).

In translieration: “A B C D E F Z H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X”

(Wikipedia article on Old Italic alphabet, accessed 08-02-2009).

The Etruscan Cities and Their Culture

By Luisa Banti


Examples of writing

Tablet from Marsiliana d’Albegna.

Tablet from Marsiliana d'Albegna.

The complete alphabetic series, on the edges of a ivory writing table (pugillaris), has all the symbols of Greek writing as it had been received in Etruria already in 8th century BC. It is thus at the same time both the oldest Etruscan and the oldest Greek alphabetary. The sequence of the letters can be recognized from right to left (in parentheses the transcription of the signs as used in Etruscan):

alpha (a), beta, gamma (c), delta, epsilon (e), digamma (v), zeta (z), het (h), theta (θ), iota (i), kappa (k), lambda (l), my (m), ny (n), samekh, omicron, pi (p), tsade (ś), qoppa (q), rho (r), sigma (s), tau (t), ypsilon (u), ksi (s+), phi (φ), chi (χ).

Bucchero box from Veii, Portonaccio Sanctuary.

Bucchero box from Veii, Portonaccio Sanctuary.
First half, 6th century BC

laris velkasna[s mini muluvanice] menervas

The box reproduces a wooden model, probably used to hold the sortes: the divination instruments extracted randomly, in order to know the will of the gods.

It is a votive gift to the god Menerva, part of the deposit found in the area of the altar in the holy place of Veii. The inscription records the offer by Laris Velkasnas with the traditional formula, used throughout the entire archaic period both for earthly aristocratic gifts and for gifts to the gods.

The early writing in Veii indicated the voiced labialdental /f/ by using the digraph hv or vh, and it usually respected the rule of the velars, which placed the kappa before a, the gamma before e and i, the qoppa before u. All the signs were used for sibilants, from the normal sigma with three segments to the multi-linear one (up to seven segments), or alternatively a cross, but there are also examples of tsade.

Tablet A from Pyrgi.

Tablet A from Pyrgi.
End, 6th century BC

ita . tmia . icac . he/ramaśva . vatieχunialastres . θemia/sa . meχ . θuta . θefa/rie{i} . velianas . sal cluvenias . turu/ce . munistas . θuvas tameresca . ilacve tulerase . nac . ci . avi/l . curvar . teśiameit/ale . ilacve . als′asenac . atranes . zilac/al . seleitala . acnaśv/ers . itanim . heram/ve . avil . eniaca . pul/umχva

This gold tablet is one of three, found in area C of the Pyrgi Sanctuary, carefully rolled up and deposited to protect them when the sacred place was being dismantled. The text concerns the dedication of the temple and of the sanctuary to the goddess Uni by the Cerveteri magistrate Thefarie Velianas, with indications of the moment, the reasons and the means of the offer. The other two tablets had a fairly approximate Phoenician translation of the Etruscan text (in which the donor is defined as “king over Cerveteri”, in Phoenician mlk ‘l kysry’) and a different ritual Etruscan inscription referring to the same figure.

Among the particularities of the later-archaic writing in Cerveteri the use of the sigma with four segments for the marked sibilant is notable (pronounced like the /sh/ in shock) and the form of the alpha, with an ascending cross mark, typical of Cerveteri until Romanization.

Tabula Capuana (also called the “Tegola di Capua”).

Tabula Capuana (also called the "Tegola di Capua").
Early 5th century BC

The second-longest known text for Etruscan, after that of the Liber Linteus, preserved in the cloths which were used to wrap the famous Mummy of Zagreb, found in Egypt. Like that text, the Tabula of Capua contained a religious calendar which included a series of ritual indications about the festivities and ceremonies to be carried out during the year in honour of the divinities venerated in this Etruscan city.

The terracotta table with raised edges was created like an archival document, to be kept together with others like it, piled one on top of the other.

The text is divided by some horizontal lines in sectors, corresponding to the parts of the year, and the phrases are often introduced by formulas for dating which begin with the word ilucve, “in the festivity…”.

The Etruscan writing of northern Campania is very close to the early writing of Veii, from which it also derives it use of the syllabic interpunction (which signals with one or more dots all the letters not  included in open syllables, e.g. ca, ce, ci, etc.).

Bronze candelabrum from Cortona

Bronze candelabrum from Cortona

End 4th – first half 3rd century BC

mi . suθil : velθuriθura : turce . au(le) . velθuri : fniścial :

Bronze candelabrum with eight arms which ended in hooks to hold the candles. The inscription, in late northern Etruscan alphabet, was engraved on the metal when cold, around the central plate decorated with a Gorgoneion in relief. The inscription circles the plate without a beginning or end, with evenly-sized characters. The text records the dedication of the object at the tomb of the family Velthuri, using a formula appropriate to a votive gift, on the part of one family member whose metronymic is also given: Au(le) Velthuri (son) of the mother Fnisci.
The northern writing uses the sigma for the marked sibilant in the word suθil (pronounced /šuthil/) and the tsade for the simple one in fniścial; following late use, instead, the velar consonant /k/ was signalled by the gamma, as already happened in southern Etruria from the late-archaic period.

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