Developmental Literacy Case-Study 1: North East Italy

Developmental Literacy
Etruscan Literacy
























The Region

The north-east of Italy is a geographically and ethnically diverse region stretching from the lowlands of the Po delta to the alpine regions along the modern borders with Switzerland and Austria.  Historians, from the Greeks onwards, identified the main ethnic groups of the region as the Veneti (occupying the region illustrated to the right) and the Raeti, who are associated with the regions to the north and west of this area.  How far this corresponded to the self-definition of these groups is less certain.   It was also a linguistically diverse area.  Five main languages are represented in the written documents - Venetic, Raetic, Etruscan, Greek and Latin - although not all are present at all periods.  Of the five groups Venetic is the most widespread, being found throughout the southern part of the region, and as far north as Lagole, the site of a major palaeovenetic sanctuary.  Inscriptions written in Venetic language and alphabet are also found as far afield as the central Appenines.  Raetic is concentrated in the Alpine areas to the north and north-west but the distributions are not mutually exclusive and there is some overlap.  Greek and Etruscan occur in much smaller quantities and are found mainly in the Po delta, around Adria and Spina, while Latin is a later phenomenon, found in inscriptions from the 2nd century BC onwards.



The Inscriptions

Bronze writing tablet,
from sanctuary of Reitia
at Baratella,  Este

The data for this region comprises c.700 Venetic inscriptions, together with c.250 Raetic inscriptions and a small number of Greek and Etruscan examples.  Latin inscriptions are included for comparative purposes, where they interact with indigenous material, but are not the primary focus of this study.  The first occurrence of alphabetic inscriptions dates to the late 6th century BC, and Venetic is not superceded as a written language by Latin until well into the 1st century BC, although many of the later inscriptions use the Roman alphabet.  Many of the Venetic and Raetic inscriptions are collected in existing corpora (Whatmough, Conway and Johnson 1933; Pellegrini and Prosdocimi 1967; Schumacher 1992); it is not our intention to try to replace these as linguistic analyses, but to create a searchable resource from this - and more recent - data, and to examine their socio-cultural significance.

Even a brief preliminary analysis indicates that Venetic and Raetic, in particular, were inscribed on a wide variety of objects.  Greek was much more restricted, being found principally as graffiti on imported pottery from Adria and Spina.  Alphabetic and pseudo-alphabetic (i.e. those composed of mixtures of letters and abstract symbols)  inscriptions occur on a wide variety of votive tablets and figurines, funerary urns and gravestones, as well as on less obvious objects such as worked animal bone, loom weights and even natural rock faces.  It is clear, however, that the context of writing is limited to a very small number of contexts - principally religion and funerary ritual.  In particular, two sanctuaries supply a relatively large proportion of our evidence.  That at Lagole, dedicated to a male deity, has produced dedications by men only.   The other, the sanctuary of the goddess Reitia at Baratella, near Este, also shows an interesting gender division. Among the many votive offerings in this deposit were bronze writing palettes and styluses, which are interpreted as ceremonial versions of the implements (probably of wood) which were actually used for writing. The inscriptions on the styluses suggest that they were dedicated by women (possible female name endings), while the palettes appear to bear male names only. So, both women and men may have been involved with early writing in this area, although possibly in different ways.  In addition to these votive deposits, funerary inscriptions on grave markers and cinerary urns from both Padua and Este indicate changing practices of written commemoration for both men and women from the archaic era to the period of Romanization.


Further Study

Further research on this region will concentrate on placing these inscriptions in their archaeological context, and further examining the social function of literacy in north-east Italy.  In particular, changes in patterns of writing and in types of inscription, in particularly in practices of funerary inscriptions and commemoration, may cast light on changes in the society and culture of the region more generally.  The use of writing in certain gendered contexts must also be examined more fully, and a methodology must be developed for analysing the large number of artefacts with 'pseudo-alphabetic' inscriptions.  These frequently repeat a single letter or small group of letters, interspersed with abstract symbols, and clearly require a different approach from inscriptions which consist of complete words or sentences.  Inscriptions also provide a rich resource in the number of personal names which they preserve, which may give us more insight in to social structure and social interactions, and their representation in the written record.  The theme underlying many of these questions is that of cultural identity and collective self-consciousness, and one of the central questions to be addressed is that of the impact of writing (if any) on these issues.  Finally, interaction with other cultures of writing is a further area which requires detailed examination.  The written culture of the Greeks and Romans was very different from that of north-east Italy and the interaction between these cultural groups must be studied in more detail.  


R.S. Conway, J. Whatmough and S. Johnson (1933), The Prae-Italic Dialects of Italy. 3 vols.
G.B. Pellegrini and A.L. Prosdocimi (1967), Le Lingua Venetica. 2 vols.
S. Schumacher (1992)  Die Raetichen Inschriften

A preliminary report on the first year of the research project and its results from north-east Italy was presented by Kathryn Lomas at the next meeting of the British Epigraphy Society on November 15th 2003.