One of the most interesting artifacts discovered in recent decades on the Balkans is a large gold ring found in the Schumen area of north-eastern Bulgaria, engraved with a number of enigmatic symbols on its face and edges (fig. 1 / 2 – after Mac Congail 2009). Archaeological and numismatic evidence from this part of Thrace testifies to significant Celtic settlement in this area in the late Iron Age (see archaeology/numismatics section), and a closer analysis of the ring reveals that the symbols correspond to a Celto-Etruscan alphabet, or more specifically its Cisalpine Gaulish variants (loc cit).
The symbols themselves appear to be engraved in no particular order, indicating that it is the symbols/letters themselves which are of significance. Considering the nature of the object, and its intrinsic value, it obviously belonged to a person of high status in Celtic society, and it appears most likely that the ring belonged to a religious leader, i.e. a druid, the alphabet/symbols representing druidical control over this sphere of knowledge, which would have been viewed as having magical properties by a population uninitiated into the ‘mysteries’ of writing – a symbol of a field of knowledge known only to the spiritual/religious leaders.
A limited number of other Celto-Etruscan inscriptions have been recorded in south-eastern Europe from the late Iron Age, particularly on Celtic coinage and other artifacts from western Thrace and eastern Pannonia (Mac Congail 2009; Mac Congail Krusseva 2010).
Fig. 3 – Mould for the production of lead amulets bearing a Celto-Etruscan inscription
Branya Stena, Pernik region, Western Bulgaria
(see Mac Congail 2009)
(After Mac Congail 2009)
Poduced at the end of the 2nd c. BC in the area of today’s Bulgaria, these coins bear the symbols:
Analysis indicates that the inscription corresponds to the (Celto-) Etruscan symbol ‘San’ followed by the symbols for E and G (see Lejeune 1971, 1988; also de Marinis 2000; analysis Mac Congail 2009) giving phonetically – ŠEG- which may correspond to the Proto-Celtic sego- meaning ‘victory’, ‘strength’, derived from an Indo-European root *seĝh- meaning ‘to conquer’, ‘to vanquish’ (sego- ‘victory, force’: DLG 269; GPN 254-7; KGP 266; AILR; Ptol.; ACP-N 107-9; OPEL iv.62; NPC 231 Delamarre, 2003, pp. 269-270 ; Lambert, 1995, pp. 31-32 ; Lajoye, 2006, p. 79).
Of course, one can only guess at the exact significance of such an inscription on Celtic coinage from this period in Thrace. However, chronologically the coins were minted at the end of the 2nd c. BC in Thrace, and one possible connection is the events of 114 BC in today’s south-western Bulgaria where the Celtic tribes in this region destroyed an invading Roman army led by the consul Gaius Porcius Cato (Liv. Per. 63′a; Flor. 1.39, 1-4; Dio Cass fr. 88’1; Eutrop. 4.24.1; Amm. Marc. 27.4.4), and subsequently massacred the Roman garrison at Heracleae Sintica (Front. Strat. 3,19,7; on these events see ‘The Scordisci Wars’ article). It is therefore quite possible that the inscription on the Celtic ‘Victory Coins’ from Bulgaria were produced to celebrate the double victory over the Roman forces of Porcius Cato and Lucullus in 114 BC. If so, these would represent the first inscriptions on Celtic coins relating to an actual historical event.
The inscriptions outlined above are just a few examples of the use of a variation of the Celto-Etruscan script on the Balkans, of which there are many others (see Mac Congail 2009, Mac Congail Krusseva 2010), which testify to a limited, but significant, use of this script in the region in the late Iron Age, a phenonenon which deserves further detailed study.