A fascinating series of inscriptions discovered in the ‘Roman’ cemetery at Poetovio in Pannonia (Ptuj, e. Slovenia) have provided sensational new evidence on Celtic society and religion during the Roman period, and the use of a unique Celtic alphabet on the Balkans.
Among the graffiti on ceramic vessels found at the western cemetery at Poetovio, a number of Celtic inscriptions have been identified which may be divided into 2 main groups:
The first group of inscriptions includes a number of vessels, which date from the 1st / 3rd c. AD, inscribed with Celtic names. Example of such include the names TOCIES – written on a jug dating to the late 1st/ 2nd c., and M. BITTIV, inscribed on the body of another jug, Bittius/Bitus being one of the most common Celtic personal names, recorded in numerous inscriptions across Europe from the British Isles to Thrace (Egri 2007; see also THE THRACIAN MYTH).
The TOCIES and BITTIV inscriptions
(after Egri 2007)
While the aforementioned inscriptions give us valuable information on the ethnic composition of this region during the period, most interesting from the Poetovio site are two religious inscriptions, which provide fascinating evidence on Celtic (Romano-Celtic) religion and the use of the Celto-Etruscan alphabet on the Balkans.
The first of these inscriptions – MATERIA – (written on a jar in cursive letters) is particularly interesting because it is further evidence of a phenomenon already identified by archaeological data from the area – the worship of the Celtic Mother Goddess, in the form of the Nursing Matres or Nutrices.
(after Bόnis 1942)
The Nursing Matres or Nutrices was a cult widespread in the Celtic world, and particularly significant around Poetovio where 2 sanctuaries and numerous depictions, often with inscriptions, have been discovered.
Representation of the Nutrices from Poetovio.
(LIMC, vol. 6.2, p. 620, n°4)
Five statuettes in white terracotta of nursing Matres discovered in a well in Auxerre (Yonne).
(Deyts, 1998, n° 30, p. 68)
At Poetovio the Nutrices are always venerated in the plural form, often portrayed as 3 women, one of them holding and breastfeeding a baby. A significant number of dedicators to the Nutrices at the site also have Celtic names indicating that the cult of the Nursing Matres were brought here by a Celtic group which had settled the region with other Celtic tribes when they occupied the later Regnum Noricum (Šašel Kos 1999).
Alphabet of the Illiterate
The most extraordinary Celtic inscription to be found at Poetovio is undoubtedly that found on a beaker at the site. Dated to the 2nd/3rd c. AD, and written in a Celto-Etruscan script, this inscription reads:
which has been translated as ‘Artebudz for Brogdos’. Both names are Celtic, and the vessel was a votive offering to Brogdos – a deity guarding the border between the world of the living and the after-world (Eichner et al 1994:137; Egri 2007).
The Brogdos Inscription
(after Istenič 2000)
The use of a Celtic alphabet on the Balkans has hitherto been known from a series of pre-Roman inscriptions discovered prior to the First World War, in the 1950’s and a handful of recent publications from sites such as Grad near Reka (a cremation urn), the situla fragment from the site in Posočje, as well as the bronze plaque fragment from Gradič above Kobarid (Turk et al 2009), and on a number of Celtic coins (particularly of the Paeonian model) and other artifacts (see Numismatics section). It is interesting to note that in each case, as with the Poetevio inscription, this Celtic script appears to be used in religious contexts, suggesting that the alphabet was strictly controlled and used only by the Celtic priests/druids, while the Greek and Latin alphabets were used for more mundane purposes.
The Grad (A) and Posočje (B) inscriptions
(After Turk et al 2009)
However, until now all archaeological evidence of the use of this Celtic alphabet has been confined to the pre-Roman period. Thus, the significance of the BROGDOS inscription from Poetovio cannot be overstated, as it represents not only a further example of this alphabet, but provides conclusive archaeological evidence that this writing system was still known and used in certain parts of the Balkans throughout the Roman period.
Bόnis E. (1942) Die kaiserzeitliche Keramik von Pannonien. Dissertationes Pannonicae 2.20. Budapest.
Egri M. (2007) Graffiti on Ceramic Vessels from the Western Cemetery at Poetovio. In: Funerary Offerings and Votive Depositions in Europe’s 1st Millennium AD. Cluj-Napoca 2007. P. 37 – 48.
Eichner H., Istenič J., Lovenjak M. (1994) Ein römerzeitliches Keramikgefäss aus Ptuj (Pettau, Poetovio) in Slowenien mit Inschrift in unekanntem Alphabet und epichorischer (vermutlich kelticher) Sprache. In: Arheološki Vestnik 45, 1994, 131-142.
Istenič J. (2000) Poetovio, the western cemeteries II. Ljubljana.
Šašel Kos (1999) Pre-Roman Divinities of the Eastern Alps and Adriatic – Situla 38, Ljubljana.
Turk P., Božič D., Istenič J., Osmuk N., Šmit Ž. (2009)New Pre-Roman Inscriptions from Western Slovenia : The Archaeological Evidence. In: Protohistoire Européenne II, 2009. Éditions monique mergoil Montagnac. p. 47–64.