Insight into Venetic culture

A riddle from the ancient past

About 400 stone and metal tablets, urns and implements dated about 400 BC, found near Padua on the site of the rich Este culture, is all that remains of the culture that flourished in the area more than 2000 years ago. Some inscriptions are in Latin script, 200 in the ancient Venetic script. Both the script and the language had till recently resisted attempts at deciphering.

We do not know what other materials may have been used and what other documents may have been lost through the past two millennia, so we are limited to the context of the tablets and purposes for which they were used. Within this framework the tablets offer considerable insight into the character of the Veneti and the way they viewed the world.

A number of archaeological discoveries give strong evidence that Este was an important centre of Venetic culture from the7th to the 4th century BC, with a great shrine to the god (or goddess) Reitia and more importantly, a school for scribes. Among numerous finds that include small bronze statues, various tools and weapons, vases, clasps, money, were 200 inscriptions in the Venetic script and the so-called Alphabet Tablets, which were thought to contain the key to the mystery.

The man who finally cracked the mystery of Venetic script was Slovenian poet and linguist  Matej Bor. He had studied the problem of the Venetic script over a number of years. An expert in Slovenian dialects, he believed, in contrast to the prevailing opinion, in the Slavic origin of the Venetic language (rather than Italic), He found enough indicators to warrant an investigation based on this premise, and set out to  solve the ancient mystery. His success, when he found the entry to the riddle on the Grammar Tablet , was swift and remarkable.

As it sometimes happens, Bor was yet again studying Tablet Es 24 containing the mysterious word akeo, when he had a flash of intuition. The scholars had read the inscription of rows of identical letters starting from the bottom, and came up with the repetitions of akeo.

The tablet marked Es 24 which led to Bor's discovery of the verb jekat, contains on the bottom row among the consonants also several vowels. Veneti like Etruscans often left out vowels, especially those that were not accented or were reduced. Bor wondered if the row of letters contained a riddle for the students - a saying or a proverb. His premise was confirmed. When Bor inserted suitable vowels, the resulting version was very close to the modern Slovenian.

VIDIJ TI KI LIMINI POŠIRIŠ TU BOGA (text with inserted vowels)
Videc, ki tablice razširjaš tu boga
Seer, thou who spreadest here the tablets of god

The most numerous among the tablets are funeral inscriptions. They speak of fire, of peace and sorrow for the departed. and are often moving and poetical. Considering the limited context of the inscriptions, the range is great. On stone, metal, urn and implements are inscribed short pithy invocations to the god Reitia, against illness or dangers of travel, advice to the drinker, warnings about dangers of fast driving, salutations, prayers and protective charms.

There are also riddles and inscriptions on tools and weapons, ensuring best possible effect for the user. While all give an insight into these ancient people's thinking and way of life, some are more than that. They demonstrate an unexpected level of sophistication. Veneti had a sense of humour, enjoyed their wine, sent their dead from this world with poetry, humour and encouragement, prayed to their god for health and safety. They also loved word plays and riddles.

On the image on the left we have an elaborate gravestone epigram. The departed is a traveller going on a journey and he is given a gift and a good luck wish for his journey. There is a hint of humour, which Bor says is characteristic of the Etruscans, with whom Veneti probably had links:

Popotniku njega raco za na pot
To the traveller his duck for the journey

The Adriatic Veneti in time came under Roman rule. The inscriptions were increasingly in Roman script, but often interspersed with Venetic letters and in Venetic language. This is the case with the following inscription on stone. It may be regarded as the last example of a dying tradition. Its frivolous treatment is said to be more a parody than a gravestone. There is no example among the ancient Venetic relics of the driver taking two people at the same time into the next world.

Njemu je vozataj samec
His driver is a bachelor

Jojme popotujoč
Woe is me the traveller

In view of the relatively small number of inscriptions that have survived into the present, the variety is considerable. Beside the funeral inscriptions, there are riddles, proverbs, prayers, crossroad signs, invocations. In conclusion - an ageless salutation inscribed on a wine jar.

Ostani mlad!
Stay young!

The Situla, a document of Venetic society
After 600 B.C., the second half of Hallstatt period, a distinct artistic development appeared among the Adriatic Veneti area of central Alps, the lower Po Valley and the upper Adriatic covering the territory of today's Slovenia and northern Italy. This was the production of bronze vessels bearing beautiful decorations made in toreutic technique

The small ceremonial vessel was called situla and was used mainly for ritual drinking. In its composition and function it differed markedly from vessels originating in Etruscan and Greek cultures, which had a major influence on artistic development of cultures flourishing in central Europe at the time.

These cultures had each their own distinguishing characteristics, as well as common elements. Situlas, which were produced by the Adriatic Veneti were such a unique product that archaeologists and art historians gave their production and diffusion a separate name. They set it apart from other types of production by naming it the Art of Situla.

Many beautiful situlas were discovered in Slovenia, mainly south of Ljubljana, in the Lower Carniola. A world famous situla was found in the village of Vače. It is a very fine example of the Art of Situla, with illustrations that are a document of Venetic social and festive life.

Illustrations on the frieze are arranged in three tiers. In the first tier the horse is the dominant figure. He appears held by the bridle, put to the carriage or mounted by a rider. The second tier shows scenes from the life of a Venetic prince, drinking, music and inhaling fragrances. The third tier portrays animals, mostly deer, marching in a row. Only a few fragments remain of the situla of Visače in southern Istria, but these are enough to show characteristic elements of the Venetic culture and the situla art.

As a document of the period the image emphasizes the warlike aspect of society. The Histri people are known for their epic struggle against Romans.

Another beautiful example of the Venetic situla art, found at Este, is the bronze situla cover with engraving of mythical animals. With the end of Hallstatt period around 400 BC, Venetic situla art died out. The following La Tene period was carried by the Celts, who made their own artistic and cultural contribution.


Šavli, Jožko, Matej Bor, and Ivan Tomažič, Veneti - First Builders of European Community, Editiones Veneti, Vienna, Boswell, British Columbia, 1996