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Time5th Century BCE to 1st Century CE

Prior to Roman conquest, the Iberian peninsula was home to a great number of cultures, including Iberians, Celts, Tartessians, Turdetanian, and Basques. Many of these cultures were literate, and employed a number of similar scripts collectively called Iberian scripts. There are three major scripts in this tradition, simply named by their geographical distribution: Northeastern, Southeastern, and Southwestern scripts.

The three scripts share a relative common set of signs, albeit with quite a bit of variations. One distinguishing factor uniting all three scripts is that there are two types of signs. The first type of signs is essentially an alphabet in which each sign represents an individual sound. For example, there is one sign for /a/, one sign for /s/, another for /m/, and so on. On the other hand, the second type is a bit more varied depending on the script. Originally scholars thought that signs of this second type are syllabograms, representing entire syllables starting with "stop" consonants (/b/, /t/, and /k/). This is certainly the case for Northeastern and Southeastern script. However, the Southwestern script might have used these same signs instead as consonants, meaning the same consonant was represented by multiple signs.

Northeastern Iberian Script

The best understood Iberian script is the Northeast Iberian script. Geographically it was located as far north as southern France but primarily in Catalonia, Aragonia, and Valencia. It was used by speakers of the Iberian language, which is partially understood, and also by Celtic-speaking Celtiberians but with some modifications. The direction of writing is typically left to right. As mentioned earlier, the Northeastern script contains both alphabetic and syllabic signs.

Researchers have also proposed a mechanism through which a extra stroke is added to a syllabogram to change the consonant from voiceless, /t/ and /k/, to voiced, /d/ and /g/ respectively (see Phonetics for more details). The Iberian language only has the sound /b/ and not /p/ and so this transformation did not apply for these sounds.

Sometimes punctuation marks are used in the Northeastern script. A single dot provides separation between words, whereas multiple vertically aligned dots (anywhere from two to five) separate phrases. Larger segments such as sentences or paragraphs did not appear to be marked with other symbols.

Southeastern Iberian Script

The Southeastern Iberian script was found primarily in the Spanish regions of Murcia, Castilla-Mancha, and Andalusia. Unlike the Northeastern script, it was written from right to left, and often in boustrophedon. It recorded an unknown language, and as a result, very little is known about this script.

Southwestern Iberian Script

The last script, the Southwestern variant, was found mainly in southern Portugal but also in parts of Spain including Extremadura and western part of Andalusia. It is also called Tartessian after a prominent pre-Roman city and culture in the southwestern corner of the peninsula. Like the Southeastern script, it is written from the righ to left. And as mentioned earlier, it was thought that this script has a mixture of alphabetic and syllabic signs. However, nearly always syllabic signs are followed by single-sound signs representing the same vowels as the syllabic signs, such as (ti-i) and (tu-u). This redundancy in vowels led some researchers to propose that syllabic signs in fact only represent consonants but only before specific vowel signs. Therefore in the earlier examples both signs and represent the sound /t/, but only before and respectively.

The following is the generally accepted signary of the Southwestern Iberian script, although there are versions as well with different sound values. Note in the phonetic transcription of the p/t/k consonants the vowels are lighter in color to indicate the expected following vowel.

Origin of Iberian Scripts

The origin of Iberian scripts is rather controversial. Some signs point to a Greek origin, while others support Phoenician as a source. Both Greeks and Phoenicians had pronounced presence in the Iberian peninsula, establishing extensive trade networks and colonies. It appears that the Northeastern script exhibit both Greek and Phoenician influence while the Southeastern and Southwestern scripts show exclusive Phoenician origin. The following chart displays some of the signs and their possible Phoenician and/or Greek counterparts.

In addition to the three indigenous Iberian scripts, Phoenician, Greek, and Latin alphabets were also used on the Peninsula. In particular, the Ionic Greek alphabet was used to write the Iberian language, which greatly aided the decipherment of the Northeastern Iberian script. The Celtiberians also employed the Latin alphabet in addition to their variant of the Northeast script.

The use of Iberian scripts and their associated languages gradually declined as the Roman Empire conquered and latinized the population of Hispania. They were gradually forgotten until the 18th century when antiquarians began to rediscover and decipher the ancient texts. While still very limited in size of inscriptions and relatively poorly understood, perhaps with time more secrets will be revealed about the indigenous pre-Roman population of the Iberian Peninsula.

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