Flavin, Richard D.  1998.  “The Karanovo Zodiac and Old European Linear,” in the Epigraphic Society Occasional Papers, Vol. 23; pp. 86-92.

The Karanovo Zodiac and Old European Linear*
Richard D. Flavin

*An earlier version of this paper was published in the February 1994 issue of the Louisiana Mounds Society’s Mounds Newsletter.  The author wishes to thank Bill Rudersdorf for his editing, lay-out and encouragement with both versions.

Recent work comparing the Old European Linear script with Cretan Linear A [1] and the Classical Cypriote syllabary [2] suggests a writing tradition which continued from Neolithic Europe down to later eastern Mediterranean cultures. This approach challenges theories that "stimulus diffusion" from ancient Egypt, or elsewhere, gave rise to the linear scripts of Crete and, ultimately, Cyprus. [3]  Perhaps someday we may better understand the origins for Cretan Linear A and the Classical Cypriote syllabary, but the problem of Old European Linear remains unaffected by these efforts.  It has been shown that constellation or calendar symbols have often influenced the development of various scripts, [4] and with the identification of a sequential constellation map, or zodiac, from Karanovo, Bulgaria c. 4800 BC, it appears a similar relationship existed between calendar symbols and the Old European Linear script.

Fig. 1The Old European Linear Script.  Old European Linear inscription on a spindle whorl from a Vinca site in Serbia, formerly south-central Yugoslavia, c. 5000-4500 BCE. (after Bennett/Gimbutas)

Linear inscriptions from Neolithic and Chalcolithic Europe have been known since before the turn of the century, but only with the last four decades have important examples been brought to light.  Despite the benefit of radiocarbon dating in gauging the great antiquity og these inscriptions, many scholars believed these examples to be imports from Anatolia or the Near East.  With the acceptance of dendrochronology, however, serious attention has begun to be shown these very ancient inscriptions. [5]

The recent publications of a number of these inscriptions have caused many to recognize that these “symboling structures” from post Ice Age Europe represent a previously unknown system of writing. 

[1]  Haarmann,  H., "Writing from Old Europe to Ancient Crete — A Case of Cultural Continuity," The Journal of Indo-European Studies, 17 (1990), 251-275.
[2]  Gimbutas, M., The Civilization of the Goddess, Harper-Coliins. 1991, p. 320.
[3]  Diringer, D., The Alphabet — A Key to the History of Mankind, Philosophical Library, 1948, p. 77.
[4]  See below; the works of Moran, Kelley, and Gordon -notes 13, 15, and 17.
[5] Winn, M. M., The Signs of the Vinca Culture: An Internal Analysis, Their Role, Chronology and Independence from Mesopotamia; UMI-Ann Arbor, 1973/1986.

Some have termed Old European Linear as examples of pre-writing [6] or proto-writing [7], which is ambiguous at best.  Admittedly, some simple inscriptions probably contain identification or ownership marks, which would be understood only by the person responsible for the markings. [8] Yet, as more and more examples are published, it becomes clear the limiting classification of ownership marks must be carefully reapplied to distinguish only those examples which consist of a minimum number of characters and not to the longer, complex inscriptions.  We are challenged by Old European Linear as the earliest script separate from prior and contemporaneous systems of design, tabulation and “symboling.”

The meander or zigzag line is probably the oldest symboling structure, going back to an engraved ox-rib from Pech de l’Azé, France and dated to c. 200,000 BCE. [9] This simple design has had global currency and has established itself in many writing systems, often with similar meanings and sometimes with astronomic significance. [10]

Fig 2Acheulian (Lower Paleolithic) Meander.  Meander from France's Dordogne region c. 200,000 BCE discovered by François Bordes and analyzed by A. Marshack.  1) two near parallel lines were carevd, 2) another pair of lines were added and 3) the process was repeated several times with different tools. (after Marshack)

Alexander Marshack has successfully argued for recognition of the cognitive and time factoring abilities of Ice Age Europeans through his various papers and his boldly advanced The Roots of Civilization. [11] His presentations of lunar notations tallied some 35,000 years ago establish a higher intellectual functioning in our species earlier than many had thought possible.  It is a matter of speculation as to why these early inscriptions consist of celestial phenomena.

With Marshack’s pioneering work in pointing up man’s early fascination with near-calendrics, we are no longer faced with the prospect of an indigenous post Ice Age European script arising in isolation millennia before the civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia.  It now appears that a continuous thread existed from paleolithic down to Neolithic times and beyond, which served as the basic inspiration for the Old European Linear script and perhaps writing in general: celestial movements.

In 1952 the eminent Semitic epigrapher Dr. David Diringer of Cambridge wrote:

“If a satisfactory source for the alphabet is to be established, that source must show great antiquity, widespread diffusion and some cohesive principle outside itself which has held the various signs in their established order under varied circumstances, over wide areas and through long periods of

[6] Ibid.
[7] Renfrew, C., Before Civilization, Knopf, 1973, plates 6 and 7, also in (passim) p.181.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Marshack, A., “Exploring the Mind of Ice Age Man,” Nat. Geog. vol. 147, no. 1, 1975, p.85.  François Bordes, A Tale of Two Caves, Harper & Row, 1972, Fig. 17.
[10] De Santillana, G. and Von Dechend, H., Hamlet’s Mill, Gambit, 1969, p.290 ff.
[11] Marshack, A., The Roots of Civilization, McGraw-Hill, 1972.

time.  Dr. Moran ...presents a theory which goes far toward meeting these conditions.” [12]

Diringer was among the first to praise the remarkable approach of Hugh A. Moran who presented, in his groundbreaking 1953 work The Alphabet and the Ancient Calendar Signs, a vast body of evidence suggesting the Chinese system of writing and the alphabet were both inspired by an ancient twenty-eight sectioned lunar zodiac, or calendar, which Moran believed was Chaldean in origin. [13]

The twelve ecliptical constellations commonly referred to as the solar zodiac, along with ten or so circumpolar constellations and a varied amount of ‘paranatellonta’ (peripheral star groups or asterisms, usually minor, which rise in conjunction with a major or well-known constellation) have been combined by many peoples to create calendric lunar zodiacs.  The lunar zodiac, surviving as the structural basis for Chinese ideographic writing, shares with the alphabet several symbols, some in sequential order, which cannot be overlooked by even the most hardened of skeptics.

Moran rightly made much of the fact that the Chinese lunar zodiac contains the “ox” (niú) as is followed by “woman, daughter” (lunú) and the Hebrew alphabet which begins with Aleph or the “bull” and is followed by Beth or a “daughter.”  Another noteworthy correspondence is the meander M, the 13th letter of the alphabet and meaning waters in Semitic, matching the 13th constellation from the ox, which represent the crossing of the ecliptic by the Milky Way or the River of Heaven. [14]

Fig. 3The Calendar Signs I: Moran.  1) our Roman letter A, 2) Old Hebrew Aleph- the "ox," 3) modern Greek Alpha, 4) Old Greek Alpha, 5) astronomical symbol for the constellation Taurus, 6) Chinese lunar constellation symbol, 7) Chinese lunar zodiac symbol niú - the "ox" and 8) Chinese solar zodiac symbol ch'ou - "old" or "original."  (after Moran)

It was unfortunately beyond Moran to offer a theoretical mechanism whereby the lunar zodiacs diffused over great distances, though he believed it was through the Sumero-Babylonians.  Also, Moran failed to adequately demonstrate why the calendar signs served as the structural basis for written characters in Asia, the Near East and Europe.  To his credit, Dr. Moran freely admitted that his work needed input from other disciplines: it was a long time in coming.

Prof. David H. Kelley first encountered Moran’s theory while studying for his doctorate in archaeology at Harvard.  Even though Kelley immediately began a correspondence and soon after, a friendship with Moran, he maintained a healthy skepiicism which endured until his later work with the day names of the Mayan calendar convinced him the lunar zodiac, even in the New World, was culturally significant and served as the basis for the hieroglyphic writing system of the Maya.

[12] Fwd. in Moran, H. and Kelley, D., The Alphabet and the Ancient Calendar Signs, 2nd ed., Daily Press, 1969.
[13] Ibid.  pp. 3-123.
[14] Ibid. pp. 94-96.

In the second edition of The Alphabet and the Ancient Calendar Signs, published in 1969, Prof. Kelley contributed a chapter titled “American Parallels” in which he demonstrated his alignments of the Old and New World lunar zodiacs. [15] Critical of Moran’s work, though in a very positive way, Kelley extended the argument for a calendar sign origin of the alphabet by proposing the derivation of the Mesoamerican calendar, here inclusive of both Mayan and Aztec systems, from Eurasian lunar mansions.

“American Parallels” presents the reader with a significant amount of evidence for pre-Columbian contacts between the Old and New Worlds.  Such evidence is inherently and unfairly subject to the diverse whims of archaeological groupthink and, therefor, wrongly suspect in the opinion of many.  Consequently, Prof. Kelley’s evidence has, to all but a few, been ignored and seldom mentioned in the scientific literature concerning the origins of writing in general and the origin of the alphabet specifically.  Still, the alignments of the Mesoamerican calendars with the various Eurasian lunar mansions by Prof. Kelley is sustained by well defined external and internal evidence and remains a very sound advancement.

Fig. 4.  The Calendar Signs II: Kelley.  1) Roman and Old Hebrew variants of the letter A, Aleph, or the "Ox," 2) Jain symbol of the lunar zodiac constellation Taurus shown as the "ox-head," 3) Mayan glyphs for the calendar symbol the "Ox."  Note triangular motif represented in all examples--perhaps a direct reference to the imaging of Taurus. (after Kelley)

Kelley did not necessarily challenge everyone’s views as to the origin of the alphabet–those views are many and the ultimate answer is still elusive.  He did, however, provide a compelling framework which all future models should recognize and work within. [16]

Prof. Cyrus H. Gordon was one of the first scholars to publish information on the importance of the cuneiform alphabet from the Bronze Age kingdom of Ugarit, located by modern boundaries in western Syria, and has been in the forefront of much serious work in Ugarit studies since the nineteen forties with many insightful and indispensable papers and books.  With his intimate expertise in the unique alphabet from Ugarit, Prof. Gordon was able to align a lunar zodiac with the 29-30 characters of the Ugaritic system. [17]

The Ugarit cuneiform alphabet is among the earliest and best understood examples of the alphabet.  As is widely held by academic currency, before the Ugarit alphabet there existed a proto-Siniatic formulation of an alphabetic system at a slightly earlier date. [18] Yet, it is with the cuneiform examples of the Ugarit alphabet c.1500-1250 BCE that enough extant inscriptions survive to fully appreciate the novelty and prudence of the acrophonic system of the alphabet.

The mechanism Prof. Gordon offered for the distribution of lunar zodiacs and the diffusion of the alphabet was an ancient global network of mariners sharing basic elements of a common

[15] Ibid.  pp. 143-187.
[16] Ibid. p. 166.
[17] Gordon, C., Before Columbus, Crown, 1971, pp. 98-105.
[18] Diringer, D., Writing, Praeger, 1962, pp. 118-120.

P. 90
culture. [19]  Gordon regards the Phoenicians and the still mysterious Aegean and Mediterranean maritime confederacy known as the Sea Peoples as the means of dispersal for the various technologies involved with lunar zodiacs and the alphabet.  Prof. Gordon writes “It cannot be the legacy of primitive and isolated Stone Age men, for it [the distribution of lunar zodiacs] goes hand in hand with astronomy, calendrics and writing.” [20] We now know “Stone Age men” were not isolated; indeed, they were the cultural inheritors of traditions involving celestial movements, and some of these traditions appear to have assisted the denouement of the Old European Linear script of. c. 6000-3500 BCE.

Fig. 5.  The Calendar Signs III: Gordon.  Some of the cuneiform alphabet characters from Ugarit which resemble Old Hebrew letters. (after Diringer)

Bartel L. van der Waerden is frequently accorded a near-reverent regard for his analysis and treatment of the Babylonian mulAPIN series which probably reflect second millennium BCE astronomical knowledge in Mesopotamia.  In his routinely cited classic paper “Babylonian Astronomy. II. The Thirty Six Stars,” Van der Waerden assigns a date to the origin for the first zodiac at c. 700-420 BCE and unconditionally gives authorship to the Babylonians. [21] Many now suspect the correct answers are not so simple and may be surprising.

In 1965, publishing in the same journal as Van der Waerden had sixteen years previously, Willy Hartner detailed his conclusions of a zodiacal constellation tradition which was fixed before c. 4000 BCE. [22] Hartner followed the motif of lion and bull, reflecting the constellations Leo and Taurus, through over five thousand years of incorporation into ancient near-eastern architectural design, statues, and pottery.  He admits the earliest constellation names are Sumerian, but places their authorship well before the Sumerian period by charting the appropriate helical risings of Leo and Taurus during the first half of February, the time for “plowing, harrowing, and sowing,” c. 4000 BCE, at about the latitude of Ur. [23]

Hartner then states emphatically “For it is well not to overlook the fact that the calendar, however indispensable to agriculture has always had, and in many parts of the world, at least, still has another aspect of no lesser importance: the religious.” [24]

Separating the various ancient calendar traditions continues to be wrought with constructive debate. [25] D. R. Dicks comments “Hence it may well be that, in the case of the zodiac too, we ought to think of a parallel development in both Greek and Babylonian astronomy at about the same time, and not necessarily of any direct borrowing of the one from the other at this early stage.” [26]

[19] Gordon, C., see above, p. 99.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Van der Waerden, B. L., “Babylonian Astronomy. II. The Thirty Six Stars,” The Journal of Near-Eastern Studies 8, 1949, 6-26.
[22] Hartner, W., “The Earliest History of the Constellations in the Near east and the Motif of the Lion-Bull Combat,” The Journal of Near-Eastern Studies 24, 1965, 1-16.
[23] Ibid. p. 10.
[24] Ibid. p. 15.
[25] For an informative overview of the problems encountered with ancient calendars see Weinstock, S., “Lunar Mansions and Early Calendars,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1950, 69:48-69.
[26] Dicks, D. R., Early Greek Astronomy to Aristotle, Cornell University Press, 1970, p. 172.  A similar view is expressed in Loyd, G. E. R., Early Greek Science: Thales to Aristotle, W. W. Norton, 1970, p. 81.

The late Prof. Harald A. T. Reiche, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has shown how early Greek farmers placed little or no reliance on zodiacal constellations, but rather used an apt system of calendrics involving the much brighter, considerably more useful stars of the Pleiades, the Hyades, Orion, Sirius, Sirius and Arcturus. [27]

This practical system of celestial mnemonics was already in place when the duodenary solar zodiac is said to have been manifest as the leitmotif of such legend/myths as Jason and the Golden Fleece, [28] though this may be an example of retroceding attributes to historical persons or events.

Mathematicians and historians of science such as Otto Neugebauer, A. J. Sachs, Asger Aaboe, and the Egyptologist, R. A. Parker, have constructed an emergence of the “mathematical zodiac” as a grid-map to record the positions of the sun, moon, and planets over Babylon shortly before 480 BCE.  This mathematical zodiac was a technological tool and can be tested against the historical records for periods which do not contain the mathematical idealization necessary to map the heavens.  This zodiac is not very old, in fact, seems quite recent. [29]

Yet, zodiacal constellations had been studied, recorded, used in calendars, and incorporated into religious ritual and myth for thousands of years before this late date of 480 BCE.  Any study of the movements of zodiacal constellations surely reflects an abstract understanding of the “natural year” and an effort at early calendrics.  Astrology does not seem to figure into the study of zodiacal constellations until after the introduction of the mathematical zodiac. [30]

The significance of the idea of constellations or asterisms should not be undervalued merely to direct attention to the later scientific accomplishments of post-500 BCE Greece and Babylonia.  Approaching the extant examples of representations of constellations which occur before the advent of the mathematical zodiac as failed calendars would seem to be more in line with what we know concerning the needs, motivations, and the abilities of the ancient farmer.  Constellation calendarics and the zodiacs have thus remained an irresistible, though quite imperfect, technology used by many peoples around the globe for seven thousand years or more.

In an earlier paper I described my discernment of a duodenary, sequential constellation map or zodiac incised on a stamp-seal from Karanovo, Bulgaria and dated to 4800 BCE. [31]  This fifth millennium BCE constellation imaging is representative of the adept and advanced accomplishments now being accorded the various Neolithic and Copper Age cultures of Old Europe. [32]

The Karanovo Zodiac stamp seal is relatively small, a mere 6 cm in diameter, 2 cm thick, with a handle 2 cm long.  A major feature of the stamp seal is the “cross-arms” incision which covers the entire face.  I do not believe this cross is capable of indicating or fixing a hypothetical calendar date for seasonal rites such as the cardinal points of spring and autumn equinox and the winter and summer solstice.  Rather, the cross seems to be supportive of the view that the Karanovians possessed an early locational or directional tradition, much like the

[27] Reiche, H. A. T., “Fail-Safe Stellar Dating: Forgotten Phases,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 119, 1989, 37-53.
[28] Graves, R., The Greek Myths Vol. 2, Penguin, various editions, 157.3, p. 258.  Sir Isaac Newton “rediscovered” this, apparently without ever reading the Pseudo-Eratosthenes Katasterismoi, which also records this alignment.
[29] A detailed bibliography for the above mentioned authors would be impractical here; however, two works should suffice to further interest: Neugebauer, O., The Exact Sciences in Antiquity, second edition, 1957, Brown University Press, and 1969, Dover; Neugebauer, O., Astronomy and History, Selected Essays, 1983, Springer-Verlag.
[30] Van der Waerden, B. L., Science Awaking II: The Birth of Astronomy, Noordhoff International Publishing, 1974, in (passim) pp. 93-94.
[31] Flavin, R., “The Karanovo Zodiac,” Epigraphic Society Occasional Papers Vol. 20, 1991, 37-42.
[32] Whittle, A., Europe in the Neolithic: The Creation of New Worlds, Cambridge University Press, 1996 (an updating of his Neolithic Europe: A Survey, Cambridge University Press, 1985).

later Chinese, whereby the cross shows the four cardinal directions with the center being the observer. [33]  The cross on the Karanovo Zodiac seems then to be a device used to indicate an idea or formula of a directional nature and helps to suggest sequence, yet is not germane itself to the basic constellation scheme.

Remarkably, the Karanovo Zodiac is a realistic sequential constellation map showing no abstract development beyond connecting the dots, or more properly, the stars.  The incisions seem a very straightforward, almost modern, rendering of the zodiacal constellations, and depicted entirely, except for possibly my discernment of Sagittarius, [34] free from later animal, human and object characterizations which are so common in various other zodiacs.  Old Europe was extremely rich in iconographic, totemistic representational and symboling structures, [35] yet with the Karanovo Zodiac we are faced with a modern, near-scientific renderly of the illusory phenomenon of the ecliptical zodiac.

Fig. 6.  The Karanovo Zodiac.  The Karanovo Zodiac--the design on a stamp seal from Karanovo VI, c. 4800 BCE displaying knowledge of a sequential constellation map. (R.D.F.)

The Karanovo Zodiac was not, in all likelihood, the first of the art or technology which became constellation imaging.  For such an involved, observational tradition as the Karanovo Zodiac to be quickly incised in the negative on a small bit of clay, for the purpose of imprinting in the positive, would seem to indicate a familiarity, and possibly a grounded tradition of some undetermined age already in existence by the fifth millennium BCE.  Perhaps an even older “zodiac” awaits a fortunate archaeologist or investigator.

From the growing collection of Old European Linear inscriptions a sequential constellation map, or zodiac, has been discerned, which may imply that possible astronomical significance or calendrical values are contained in other inscribed examples of Old European Linear.

Celestial movements have been recorded in ancient Europe since c. 35,000 BCE and it is not unreasonable to assume that astronomic preoccupation, either for calendric or religious purposes, continued and is contained, in part, in the structural design of the Old European Linear characters.  Such a relationship as between calendar or zodiac symbols and writing, and demonstrated by Moran, Kelley, and Gordon, should not be regarded as the exception, but as the rule.

I believe future investigations of Old European Linear should not concern themselves solely with what eventual effects the script had on subsequent writing systems, but should rather concentrate on what notation, iconographic, and calendar or zodiac symbols preceded and at some point, became the Old European Linear script.

[33] De Santillana, G. and Von Dechend, H., see above, p. 232.  Follow the usage of the term “implex.”
[34] Flavin, R., see above, p. 38.  When mentioning the discernment of the constellation Sagittarius, I mistakenly identified V. I, Georgiev as an archaeologist.  While the paper was in press, Prof Gimbutas pointed out to me that this should have been the linguist V. I. Georgiev.  I regret she never had the opportunity to see this follow-up paper.
[35] Gimbutas, M., The Language of the Goddess, Harper & Row, 1989.

For my online "The Karanovo Zodiac" article from 1992, click here.

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