In 1885, a unique stele was found as part of the walls of a church in the town of Kaminia on the Greek island of Lemnos.
It has been dated to the 6th century BC, prior to the conquest of the island by the Athenians in 510 BC to the Pelasgians. This was the name given by the Greeks to the pre-Hellenic peoples who inhabited what we know today as Greece and the islands of the Aegean.
The Pelasgians, about whom researchers do not agree on whether they were of Indo-European origin or not, spoke a set of languages whose origin is also uncertain, although there are theories for all tastes.
The stele and its inscription
The stele features a low-relief engraving of a warrior in profile and without a helmet, carrying a spear and a shield which, due to the curvature of the incision, appears to be circular. Around the image there is an inscription written in bustraphedon, that is, writing one line from left to right and the next from right to left or vice versa.
There are 198 characters that form between 33 and 40 words, separated in some cases by one, two or three points. It has three parts on its front, two written vertically to the image of the warrior and one horizontally on its head; and one lateral. As we said, the language in which it is written has been called Lemnian and, although it can be transliterated, it has not yet been possible to decipher what it says. By comparison with Etruscan, a language with which it seems to have many similarities, the phrase aviš sialχviš (sixty years old), reminiscent of the Etruscan avils maχs śealχisc is interpreted.
The transliteration that the researchers make is the following, in the front part:
hulaieš:naφuθ:šiaši / maraš:mav / sialχveiš:aviš / evisθu:šerunaiθ / šivai / aker:tavaršiu / vanalasial:šerunai:murinail
And on the side:
hulaieši:φukiasiale:šerunaiθ:evisθu:tuveruna / rum:haraliu:šivai:eptešiu:arai:tiš:φuke / šivai:aviš:sialχviš:marašm:aviš:aumai
What is known is that the alphabet used in the inscription is a variant of the Euboean alphabet, similar to that used to write the Etruscan language and the oldest Phrygian inscriptions. The Euboean alphabet was used in the cities of Eretria and Chalcis, both on the island of Euboea, and in their southern Italian colonies such as Cumae and Pithekousai (present-day Ischia). It was precisely through this variant that the Greek alphabet spread throughout the Italian peninsula, giving rise to the Etruscan and Latin alphabets.
The Lemnian language
Because of the similarity of the alphabet researchers initially thought that the language of the inscription was Etruscan, but it turned out to be different, although both have many similarities. It was called Lemnian and it was proposed the existence of a linguistic family called Tyrsenian or Tyrrhenian, from where Lemnian, Etruscan and Rhaetian would derive (language attested by numerous inscriptions in the ancient Roman province of Raetia, that is, between Switzerland, Bavaria and Tyrol).
Later, numerous ceramic fragments with similar inscriptions were found, which would show that Lemnian was spoken in Lemnos at least since the 16th century B.C.
Researchers who defend the belonging of these three languages to the same linguistic tree have found common features in their morphology, phonology and syntax. An analysis of lexical correspondences has not been possible, due to the scarcity of Lemnian and Rhaetian inscriptions, and to the fact that the three languages had to be separated before the Bronze Age. That is, they would be paleo-European, prior to the arrival of Indo-European languages to Southern Europe.
One theory for the presence of a Tyrrhenian language as remote and isolated from the other two as Lemnian is that it could have reached the Aegean at the end of the Bronze Age, when the Mycenaeans were recruiting mercenaries in Sicily, Sardinia and the Italian peninsula. In this sense already in the 1920’s Professor Della Seta affirmed, following the excavations in one of the necropolis of the island, that:
The lack of bronze weapons, the abundance of iron weapons and the type of vessels and brooches give the impression that the necropolis belongs to the IX-VIII century B.C. That it did not belong to a Greek population, but to a population that, in the eyes of the Greeks, seemed barbaric, is demonstrated by the weapons. The Greek weapon, dagger or spear, is missing: the weapons of the barbarians, the axe and the knife, are common. However, since this population … retains so many elements of Mycenaean art, the Tyrrhenians or Pelasgians of Lemnos can be recognized as a remnant of a Mycenaean population.
Greek tradition stated that Pelasgians had inhabited large parts of Greece before the arrival of the Greeks, particularly Thessaly and Attica. Homer mentions them in the Iliad among the allies of Troy, and in the Odyssey they appear as one of the tribes of the ninety cities of Crete.
And Herodotus says that the Pelasgians of Lemnos had lived in Attica, but had been expelled from there by the Athenians. Regarding their language, he says:
What the language of the Pelasgi was I cannot say with any certainty. If, however, we may form a conjecture from the tongue spoken by the Pelasgi of the present day—those, for instance, who live at Creston above the Tyrrhenians, who formerly dwelt in the district named Thessaliotis, and were neighbours of the people now called the Dorians—or those again who founded Placia and Scylace upon the Hellespont, who had previously dwelt for some time with the Athenians—or those, in short, of any other of the cities which have dropped the name but are in fact Pelasgian; if, I say, we are to form a conjecture from any of these, we must pronounce that the Pelasgi spoke a barbarous language. If this were really so, and the entire Pelasgic race spoke the same tongue, the Athenians, who were certainly Pelasgi, must have changed their language at the same time that they passed into the Hellenic body; for it is a certain fact that the people of Creston speak a language unlike any of their neighbours, and the same is true of the Placianians, while the language spoken by these two people is the same; which shows that they both retain the idiom which they brought with them into the countries where they are now settled.Herodotus, History I-LVII
According to Christopher Smith, all this can be interpreted in various ways, as long as there is no concrete documentary and archaeological evidence: we can be in front of a people, the Pelasgians, of which the Etruscans and Rhaetians would be descendants; or on the contrary they could be Etruscan emigrants displaced to the east; but there could also be an ancient people, which we call Tyrrhenians, settled both in the east and in the west, common trunk of Pelasgians, Etruscans and Rhaetians, and this would explain, for example, why Herodotus places them near Thessaly.
Finally, Robert D.Morritt in his work Stones that Speak points out a possible interpretation of the inscription: it would be the funerary stele of a magistrate named Holaie, who died at the age of 40 or 60. However, a complete translation is still impossible at present.
The stele is part of the collection of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
A History of the Greek Language (Francisco Rodríguez Adrados) / Mnamon – Ancient Writing Systems in the Mediterranean / Stones that Speak (Robert D.Morritt) / The Etruscans: A Very Short Introduction (Christopher Smith) / Lemnian Language (Hellenica) / J.L.Myres, A History of the Pelasgian Theory, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1907, pp.169-225 / Wikipedia.