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The Novilara Stele and the North Picene Language


What Is the Novilara Stele?:

It is a sandstone slab inscribed with ancient writing in the North Picene language (a language from the east side of Italy north of Rome). There are also pictures which provide clues as to what the writing means. The stele is of interest to historical linguists and ancient historians.

Date of the Novilara Stele:

The stele is thought to date back to about the 5th or 6th century B.C. This antedates the time when the Latin language underwent rhotacism (the change from intervocalic s to r), which may be relevant if there turns out to be rhotacism in the stele.


The Novilara Stele is written in the north Picene language. Where this language comes from is unknown. We don't even know if it is an Indo-European language. The north Picene language may come from Illyria.

Its Alphabet:

The Novilara Stele is beautifully written in letters that resemble the Etruscan alphabet, which is based on the Greek. There are some uncertainties, and some points worth mentioning. The letter that is clearly an s, is a sigma turned, so that it looks like a Roman "M." There is a second letter that is thought to be an s that looks like this same turned sigma with half a leg removed. To us, it looks as though the D and R are reversed.


It is written on sandstone in twelve lines running from right to left. Each word is separated from the next by an interpunct, except at line end, where we don't know which words carry on to the next lines and which end with the line. On either side of the text is scrollwork and on the other side of the stele are carved illustrations of what appear to be hunting scenes.

Appearance of the Stele:

It is interesting to note that on various master craftsman's amphoras, lettering looks like an afterthought; it's the painting that shows the talent. This is the opposite of the situation with the Novilara Stele. The lettering side is done with far more precision and care than the other, illustrated side. The Novilara Stele is 25" high.

The Mystery:

We don't know whether the Novilara Stele is written in an Indo-European language or even whether it is written in only one language. We know nothing, but we can make guesses. The writing on the stele could, for instance, relate to the hunting scene. The words that look like Latin accusative singulars with -em endings, could be accusatives. The -ag ending could be an agentive ending, but we just don't know.

Major Source on the Stele:

James W. Poultney, in "The Language of the Northern Picene Inscriptions" (JIES 1979 VII : 49-64).

One Possible Transcription of the Novilara Stele:

Don't assume this is the way the words should be divided. This is just one possibility.
mimnis edut gaarestades
rotnem uvlin partenus
polem isairon tet
sut tratnesi kruvs
tenag trut ipiem rotnem
lutuis thalu isperion vul
tes rotem teu aiten tasur
soter merion kalatne
nis vilatos paten arn
uis balestenag ands et
ut iakut treten teletau.
nem polem tisu sotris eus

© 2008 N.S. Gill

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