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Urnfield culture numerals

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2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64
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/ 1
// 2
/// 3
//// 4
\ 5
/\ 6
//\ 7
///\ 8
////\ 9
\\ 10
/\\ 11
//\\ 12
///\\ 13
////\\ 14
\\\ 15
/\\\ 16
//\\\ 17
///\\\ 18
////\\\ 19
\\\\ 20
/\\\\ 21
//\\\\ 22
///\\\\ 23
////\\\\ 24
\\\\\ 25
/\\\\\ 26
//\\\\\ 27
///\\\\\ 28
////\\\\\ 29

During the beginning of the Urnfield culture, around 1200 BC, a series of votive sickles of bronze with marks that have been interpreted as a numeral system, appeared in Central Europe.


In 1946 a deposit with more than 250 sickles corresponding to the period 1500–1250 BC was discovered in Frankleben (in the region of MerseburgQuerfurt). This discovery was part of a series of deposits from the Urnfield culture found close to the Saale, where some 600 sickles and other objects have been retrieved. The sickles are thought to have been created and buried in deposits with ritual ends, due to the lack of signs of use.

On the sickles, a series of marks in two positions called attention: simple strokes, under the button that sticks out, near where a handle ought to be, and more complex signs, in the corner of the blade or on the base. The basic strokes have been interpreted as a numeral system.

Other objects that show these marks have been discovered, like the Ruthen stamp (from the end of the Bronze Age), which shows the symbol ////\\\\\ and the Coswig vessel (between 1200–1000 BC), which also shows the symbol ////\\\\\, accompanied by other symbols. In the case of the Coswig vessel, it gives the impression that it was made by a trained hand which wrote a complex series of signs on the fresh clay surface.

The numeral system Edit

The discovered numeral system is in base five, i.e. quinary. The units digit are written with a stroke from the top-right to the bottom-left «/» and the fives place with a stroke from the top-left to the bottom-right «\». The numbers from 1 = / to 29 = ////\\\\\ have been found.

Interpretation Edit

These embossed marks, unique in objects from the Bronze Age, were introduced in cast-iron molds and were not created on finished objects. The marks on the clay molds were done sometimes by hand, others with stamps, and corrected wrong symbols indicates an intention and a previous planning. The marking system for the clay on the cast is similar to Mesopotamian cuneiform.

That numbers past 29 have not been found, when theoretically the system can be used to write unlimited numbers, has been interpreted to be because of the lunar cycle of 29.5 days. The cultures that use a lunar calendar habitually decide between 29 and 30 days for their calendar and correct the annual difference in various ways. If this interpretation is accepted, each ravine represents one day of the lunar cycle.

The shape of the sickle is similar to a crescent moon, which explains the significance of this object in the worship of the Urnfield culture.

With this, the symbol found on the Ruthen stamp and the Coswig vase has been interpreted, 29 = ////\\\\\, as a symbol of the lunar cycle. In general, it is believed that the writing encodes the lunar cycle as the agricultural cycle linked with the moon and the Sun.

Other symbols Edit

Another series of symbols exists which appears around the sickles and still has not been interpreted. However it is clear that these symbols follow determined rules that are valid in all the influential territory.

Some of those symbols can be put in groups from one to four by what has been proposed as a type of base five numeral system.

40 41 42 43 30px 44 45 46 47 48 49
50 51 30px 52 30px 53 30px 54 30px 55 30px 56 10px 57 58 59
60 61 30px 62 30px 63 30px 64 65 30px 66 10px 67 ●● 68 69
70 71 30px 72 30px 73 30px 74 75 30px 76 20px 77 ●●● 78 79
80 81 30px 82 83 30px 84 30px 85 30px 86 30px 87 ●●●● 88 89

There still exist some symbols that have not been put in any group:

30px 16 30px 22 30px 25 30px 26 30px 33 30px 36 30px 42 30px 43 30px 69

The numbers 22, 25, 33, 36, 43 and 69 and 24, 52, 53, 54, 56, 62, 63, 64, 66, 73, 74, 84 and 86 appear on the base of the sickle. The numbers 16, 26 and 42 and 44, 52, 54, 55, 57, 58, 62, 64, 67, 68, 72, 74, 77, 78, 82, 84, 85, 87 and 88 appear on the angle of the sickle. The numbers 52, 54, 62, 64, 74 and 84 appear in both places.

Hypothesis of the runes Edit

This writing has been related to the German runes, not only due to the geographic but also the agricultural and lunar character that the two possess. It has been affirmed that the runes often appear together with other non-runic symbols, even in combination on the same object. Also, ᛃ j, ᛜ ng and also ᚷ g do not have connections to the Etruscan alphabet from which the Runic alphabet supposedly comes. On the other hand, the letters ᛃ j, ᛜ ng and ᚲ k are distinguished from the rest of the runes by their smaller size. The runes are also characterized by possessing names in addition to representing a sound.

Under the hypothesis that the names of some runes were taken from previous symbols, the names of those runes could give clues about the meaning of the symbols. In this way, if the symbol that has more combinations with others , the one that appears most frequently and the most characteristic are selected, you can make the following equivalence:

Symbol Rune Equivalence Meaning
10px 22 jera year
10px 69 ingwaz god
10px 36 gebô present

This is just an interesting hypothesis that perhaps will never be confirmed.

External linksEdit

  • Image of the Frankleben sickles.
  • Image of the Coswig vase.


  • Meller, Harald (Ed.), Der geschmiedete Himmel, Ed. Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologie Sachsen-Anhalt (2006) ISBN 3-8062-1907-9

See alsoEdit

da:Urnemarkskulturens talsystem es:Numeración de la Cultura de los Campos de Urnas it:Sistema di numerazione nella cultura dei campi di urne ru:Символы культуры полей погребальных урн fi:Uurnakenttäkulttuurin lukujärjestelmä sv:Urnefältskulturens siffersystem zh:瓮棺文化计数系统

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