The Tărtăria tablets are three tablets, discovered in Tărtăria, Romania which date to around 5300 BC. They bear incised symbols, the Vinča signs, that have been the subject of considerable controversy among archaeologists, some of whom claim that the symbols represent the earliest known form of writing in the world.
The tablets were found in 1961 at about 30 km (19 mi) from the well-known site of Alba Iulia. Nicolae Vlassa, an archaeologist at the Cluj Museum, unearthed three inscribed but unbaked clay tablets, together with 26 clay and stone figurines and a shell bracelet, accompanied by the burnt, broken, and disarticulated bones of an adult male. Two of the tablets are rectangular and the third is round. They are all small, the round one being only 6 cm (2½ in) across, and two—one round and one rectangular—have holes drilled through them.
All three have symbols inscribed only on one face. Similar motifs have been found on pots excavated at Vinča in Serbia and a number of other locations in the southern Balkans. The unpierced rectangular tablet depicts a horned animal, another figure, and a branch or tree. The others have a variety of mainly abstract symbols. The purpose of the burial is unclear, but it has been suggested that the body was that of a shaman or spirit-medium.
The tablets are generally believed to have belonged to the Vinča culture, which at the time was believed by Serbian and Romanian archaeologists to have originated around 2700 BC. Vlassa interpreted the Tărtăria tablets as a hunting scene and the other two with signs as a kind of primitive writing similar to the early pictograms of the Sumerians. The discovery caused great interest in the archeological world as it predated the first Minoan writing, the oldest known writing in Europe.
However, subsequent radiocarbon dating on the Tărtăria finds pushed the date of the tablets (and therefore of the whole Vinča culture) much further back, to as long ago as 5500 BC, the time of the early Eridu phase of the Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia. Still, this is disputed in the light of apparently contradictory stratigraphic evidence.
If the symbols are indeed a form of writing, then writing in the Danubian culture would far predate the earliest Sumerian cuneiform script or Egyptian hieroglyphs. They would thus be the world's earliest known form of writing. This claim remains controversial.
The meaning (if any) of the symbols is unknown, and their nature has been the subject of much debate. Scholars who conclude that the inscribed symbols are writing base their assessment on a few conclusions, which are not universally endorsed. First, the existence of similar signs on other artifacts of the Danube civilization suggest that there was an inventory of standard shapes of which scribes made use. Second, the symbols make a high degree of standardization and a rectilinear shape comparable to archaic writing systems manifest. Third, that the information communicated by each character was a specific one with an unequivocal meaning. Finally, that the inscriptions are sequenced in rows, whether horizontal, vertical or circular. If they do comprise a script, it is not known what kind of writing system they represent. Some archaeologists who support the idea that they do represent writing, notably Marija Gimbutas, have proposed that they are fragments of a system dubbed the Old European Script.
Others consider the pictograms to be accompanied by random scribbles. Some have suggested that the symbols may have been used as marks of ownership or as the focus of religious rituals. An alternative suggestion is that they may have been merely uncomprehending imitations of more advanced cultures, although this explanation is made rather unlikely by the great antiquity of the tablets—there were no literate cultures at the time from which the symbols could have been adopted. Colin Renfrew argues that the apparent similarities with Sumerian symbols are deceptive: "To me, the comparison made between the signs on the Tărtăria tablets and those of proto-literate Sumeria carry very little weight. They are all simple pictographs, and a sign for a goat in one culture is bound to look much like the sign for a goat in another. To call these Balkan signs 'writing' is perhaps to imply that they had an independent significance of their own communicable to another person without oral contact. This I doubt." 
Another problem is that there are no independent indications of literacy existing in the Balkans at this period. Sarunas Milisauskas comments that "it is extremely difficult to demonstrate archaeologically whether a corpus of symbols constitutes a writing system" and notes that the first known writing systems were all developed by early states to facilitate record-keeping in complex organised societies in the Middle East and Mediterranean. There is no evidence of organised states in the European Neolithic, so it is likely that they would not have needed the administrative systems facilitated by writing. David Anthony notes that Chinese characters were first used for ritual and commemorative purposes associated with the sacred power of kings; it is possible that a similar usage accounts for the Tărtăria symbols.