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1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 12, 16, 20, 60 more…
/ 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

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.


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

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

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

Urnenfelder 16.jpg 16 Urnenfelder 22.jpg 22 Urnenfelder 25.jpg 25 Urnenfelder 26.jpg 26 Urnenfelder 33.jpg 33 Urnenfelder 36.jpg 36 Urnenfelder 42.jpg 42 Urnenfelder 43.jpg 43 Urnenfelder 69.jpg 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

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
Urnenfelder 22.jpg 22 jera year
Urnenfelder 69.jpg 69 ingwaz god
Urnenfelder 36.jpg 36 gebô present

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

External links

  • 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 also



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