According to the Greek geographer Strabo (c. 64 B.C.–21 A.D), the ancient Iberians wrote down their laws and composed both poetry and prose. But not a single text of this kind has yet been unearthed. All we have are short inscriptions on stone slabs, lead sheets and pottery (see, for example, the silver bowl from Jaén and the vase fragment from Liria, above). Although we have many of these inscriptions, ancient Iberian, like the language of the Etruscans, remains undeciphered.

The Iberians left behind three different scripts. The oldest, dating to the eighth century B.C., was used to record the language of southwestern Iberia and was derived from the Semitic script of the Phoenicians, who had come to Iberia’s shores in search of tin, silver and gold. Like their Phoenician teachers, the Iberians, as far as we know, used writing for functional rather than literary purposes—to record inventories, perhaps, and to incise funeral inscriptions on stone grave markers.

The other two Iberian scripts, the so-called southeastern and Levantine scripts, were probably used to write the same language (but different from the language spoken in the southwest). The greatest number of Iberian inscriptions are in the Levantine script, which was in use in the northeastern part of the peninsula, where the Greeks had established colonies. The earliest example dates to about 425 B.C.: a wine cup with the owner’s name incised in Iberian characters. The longest text in this script can be found on a lead sheet dating around 300 B.C. and inscribed with ten lines of varying length.

The ancient Iberian languages cannot be deciphered with the limited inscriptions we now possess. What is needed is a lengthy bilingual inscription—or, for that matter, a lengthy text of any kind. We can only hope that someday a long-lost Iberian epic will come to light.