Bronze Age Loaf-of-Bread Idols, Enigmatic Tablets or … ?

The first such specimen, at the time difficult to define, was found in the second half of the nineteenth century at what was then the Hungarian site of Magyárad, now Mad’arovce in Slovakia. Since then, and into the present day, over three hundred of these mysterious small ceramic or, less frequently, stone artefacts have been collected. They are most often of oval-ellipsoidal or elongated flat rectangular form, and most often about nine centimetres long (Fig. 1). 


Fig. 1 Drawings of the most frequent loaf-of-bread idol forms (after Piccoli, Zanini 1999) 


They are impressed with various simple geometric motifs, of diverse distribution, usually consisting of a transversely incised line with a centrally placed impression (Fig. 2). The same motifs are scratched and carved into the stone artefacts. On some artefacts the impression is made using the fruit of the mallow flower, with only one case of an impression made using a small double spiral (“spectacle”) pendant, one of the typical Bronze Age ornaments. Most have impressions on only one of the larger faces, but there are also frequent examples of impressions on the opposite large face of the artefact.

Over time they have been referred to by various names, with their oval-ellipsoidal and flattened form leading to names like pain oblong de terre cuite (oblong loaf of baked earthenware), gateâux en terre cuite (baked earthenware cake), Brotlaibidoli and loaf-of-bread idols, tavolette enigmatiche (enigmatic tablets), oggetti fittili enigmatici (enigmatic clay objects) and talismani a tavolette (talisman tablets).

There have been very diverse interpretations of their use: as a special code for the elite ruling caste; as some kind of calendar; as accounting records; as having cult significance; even as a form of proto-writing.

Fig. 2 Tipi di impronte sulle tavolette enigmatiche (secondo Trnka 1992) 


Almost all originate from Bronze Age settlements in which there was some significant level of craft activity, in the area from Corsica, across central and eastern Europe, to the Lower Danube. In some areas they have been found in large quantities. They are most numerous in northern Italy at pile-dwelling settlements to the south of Lake Garda, followed by significant groups collected in the area of present day Bavaria, Czechia, Moravia, Slovakia and in the area of the Lower Danube (Fig. 3). The same symbols impressed on these small loafof-bread idols are found at sites separated by great distances. They appear throughout the period of the Early to Middle Bronze Age, although with greater frequency from the late phase of the Early Bronze Age to into the Middle Bronze Age (1700–1500 BCE).

Fig. 3 Map of the distribution of loaf-of-bread idols (after ENIGMA 2011)


An important group of loaf-of-bread idols consists of six fragments collected at the Monkodonja Bronze Age hillfort near Rovinj (Fig. 4) discovered in the course of systematic excavations undertaken in the period from 1997 to 2008. Most were found in the northwest section of the acropolis (Figs. 4 and 5), where it is hypothesised that the ruling elite of this socially stratified settlement lived. Their location confirms the significance of Monkodonja and of its inhabitants as it shows them to be linked to and participating in a broad network of the exchange of goods, experience and knowledge. Monkodonja may have played the particular role of a supply station or one for the on-and-off loading of goods for the maritime route between the Mediterranean and central Europe, and from northern Italy towards the Carpathian Basin. We find parallels for the tablets from Monkodonja with small impressed concentric circles (nos. 2, 3 and 6) in northern Italy, while those with transverse incised lines and a centrally placed impression (nos. 1, 4 and 5) are similar to central European tablets, which confirms contacts over great distances. We can hypothesise that the tablets at Monkodonja were intentionally broken, which may represent confirmation of a completed/concluded transaction.

Along with the artefacts from Monkodonja we also have the chance find of one damaged tablet from Nesactium (no. 7), a hillfort better known for its significance to the Iron Age Histri population. It is entirely different from those at Monkodonja. It is rectangular and has a bundle of parallel incised lines on one face, terminated by one crosswise line. The only specimens with similar form and similar incised motifs are found at Radčice, a Bronze Age site in Czechia, although we do also see similar incised motifs on several tablets in northern Italy.

In Istria we also have a spatula shaped artefact (no. 8), found at the Vrčin hillfort and kept in the Battaglia Collection of the University of Padua’s Museum of Anthropology. Vrčin is located in the central part of southern Istria and is the first systematically excavated hillfort settlement in Istria. Although the artefact is of unusual form, we do see circles impressed on it with an inscribed cross, a symbol quite frequent precisely on loaf-of-bread idols at northern Italian pile-dwellings and in terramara type settlements.

These same symbols are impressed on a loaf-of-bread idol from the Sveti Bartolomej hillfort above the town of Cres (no. 9) that has been lost.

Also from the Bronze Age hillfort (cro. gradine, ital. castellieri) culture of Istria, the Kvarner Bay islands and the Karst region in the hinterland of Trieste (Kras, Carso) is an idol from Briška jama/Grotta Gigante above Trieste. This loaf-of-bread idol has an elongated rectangular shape similar to that of the central European artefacts and bears three semi-circular dimples (no. 10).

Fig. 4 Monkodonja. Group of loaf-of-bread idol finds 


Fig. 5 Monkodonja. Map of the settlement with indicated loaf-of-bread idol find locations (after D. Komšo, B. Hänsel)




A special programme has been created for the documentation of loaf-ofbread idols / enigmatic artefacts with the purpose of providing a more detailed treatment via the analysis of shapes and combinations of impressed symbols. There is an Internet site that offers viewing of all the loaf-of-bread idols / tablets collected to date ( An international congress and exhibition were staged in 2010 at the Museo Archeologico dell’Alto Mantovano in Cavriana (a municipality in the Province of Mantua) under the title “ENIGMA. Un antico processo di interazione  europea: le Tavolette Enigmatiche / An Ancient European Interaction: the Enigmatic Tablets”. The exhibition was also staged at the kelten römer museum in Manching in 2011. It was an opportunity for an exhaustive discussion on the nature of the loaf-of-bread idols, these mysterious tablets that remain an ENIGMA.

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Bronze Age Loaf-of-Bread Idols, Enigmatic Tablets or … ?

Catalogue of Finds from Istria and the Upper Adriatic

1. Part of a loaf-of-bread idol of ellipsoidal form, oval cross-section, impressed symbols:

1. Line with two centrally placed perpendicular rectangular impressions

2. Line with two centrally placed perpendicular rectangular impressions

                        3. Line, left side, part of one centrally placed rectangular impression.

Brown pottery, black core.

Site: Monkodonja, upper town, western perimeter; 30/1/97; Trench I, north, coordinates C30.

Label code: MK 217.

Dimensions: length 4.5 cm; width 3 cm; thickness 1.55 cm, weight 22.84 g.

2. Part of a loaf-of-bread idol. Three small impressed concentric circles with centrally placed convex point. Light brown to grey pottery.

Site: Monkodonja, acropolis – house 1, east; 15/9/99; Trench III, coordinates G13, pl. 4, 80.39-80.26 m a.s.l.

Label code: MK 3564.

Dimensions: length 4.2 cm; width 2.6 cm; thickness 1.3 cm; weight 11.93 g.

3. Part of an ellipsoidal tablet of lenticular cross-section. Damaged surface, impression of two small concentric stamped circles.

Grey-brown pottery.

Site: Monkodonja, acropolis; 6/9/01; Trench VIII, Pl. 1, coordinates Q12, 81.06-80.90 m a.s.l.

Label code: MK 8074.

Dimensions: length 6 cm; width 5.4 cm; thickness 2 cm; weight 48.16 g.

4. Part of a tablet of ellipsoidal form, impressed symbols:

1. Line with centrally placed semi-circular impression and deep punctation

                       2. Part of a line with part of a centrally placed semi-circular impression.

Black to dark brown pottery.

Site: Monkodonja, acropolis; 6/9/01; Trench VIII, Pl. 1, coordinates P12, 81.44-80.99 m a.s.l.

Label code: MK 8083.

Dimensions: length 3 cm; width 2.3 cm; thickness 2.2 cm; weight 17.05 g.

5. Part of a tablet of ellipsoidal form, semi-circular cross-section, impressed symbols:

                   1. Damaged line, centrally placed semi-circular impression

                   2. Deep line continues onto reverse face, centrally placed semi-circular impression

                   3. Damaged line with part of a centrally placed semi-circular impression.

Brown pottery, black core.

Site: Monkodonja, acropolis,  11/9/03; Trench X, coordinates BB3, NS-73 cm, EW-58 cm; 79.35 m a.s.l.

Label code: MK 10470.

Dimensions: length 3.7 cm; width 3.4 cm; thickness 1.65 cm; weight 21.38 g.

6. Part of a circular tablet, consisting of five fragments.

Impressed small concentric circles: four, each with two small circles and a centrally placed dot; four, each with three small circles and a centrally placed dot.

Light brown to grey pottery.

Site: Monkodonja, lower town, south; 12/9/08; Trench XIV, coordinates A9, NS-60 cm; EW-50 cm. 70.16 m a.s.l.

Label code: MK zu 46.

Dimensions: length 7.8 cm; width 4.2 cm; thickness 1.1-2 cm; weight 61.72 g.

7. Rectangular tablet with rounded corners (two fragments), approx. 1/3 missing.

A bundle of (ten) parallel, vertical lines incised on one of the broader faces, terminated by one line incised crosswise.

Dark brown pottery with a crushed calcite temper, smoothed surface.

Site: Nesactium, surface find, south of the Roman entrance to the settlement; submitted to AMI by B. Gulin on 18/7/1984. Inv. no.: P-43999.

Dimensions: length 5.9 cm, width 3.4 cm, thickness 1.3 cm, weight 35.49 g.

8. Oval spatula shaped tablet with short handle and rounded edges.

Five small circles with inscribed cross (diameter 0.8/0.9 cm) impressed into the flat surface.

Compact pottery, brownish red to grey, with sparse mid-grained calcite temper. Smoothed surfaces.

Site: Vrčin (kept at the Battaglia Collection (Collezione Battaglia) of the Museo di Antropologia dell’Università di Padova).

Dimensions: length 9.4 cm; width 5.6 cm, thickness 1 cm.

9. Ellipsoidal tablet with four impressed small circles with inscribed cross, running lengthwise.


Site: Sveti Bartolomej (island of Cres) – investigation led by G. de Petris – A. Lemesich in the course of the nineteenth century.

Length 12.5 cm

10. Rectangular elongated tablet, with three semi-circular depressions.


Site: Grotta Gigante/Briškova jama, Trieste region Karst.

Dimensions: length 8.8 cm; width 3.5 cm; thickness 1.5 cm.


ENIGMA 2011 - Adalberto Piccoli, Renato Lanffranchini (ur./a cura di/eds.), ENIGMA. Un antico processo di interazione europea: le Tavolette Enigmatiche / An ancient European interaction: the Enigmatic Tablets, Museo Archeologico dell’Alto Mantovano, Gruppo Archeologico Cavriana, Mantova.

Annali Benacensi 2015 - Adalberto Piccoli, Maria Giuseppina Ruggiero (ur./a cura di/eds.), Atti del Congresso Internazionale Tavolette Enigmatiche. Un antico processo di interazione europea, Cavriana Museo Archeologico 16-17-18 Settembre 2010. Annali Benacensi XV, Brescia.

Buršić Matijašić, K. 1993 - Clay Seals of Caput Adriae, Poročilo o raziskovanju paleolita, neolita in eneolita v Sloveniji XXI, Ljubljana 1993, 7-14.

Cupitò, M., Lotto, D., Tasca, G. 2015. – Una tavoletta enigmatica inedita dal castelliere di Monte Orcino/Vrčin (Istria, Croazia) nella „Collezione Battaglia“ del Museo di Antropologia dell’Università di Padova, Annali Benacensi XV, 255-266.

David, W. 2016 – Brotlaibidole als Zeugen transalpiner zwischen Südbayern und Norditalien, Bayerische Archäologie 4, 26-30.

Fogel, J., Langer, J. J. 1999 – European „Bread-like Idols“ from the early Bronze Age. Attempt of new interpretation of the Idea by mathematical Methods, Folia praehistorica posnaniensia IX, 79-133.

Hänsel, B., Mihovilić, K., Teržan, B. 1997 (1998) – Monkodonja, utvrđeno protourbano naselje starijeg i srednjeg brončanog doba kod Rovinja u Istri, Histria archaeologica 28, Pula, 37-107.

Marchesetti C.,  Regione X (Venetia et Histria), I. Isole del Quarnero – Ricerche paletnologiche, Notizie degli Scavi XXI, 1924, 121-142.

Mihovilić, K., Teržan, B., Hänsel, B., Matošević, D., Becker, C. 2001 – Rovinj prije Rima, Kiel.

Mihovilić, K., Hänsel, B., Teržan, B. 2005 – Moncodogno. Scavi recenti e prospetive future, Carlo Marchesetti e i Castellieri 1903-2002. Fonti e Studi per la storia della Venezia Giulia. Studi IX, Trieste, 389-408.

Mihovilić, K., Hänsel, B., Teržan, B. 2011 – Monkodonja Rovigno (Croazia), u/in: ENIGMA, 131-136.

Mihovilić, K., Hänsel, B., Teržan, B. 2015 – Le Tavolette Enigmatiche a Moncodogno, Annali Benacensi XV, 159-169.

Mihovilić, K., Hänsel, B., Teržan, B., Matošević, D., Kovačić, Ž. 2009 – Monkodonja i Mušego, Izložba, Katalog 79, Pula.

Montagnari Kokelj, E. 1998 – Alcune osservazioni sui dati archeologici relativi alla Grotta Gigante nel Carso Triestino, Atti e memorie della Commissione Grotte „E. Boegan“ 35, Trieste, 27-42.

Piccoli, A., Zanini, A. 1999 – Tavolette impresse dell’età del Bronzo, Annali Benacensi 12, Cavriana, 63-89.

Sidoli, C. 2003 – Le cosiddette Tavolette Enigmatiche dell’età del Bronzo in Italia e nel loro contesto europeo, Notizie Archeologiche Bergomensi 11, 141-201.

Teržan, B., Mihovilić, K., Hänsel, B. 1998 – Eine älterbronzezeitliche befestigte Siedlung von Monkodonja bei Rovinj in Istrien, Archäologische Forschungen in urgeschichtlichen Siedlungslandschaften, Festschrift für Georg Kossack zum 75. Geburtstag, Bonn, 155-183.

Teržan, B., Mihovilić, K., Hänsel, B. 1999 – Eine protourbane Siedlung der älteren Bronzezeit im istrischen Karst, Praehistorische Zeitschrift 74, 154-193.

Trnka, G. 1982 – „Brotlaibidole“ in Österreich, Archaeologia Austriaca 66, 1982, 61-80.

Trnka, G. 1992 – Neues zu den „Brotlaibidolen“, Universitätsforschungen zur prähistorischen Archäologie 8, Bonn, 615-622.

Bronze Age Loaf-of-Bread Idols, Enigmatic Tablets or ... ?


Carrarina ul. 4, Pula

 Window to the Past 19.07. - 19.09.2017.

Exhibition and text authors: Kristina Mihovilić, Bernhard Hänsel , Biba Teržan

 Organizer and publisher: Arheološki muzej Istre 

For the organizer and publisher: Darko Komšo

Editorial Board: Darko Komšo, Adriana Gri Štorga, Katarina Zenzerović

Set up & graphic design: Vjeran Juhas

 Photographers: Tanja Draškić Savić, Kristina Mihovilić

Technical set up of the exhibition: Andrea Sardoz

 Translation in Italian: Elis Barbalich-Geromella

English translation: Neven Ferenčić

Proofs: Adriana Gri Štorga, Milena Špigić, Katarina Zenzerović

 Print: MPS Pula

No. of copies: 700

Pula, 2017.

Typo3 site by Ulisys d.o.o. , 2010.