Ancient tablet found: Oldest readable writing in Europe

Marks on a clay tablet fragment found in Greece are the oldest known decipherable text in Europe, a new study says.

Considered "magical or mysterious" in its time, the writing survives only because a trash heap caught fire some 3,500 years ago, according to researchers.

The tablet was found in an olive grove in what's now the village of Iklaina, and created by a Greekspeaking Mycenaean scribe between 1450 and 1350 B.C., archaeologists say.

Ancient tablet found: Oldest readable writing in Europe
The Mycenaeans—made legendary in part by Homer's Iliad, which fictionalizes their war with Troy—dominated much of Greece from about 1600 B.C. to 1100 B.C.

So far, excavations at Iklaina have yielded evidence of an early Mycenaean palace, giant terrace walls, murals, and a surprisingly advanced drainage system, according to dig director Michael Cosmopoulos. But the tablet, found last summer, is the biggest surprise of the multiyear project, Cosmopoulos said. "According to what we knew, that tablet should not have been there."

First, Mycenaean tablets weren't thought to have been created so early, he said. Second, "until now tablets had been found only in a handful of major palaces"—including the previous record holder, which was found among palace ruins in what was the city of Mycenae.

Although the Iklaina site boasted a palace during the early Mycenaean period, by the time of the tablet, the settlement had been reduced to a satellite of the city of Pylos, seat of King Nestor, a key player in the Iliad.

"This is a rare case where archaeology meets ancient texts and Greek myths," Cosmopoulos said in a statement.

The markings on the tablet fragment—which is roughly 1 inch (2.5 centimetres) tall by 1.5 inches (4 centimetres) wide—are early examples of a writing system known as Linear B.

Used for a very ancient form of Greek, Linear B consisted of about 87 signs, each representing one syllable.

The Mycenaeans appear to have used Linear B to record only economic matters of interest to the ruling elite. Fittingly, the markings on the front of the Iklaina tablet appear to form a verb that relates to manufacturing, the researchers say. The back lists names alongside numbers—probably a property list.

Because these records tended to be saved for only a single fiscal year, the clay wasn't made to last, Cosmopoulos said.

"Those tablets were not baked, only dried in the sun and were, therefore, very brittle. ... Basically someone back then threw the tablet in the pit and then burned their garbage," he said. "This fire hardened and preserved the tablet."

Source National Geographic
Photograph courtesy Christian Mundigler