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The back of a tablet.
Names and numbers fill the back (pictured) of the tablet fragment, found last summer in Greece.

Photograph courtesy Christian Mundigler

Ker Than

for National Geographic News

Published March 30, 2011

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.

Found in an olive grove in what's now the village of Iklaina (map), the tablet was created by a Greek-speaking Mycenaean scribe between 1450 and 1350 B.C., archaeologists say.

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. (See "Is Troy True? The Evidence Behind Movie Myth.")

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," the University of Missouri-St. Louis archaeologist told National Geographic News.

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.

Tablet Preserved by Cooking

The markings on the tablet fragment—which is roughly 1 inch ( 2.5 centimeters) tall by 1.5 inches (4 centimeters) 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. (Related: "New Layer of Ancient Greek Writings Detected in Medieval Book.")

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, said Cosmopoulos, whose work was funded in part by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The Society owns National Geographic News.)

"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."

(Related: "Oldest Writing in New World Discovered, Scientists Say.")

Not the Oldest Writing

While the Iklaina tablet is an example of the earliest writing system in Europe, other writing is much older, explained Classics professor Thomas Palaima, who wasn't involved in the study, which is to be published in the April issue of the journal Proceedings of the Athens Archaeological Society.

For example, writings found in China, Mesopotamia, and Egypt are thought to date as far back as 3,000 B.C.

Linear B itself is thought to have descended from an older, still undeciphered writing system known as Linear A. And archeologists think Linear A is related to the older hieroglyph system used by the ancient Egyptians.

(Also see "Oldest Hebrew Text Is Evidence for Bible Stories?")

Magical, Mysterious Writing

Still, the Iklaina tablet is an "extraordinary find," said Palaima, an expert in Mycenaean tablets and administration at the University of Texas-Austin.

In addition to its sheer age, the artifact could provide insights about how ancient Greek kingdoms were organized and administered, he added.

For example, archaeologists previously thought such tablets were created and kept exclusively at major state capitals, or "palatial centers," such as Pylos and Mycenae.

Found in the ruins of a second-tier town, the Iklaina tablet could indicate that literacy and bureaucracy during the late Mycenaean period were less centralized than previously thought.

Palaima added that the ability to read and write was extremely restricted during the Mycenaean period and was regarded by most people as "magical or mysterious."

It would be some 400 to 600 years before the written word was demystified in Greece, as the ancient Greek alphabet overtook Linear B and eventually evolved into the 26 letters used on this page.

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