Found at a site tied to myth, Greek tablet survived only by accident, experts say. 

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

Photograph courtesy Christian Mundigler


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.

希臘垃圾坑 發現歐洲最古碑文考古學家在希臘南部一處垃圾坑內,發現超過三千年前的泥板碑文,據信為已知歐洲最古老的文字。法新社 美國研究人員五日宣布,在希臘南部一處老舊垃圾坑發現歷史超過三千年、歐洲最古老的泥板碑文,且字跡仍清晰可辨。 密蘇里大學聖路易分校考古學教授科斯莫波勒斯(Michael Cosmopoulos)表示,這塊碑文的歷史,較之前的發現還早了近一百年。 碑文中顯然是消失已久的一個美錫尼小鎮的金融紀錄。碑文一面是名單及數字,另一面則是與生產製造有關的動詞。 科斯莫波勒斯表示:「這是希臘出土的最古老碑文,當然也是歐洲出土歷史最悠久的碑文。」 碑文上刻的「線形文字B」,是比古希臘文更早的美錫尼人所使用的文字。美錫尼文化屬於青銅器時代文化,也是古希臘詩人荷馬在敘事史詩「伊里亞德」中所述特洛伊戰爭時期,及自公元前一千六百年起即盛行於希臘多數地區的文化。 目前為止,僅在美錫尼、泰利安及底比斯等處的少數主要宮殿發現這類碑文。科斯莫波勒斯指出,在希臘伊克連納村發現這碑文,意味官僚體制及讀寫能力較已知時期發生的更廣且更早。 這項考古新發現將由雅典考古學會出版,碑文則另由首度破解其文字的德州休士頓大學美錫尼文專家夏莫戴爾(Cynthia Shelmerdine)發表。 【2011/04/07 聯合報】 比先前考古紀錄 早100年 希臘這塊泥版…寫三千年前財務 • 2011-04-07 • 中國時報 • 【潘勛/法新社五日電】  美國考古團隊在希臘南部發現的一塊泥板,上頭鐫有距今逾三千年的文字。經解讀後,咸信為歐洲最古老的文字,屬於古希臘詩人荷馬(Homer)史詩《伊里亞德》(Iliad)描述的邁錫尼(Mycenaean)文明。  研究主持人密蘇里大學聖路易分校考古學教授柯斯莫波勒斯五日表示,這塊泥板顯然是財務紀錄,一面寫有姓名及數字,另一面則寫有跟產製有關的動詞。泥板源自一個佚失已久的邁錫尼城鎮,比起先前最古老的考古學文字發現還要早約一百年。  這塊泥板出土地點在伯羅奔尼撒半島西部山村伊克連納附近,泥板擱在一處垃圾坑裡,能留存下來純粹是運氣好,因當時有人放火燒垃圾坑,而烤硬泥板。  泥板鐫寫的是邁錫尼人使用的「線形文字B」(Linear B),比古希臘文還早。邁錫尼文化屬青銅器文化,公元前一六○○年起盛行於希臘泰半地區。  美國團隊自二○○六年開始這項考古活動,挖掘出一處遭摧毀的大型建築物遺址,有梯狀擋土牆、帶狀彫刻及先進排水系統,顯然是邁錫尼文化早期宮殿及城鎮,年代在公元前一五五○年到一四○○年之間。  柯斯莫波勒斯表示,伊克連納村這項發現是希臘及歐洲已知最古老的鐫字泥板,其存在意味人類的官僚體系及文字書寫,比世人原先認定的要更普遍、更古老。 歐洲最古老文字 希臘出土 【大紀元記者姜靜綜合報道】美國研究人員當地時間5日宣稱,在希臘南部一處老舊垃圾坑,發現歷史逾3,500年之久,歐洲最古老且字跡仍清晰可辨的泥板碑文。據中央社報道,碑文中顯然是消失已久的一個美錫尼人(Mycenaean)小鎮的金融紀錄。 密蘇里大學聖路易分校考古學教授科斯莫波勒斯(Michael Cosmopoulos)表示,碑文大約是在公元前1450年至公元前1350年之間刻的。他說:「這是希臘出土的最古老碑文,當然也是歐洲出土歷史最悠久的碑文。」 碑文上刻的線形文字B,是比古希臘文更早的美錫尼人所使用的文字,美錫尼人文化是青銅器時代文化,也是古希臘詩人荷馬(Homer)在敘事史詩「伊里亞德」(Iliad)中所述特洛伊戰爭時期及自公元前1600年起即盛行於希臘多數地區的文化。 他說:「在希臘伊克連納村發現這碑文,意味官僚體制及讀寫能力較已知時期發生的更廣且更早。」至目前為止,僅在美錫尼、泰利安及底比斯少數主要宮殿發現這些碑文。 他表示,國家地理新聞報道的這一新發現,將由雅典考古學會出版,碑文則另由首度破解這文字的德州休士頓大學美錫尼文專家夏莫戴爾發表。◇

ATHENS: A clay tablet over 3,000 years old that is considered Europe’s oldest readable text has been found in an ancient refuse pit in southern Greece, a US-based researcher claimed on Tuesday.

The tablet, an apparent financial record from a long-lost Mycenaean town, is about a century older than previous discoveries, said Michael Cosmopoulos, an archaeology professor at the University of Missouri-St Louis.

“On one side it has a list of names and numbers, on the other a verb relating to manufacture,” Cosmopoulos told AFP by email.

“It is the oldest tablet from a stratified deposit from the Greek mainland, and consequently from Europe,” he said.

The sun-dried tablet was found near the hilltop village of Iklaina in the western Peloponnese peninsula, surviving purely by accident when the refuse pit was set on fire and baked the clay.

The inscription it bears is in Linear B, a form of writing that predates ancient Greek and was used by the Mycenaeans, a Bronze Age culture that waged the Trojan War in Homer’s Iliad and dominated much of Greece from 1600 BCE.

The excavation supervised by the Athens Archaeological Society and partly funded by the National Geographic Society began in 2006.

It has uncovered the destroyed remains of a large building complex with massive terrace walls, frescoes and an advanced drainage system, apparently an early Mycenaean palace and town dated to 1550-1400 BCE.

Cosmopoulos, who heads the project, said the site was apparently destroyed around 1400 BCE and conquered by the neighbouring kingdom of Pylos, whose legendary ruler King Nestor is mentioned in the Iliad.

“The existence of the tablet at Iklaina suggests that bureaucracy and literacy were more widespread and more ancient than we had previously thought,” Cosmopoulos said.

“Until now, tablets had been known only from a handful of major palaces Mycenae, Tiryns, Thebes,” he said.

The finds from the dig, published in National Geographic News, are to be published by the Athens Archaeological Society, while the tablet will be presented separately by Cynthia Shelmerdine, a Mycenaean script expert at the University of Austin, Texas, who first deciphered it, Cosmopoulos said.