Oldest Writing In Europe – From Iklaina

While most of press seems to be still flopping around on the bottom of the boat trying to extract the hook they fell for in relation to those lead codices, they have — for the most part — ignored a rather more exciting (and real) discovery that was made by the University of Missouri – St. Louis dig at Iklaina last summer. Our twitter friend the vergilophile — who took part in the dig — has been bursting to tell folks about this for ages and finally got to the other day. The coverage from UMSL  itself seems to have the most detail:

A clay tablet discovered in a University of Missouri–St. Louis excavation in Greece changes what is known about the origins of literacy and bureaucracy

Measured at 2 inches by 3 inches, the tablet fragment is thought to be the earliest known written record in Europe – dating back to between 1450 and 1350 B.C. – 100 to 150 years before the tablets from the Petsas House at Mycenae.

“I was in disbelief,” said Michael Cosmopoulos, the Hellenic Government Karakas Family Endowed Professor of Greek Studies at UMSL and director of the Iklaina Archaeological Project, which he has directed for 11 years. “According to what we knew, that tablet should not have been there.”

The rare find was unearthed last summer during the UMSL excavation at the site in Iklaina, which sits in the middle of an olive grove in southwest Greece. It is being published this April in the upcoming issue of “Proceedings of the Athens Archaeological Society” and presented in a formal lecture by Cosmopoulos in the Missouri History Museum on April 12.

Iklaina dates to the Mycenaean period (ca. 1500-1100 B.C.), an era famous for such mythical sagas as the Trojan War. It was one of the capital cities of famed King Nestor, who figures prominently in Homer’s “Iliad.”

“This is a rare case where archaeology meets ancient texts and Greek myths,” Cosmopoulos said.

The Mycenaeans used clay tablets in their palaces to record state property and transactions. These tablets are written in the Linear B system of writing, which is older than the alphabet. It consists of around 87 syllabic signs. These signifying signs stand for objects or commodities and the tablets are mostly lists of property and accounting records. Archaeologists are still studying the Iklaina tablet, but preliminary analysis suggests it may refer to some sort of manufacturing process.

“On the front there is a verb that relates to some sort of manufacturing,” Cosmopoulos said. “On the backside, there is a list of men’s names alongside numbers.”

Tablets like this one were not meant to be kept more than a year and as a result were never sent to a kiln, he said. They are preserved only if accidentally burned, which is the case of the Iklaina tablet.

“This discovery is the biggest surprise in years of excavation. It was found in a burned refuse dump dated to between 1450 and 1350 B.C.,” Cosmopoulos said. “The tablet is only the latest in a series of discoveries at Iklaina. In the last two years, the excavation has brought to light evidence for the existence of an early Mycenaean palace: elaborate architecture, massive ‘Cyclopean’ terrace walls, colorful murals and a drainage system far ahead of its time.”

These pieces are indicative of a major center, potentially an early Mycenaean state capital. Cosmopoulos is cautious, however, and said that it is too soon to tell whether Iklaina was one or not. Currently, there is only a handful of known major state capitals, such as Pylos and Mycenae.

“Iklaina could potentially challenge what we know about the origins of states in ancient Greece,” Cosmopoulos said. “Not only does it push the origins of those states back in time by at least a century and a half, but the tablet shows that literacy and bureaucracy appeared earlier and were more widespread than what we had thought until now. We still have a lot to learn about the ancient world.”

Each summer Cosmopoulos returns to the dig site with a team of about 40-60 students from UMSL and other universities and 25-30 staff and specialists. The land of the excavation was purchased on behalf of the Greek government, and by law all the finds remain in the local museum as property of the Greek state.

The dig is funded with grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Geographic Society, the Institute for Aegean Prehistory, Harvard University, the Pylos Archaeology Foundation, and the Center for International Studies at UMSL.

The only other ‘real’ press coverage of this story so far seems to be:

… I could have sworn Discovery News covered this as well, but I can’t seem to find it. Either the University source or the National Geographic piece can be consulted for a photo of the item. Whatever the case, the contrast between the believability of this discovery — despite the mythical connections to Nestor —  and that of certain other items which are garnering far more press attention, is remarkable.

UPDATE (the next day) : the vergilophile points us to the 2010 annual report of the dig, which includes (obviously) more info. Of particular importance is to note that the photo of the fragment that is currently in the newspapers is just one side of the thing; there’s more on the other side and it will be given full publication later by Cynthia Shelmerdine. The other thing which caught my eye in the annual report were some fresco fragments, including one of a ship of some sort. The Iklaina dig, of course, has a very nice website which is worth poking around.

6 thoughts on “Oldest Writing In Europe – From Iklaina

  1. Am I right in these observations?

    1) The fragment is in Linear B.

    2) It’s 1 – 1.5 c. earlier than previous earliest Linear B (is the date safe?)

    3) It’s in a place unexpected for Linear B. (But how unexpected?)

    4) I gather the rest of the dig results as a whole are what’s important in extending in time & space our sense of M. culture — true?

  2. 1. definitely – they’re already discussing what the script says on AegeaNet …
    2. I guess so; i think we need to wait for the publication of the paper in a couple weeks
    3. unexpected only in the sense that they don’t usually find these things in rubbish dumps; the dump caught on fire and so this was preserved by accident (i assume they usually break down or whatever)
    4. no idea

  3. What’s with the “oldest writing” thing? Isn’t Linear A considered older? Or is that discounted for some reason that I don’t see?

  4. I have thoroughly enjoyed your articles on the Iklaina tablet and on the lead codices.

    Stephen Crandall

  5. It has been published by the LA times, and the NT times this week. It is being cited as the oldest deciphered writing. Linear A, we still have no clue what its symbols represent. Ideograms have been used as early as 6,000 BC in the Fertile Crescent region, but these are not considered script. Labeling something as ‘wine’ or ‘oil’ with a symbol is not script. The tablet from Iklaina are the earliest records that have ever been found, and deciphered.

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