Garbage Burning Preserved Ancient Greek Tablet

"The Iklaina Tablet" c. 1450-1350 BCEA clay tablet with decipherable marks was discovered last summer. It has some archaeologists believing it to be the “oldest readable writing in Europe”.  It was found in what is now the village of Iklaina, where excavations have supplied evidence that the site was once an early Mycenaean palace that later diminished to being merely a subsidiary town of the city Pylos (hub of King Nestor, from the Illiad). According to archaeologists, the tablet was created between 1450 and 1350 BCE by a Mycenaean scribe. The writing form on the tablet is known as Linear B, which was a very early system of ancient Greek supposedly only used for recording economic matters important to the ruling class.

The reason why this tablet was miraculously preserved was because some ancient Greek happened to throw it into their burning trash pit. It’s survival is rare because tablets with this kind of record were only kept for one fiscal year and therefore never baked but rather dried in the sun, making them extremely fragile. The markings on the front appear to relate to manufacturing, and on the back they are a list of names next to numbers (most likely for a property list). This Linear B system of writing, composed of 87 symbols signifying syllables, is believed to have evolved from an earlier system known as Linear A that is still yet to be deciphered but thought to be related to the hieroglyph system of the Egyptians.

This tiny tablet (only 1 inch tall and 1.5 wide) is a remarkable and significant find because it could completely change our understanding of the organization and administration of ancient Greek kingdoms. Before the discovery of the Iklaina tablet, it was thought that such tablets were only kept at major state capitals (such as Pylos and Mycenae). Now, however, there are indications that literacy and bureaucracy were actually more centralized. During this late Mycenaean period, the ability to read and write were restricted to a small group and therefore led most people or commoners of the time to view it as a “magical or mystical” act. It wouldn’t be until 400 to 600 years later that writing would finally no longer be such a mystery when the Greek alphabet was created (and eventually evolved into our 26 letter alphabet that I’m using right now).

University of Texas – Austin Classics professor, Thomas Palaima, is quoted in this National Geographic article (link below) saying that even though the Iklaina tablet is “an example of the earliest writing systems in Europe, other writing is much older”, such as writings from ancient China and Egypt, dating back to 3000 BCE. What is interesting is that at the end of this article, there is a comment posted by someone contradicting this article, claiming that there are tablets from Bulgaria and Romania dating as far back as 5000 to 4000 BCE. From quick research on my part, it seems that this is a valid statement. Of course, this may still be wrong, which is what makes this discovery a hot topic of debate and is apparently still yet to be settled.

Than, Ker. “Ancient Tablet Found: Oldest Readable Writing in Europe.” National Geographic. 30 Mar 2011

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