Europe's oldest readable writing found

2011-04-06 09:26

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," said Cosmopoulos e-mail.

"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.

  • CTScientist - 2011-04-06 10:29

    It is unsurprising that some of the oldest written records from city-state civilizations are usually trade/finance related. This holds true for both Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations as well. I wonder what that means for our development as a species, since the introduction of agropastoralism.

      Currie_Mafia - 2011-04-06 10:42

      CTScientist: What is the oldest written language ? How old is Sanskrit ?

      daaivark - 2011-04-06 15:22

      INteresting question, CM.

      CTScientist - 2011-04-07 11:53

      @ Currie_Mafia: "The origins of written records go back thousands of years before the Sumerians, to a time soon after the adoption of food production when the volume of intervillage trade demanded some means of tracking shipments. As early as 8000 B.C.E, villagers were using carefully shaped clay tokens, which they carried around on strings. By 5000 B.C.E, commercial transactions of all kinds were so complex that there were endless possibilities for thievery and accounting errors." (Fagan, 2004: 222) Cuneiform is the first physical example of written language at c. 2500 B.C.E. at originates in the Sumerian Civilisations (c. 3100 to 2334 B.C.E) centered around Uruk and Ur etc. Indus script (undeciphered and dating back to the Harappan Civilisation c. 2700 to 1700 B.C.E) occurs in South Asia before the advent of Sanskrit (c. 1500 B.C.E after Harappan Civilisation falls) but examples of Indus text are not as early as Cuneiform.

  • daaivark - 2011-04-06 10:41

    There's a contradiction inherent in this report.If it is indeed the oldest readable text, how can it be identified as a script prevalent in a certain area. No previous examples exist, according to the report, so how could comparison take place?

  • Charles Kane - 2011-04-06 10:52

    I do not see the contradiction. Previous (older) examples may not exist but subsequent examples of Linear B writing do.

  • Ixian - 2011-04-06 10:53

    Read again before asking silly questions. See "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."

      Ixian - 2011-04-06 10:54

      Sorry, this was supposed to be an answer to daaivark's question.

  • eva - 2011-04-06 11:05

    Linear B was not a Myceanean script.It was used by the Minoans of Ancient Crete who had a powerful Navy in the Mediterranean and traded with many nations including Egypt.If you look up on the internet you will find the true history of Linear B.I am astounded that a scientist can publish such misinformation EVA

      dj - 2011-04-06 13:55

      lol ... how do you know all this ?

      cromagnon - 2011-04-06 15:56

      Linear A was associated with Minoans, and Linear B was derived from that by the Myceneans. I did look through the internet a bit and some sources are confusing, closely relating Linear A with B, some sites makes a bigger distinction.

      Helen - 2011-09-01 17:47

      Eva, a little knowledge is dangerous. Linear B tablets were found at both Mycenean and Minoan sites - Mainland and Crete.

  • Rapier - 2011-04-06 12:41

    Pity there is no picture....may speak much more than our words all put together.

      Maleo - 2011-04-06 15:57

      So we could read it ourselves...

  • eva - 2011-04-06 19:06

    dj I know this because I was born on the beautiful island of Crete and have studied its history in detail.Linear A is still undeciphered .The Minoan civilization flourished before any other civilization in Greece and the Minoan Civilization is the oldest in Europe.Crete is not part of mainland Greece and the original inhabitants came from North Africa and are probably Berber in origin

      CTScientist - 2011-04-07 11:59

      What evidence links early Minoan agropastoral villages (much of the Agean was populated by as early as 6500 B.C.E) to a postulated North African origin? Minoan hegemony was established by 1900 B.C.E and lasted till power shifted to the mainland circa 1400 B.C.E) but this does not mean that these same groups did not have historic roots to Crete going back thousands of years. It is entirely plausible to postulate an origins that is not African, but rather European, in origin. Archaeological data supports a cultural continuance in Crete going back thousands of years (Fagan, 2004: 232).

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