Found at a site tied to myth, Greek tablet survived only by accident, experts say.
Than, K., Ancient Tablet Found: Oldest Readable Writing in Europe, National Geographic, Mar 30th 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 [sic] case where archaeology meets ancient texts and Greek myths," Cosmopoulos said in a statement.