Ikliana, Greece: Archaeologists have found a clay tablet bearing the earliest known writing in Europe, a 3,350-year-old specimen, which makes it at least 150 years older than other known tablets from the region.
Found in one of the palaces linked to Greece's King Nestor of Trojan War fame, the tablet not only is older than expected, but also appears at a site, called Iklaina, where researchers did not expect to find writing, said its discoverer, Michael Cosmopoulos, of the University of Missouri-St Louis.
The tablet, fortuitously preserved when someone discarded it in a rubbish pit and burned it, was part of the state's formal record-keeping process, and its discovery sheds light on early state formation, Cosmopoulos said.
Archaeologists "had grown more and more comfortable" with the idea that writing was limited to the major ruling centres of the time and was not to be found at secondary sites such as Iklaina, which was the equivalent of a district capital, said archaeologist Thomas Palaima of the University of Texas at Austin, who was not involved in the research.
"It was a great surprise and a welcome surprise," to find writing at a secondary centre, he said.
Iklaina, which dates to the Mycenaean period of 1500 BC to 1100 BC, sits at the southwestern corner of Greece. It was an independent state until about 1400 BC, when it was conquered by King Nestor, who incorporated it into his kingdom, which he ruled from the nearby city of Pylos.
Cosmopoulos has been excavating at Iklaina for 11 years. Among other things, he has found evidence of a Mycenaean palace with elaborate architecture, colorful murals and a drainage system with clay pipes that was far ahead of its time.
He did not expect to find tablets because they were not meant to survive. "They were never meant to last for more than a year," he said. "Then they were recycled." The tablets were allowed to dry in the sun, which made them very brittle. But the tablet they found had been accidentally broken and thrown in a garbage pit, then burned, which fired the clay, preserving it. The tablet measures two inches by three inches and has writing on both sides in the Linear B system, which is older than the alphabet. It consists of about 87 signs and was used primarily for keeping track of property.