Monday, May 23, 2011

Oldest Readable Writing in Europe Uncovered

Last week in the Mother of All Mother Tongues post, the earliest spoken languages and their evolution into modern day dialects were discussed. This week, a quick post about an ancient tablet found to have the oldest readable writing in Europe.

The tablet was created by a Greek-speaking Mycenaean scribe between 1450 and 1350 B.C. The Mycenaeans dominated much of Greece from about 1600 B.C. to 1100 B.C. They were made legendary in part by Homer's Iliad.

Found in what's now known as the village of Iklaina, markings on the clay tablet fragment measuring roughly 1 inch tall by 1.5 inches wide are early examples of a writing system known as Linear B. Used for a very ancient form of Greek, Linear B consisted of about 87 signs, each representing one syllable.
The Mycenaeans appear to have used Linear B to record only economic matters of interest to the ruling elite. Fittingly, the markings on the front of the Iklaina tablet appear to form a verb that relates to manufacturing, the researchers say. The back lists names alongside numbers—probably a property list.
Excavations at Iklaina have yielded evidence of an early Mycenaean palace, giant terrace walls, murals and an advanced drainage system, but the tablet was a big surprise. According to dig director Michael Cosmopoulos and what is currently known about the civilization, the tablet shouldn't exist.

First, Mycenaean tablets weren't thought to have been created so early. Second, literacy was not widespread at the time and until now, tablets had been found only in a handful of major palaces (although the Iklaina site once boasted a palace, at the time the tablet was created the settlement was merely a satellite of the bigger city of Pylos). Third, because these records tended to be saved for a relatively short time, the clay wasn't intended to last and should have crumbled long ago.

These finance-related tablets weren't meant to be permanent. They were not baked to harden properly, only dried in the sun which made them very brittle. When whoever was keeping the record no longer needed it, it was thrown into the garbage pit. In this case, when the pit later caught fire, the heat hardened and preserved what was left of the tablet.

While the Iklaina tablet is an example of the earliest writing system in Europe, other writings are older. For example, writings found in China, Mesopotamia, and Egypt are thought to date as far back as 3,000 B.C.

Linear B itself is believe to have originated from an older, as-yet undeciphered writing system known as Linear A. Archeologists think Linear A is related to the older hieroglyph system used by the ancient Egyptians. As for Linear B, the ancient Greek alphabet eventually overtook it and later evolved into the 26 letters used in many languages today.

The study on this tablet was published in the April issue of the journal Proceedings of the Athens Archaeological Society.

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