Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Ancient clay tablet is opening eyes on life in Europe

A piece of an ancient clay tablet found in Greece may have something to say about the written word and the people who produced it.

Discovered last summer by a St. Louis archeological team that's been working the Greek site for more than a decade, the tablet is challenging some conventional thinking.

"It shouldn't even be there according to what we know about ancient Greek writing," said Michael Cosmopoulos, an archeology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and leader of the Iklaina Archaeological Project.

So what's so exciting about a series of ancient symbols preserved on a small chunk of dried mud?

It's no steamy romance novel. Nor is it a tale of glorious battle. It offers no glimpse of court intrigue.

One side appears to talk about some sort of manufacturing process, while the other looks to be nothing more than a government record of taxes or the like.

Yes, bureaucracy has been around for a long time. Maybe longer than originally thought.

Cosmopoulos said the mere presence of the tablet suggests Europeans were writing more than a century earlier than previously thought. But the exact date of fragment may shed some light on how early the ancient Greeks began their ground-breaking work on bureaucracy.

The key is whether the clay tablet was created before or after the city (its ancient name was Aphy) was conquered and destroyed by a neighboring king sometime around 1400 B.C. Incidentally, Aphy was later part of the kingdom of Nestor, a key figure in Homer's "Iliad."

"If it dates before the destruction of the site, it means bureaucracy started much earlier than we thought," Cosmopoulos said.

It may be a couple of years before a more precise date is established for the tablet. But the initial findings will be published this month in an issue of the "Proceedings of the Athens Archeological Society" and presented on April 12 in a formal lecture at the Missouri History Museum.

Like all other items taken from site, the tablet must remain, by law, in Greek museums.

One interesting aspect of the clay tablet — the fragment measures just 2 inches by 3 inches — is that it was never supposed to last more than a year or two. It was preserved only by chance when it was tossed into a rubbish pit and burned, creating a sort of accidental kiln.

But with any luck, more tablet pieces may remain in the earth, said Cosmopoulos, whose work on the site is supported by the Pylos Archaeology Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

He's preparing now for his next trip to Greece, where he returns each summer with a team that includes as many as 60 students from UMSL and other universities.

And while every trip yields something of interest, Cosmopoulos admits the mystery surrounding the tablet is creating a bit of extra buzz this time around.

For more interesting topics related to archaeology, visit archaeology excavations.

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