Under the direction of Dr. Michael Cosmopoulos, Hellenic Government-Karakas Family Foundation Professor in Greek Studies, a Professor of Archaeology, and his field school team of students from the University of Missouri – St. Louis have uncovered a stone tablet which holds the oldest known written record in Europe.
The two by three inch tablet was found in a burnt refuse pit close to a sewer in Iklaina, Greece. The tablet has been dated between 1490 – 1390 BC, 100 to 150 years before existing written tablets were found in Greece during the Mycenaean period. The inscription on the tablet are characters of Linear B writing format, one side displaying a list of workers names and numbers and the other a verb that means manufacture. This tablet could contain a record of workers manufacturing anything from weapons, to ships, to buildings.
Although UMSL sponsors and stands as head institute of the field school in Greece, there were more than 25 staff members involved during the summer dig including other universities across America. Cynthia Shelmerdine, at the University of Texas – Austin, a specialist of Linear B writings, was the first to decipher the markings on the tablet. These markings provide a new time line to the importance of keeping state records and the establishment of bureaucracy, a century and a half before its time. “This suggests some degree of political complexity and a growing need to keep track of commodities, property and taxes, all earlier than we once thought,” Dr. Cosmopoulos said.
After a full year of cross referencing the tablet to determine an estimated time frame line of authenticity, Dr. Cosmopoulos held a lecture on Tuesday April 12th at the Missouri History Museum. At the lecture he formally announced the discovery of the tablet and spoke of the excavation of a new Mycenaean palace in Pylos, Greece. In his lecture he explained how Pylos has written references to Iklaina and is also mentioned in Homer’s book “Iliad”. “This is a rare case where archaeology meets ancient texts and Greek myths,” Dr. Cosmopoulos said. Finding references of actual sites in mythological texts could shed light on what we know as fact and fiction in Greek history.
Dr. Cosmopoulos is excited with the finding and is optimistic that more UMSL students will sign up for his summer program. With the finding being published in the New York Times and Proceedings of the Athens Archaeological Society scientific journal, it promotes UMSL’s research agenda and could get the field school more federal funding for their next project. “I want to see more students getting involved,” Dr. Cosmopoulos said, “not just to go and dig at a site, but to explore a new place and culture unlike their own.”
Dr. Cosmopoulos and his students have been working at the Iklaina site for 11 years; eight of those spent on surveying the area and in 2008 beginning excavations. In this time not only has the tablet been discovered but also the foundation of a major palace including a courtyard, formal architecture and murals of naval scenes painted on the palace walls.
The field school in Greece is available to students during the summer semester. Students are able to go out and explore not only ancient Greece but the modern culture as well. The field school is worth six credits and scholarships are also available to assist with costs. Last year $2,000 was awarded to students in order to help with various expenses. For more information on the historical find and summer field school opportunities visit www.iklaina.org.