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Got it in writing: A surprising Bronze Age discovery

Greek scholar Cynthia Shelmerdine describes a clay tablet from more than 3,000 years ago as the most exciting find of her career.

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This story originally appeared on the Further Findings research blog.

Listening to Cynthia Shelmerdine describe the writing on a Greek tablet from more than 3,000 years ago, it’s like she was looking over the scribe’s shoulder as he worked.

Cynthia Shelmerdine

Greek scholar Cynthia Shelmerdine said the clay tablet with writing from the Late Bronze Age is the most exciting find of her career, hands down. 

She points out details and nuance of technique, the condition of the tablet and what it means, literally, and for the world of Greek archaeology.

“Notice how the signs are the same height as each other? ” says Shelmerdine, a retired Classics professor at The University of Texas, pointing to a photo of the tablet on her iPhone. “That takes some care and planning when you’re writing with a bone stylus and sizing on clay.”

Sometime between 1450 and 1350 B.C., an administrative scribe – a Bronze Age version of a guy with a clipboard – had etched Greek characters in the Linear B writing system on the damp clay of the tablet.

On one side are the number one and a name. The other side appears to be part of a verb. The context of the information is more a memo from shipping and receiving than a scrap of a Greek poem.

At some point, the tablet was burned, which fired it like a clay pot in a kiln. Thus it was preserved to be found in a rubbish pit with pieces of pottery.

Shelmerdine points out how on one side of the tablet the vertical characters are neatly parallel with each other. The characters on the other side are at a slight angle.

Cynthia Shelmerdine

A Greek scribe etched these characters onto this piece of clay more than 3,000 years ago.Photo courtesy Christian Mundigler

That probably means, she said, that the scribe wrote on the back of the tablet before the front was dry.

“He may have held it a little funny so as not to smudge the writing on the front while he wrote on the back, so he ended up with the signs on the backside being a little tilted,” she said.

Shelmerdine was a Classics professor at The University of Texas at Austin for 31 years before her retirement in August 2008. Her expertise in Greek Bronze Age ceramics and the Linear B writing system is well known.

She’s worked at Mycenaean Greek sites throughout her career, including a survey around Pylos, which was the palatial center for the area that included Iklaina.

But Iklaina, a secondary town, is the richest site she’s worked, adding, “And this tablet has to be the most exciting find I’ve ever found. That’s hands down.”

That the tablet was found at Iklaina was completely unexpected, she said. Greek scholars have thought that only palatial centers had such records and secondary cities like Iklaina did not.

“We’re about to start rewriting what we think the whole mechanism of administration was in Mycenaean states,” she said. “It’s a very good question for our field because we just turned everything on its head, finding a tablet in the wrong place.”

Tablets have been found at Pylos, where the work of 40 scribes has been identified.

The Iklaina project is directed by Professor Michael Cosmopoulos of the University of Missouri-St. Louis on behalf of the Archaeological Society of Athens. Shelmerdine is the ceramics expert for the project.

The Iklaina site is operated as a field school for undergraduates during the summertime field season, with graduate students involved in both excavation and study of finds. Students found the tablet as they were washing dirt off a bag of pottery pieces that had been recovered from a rubbish pit.

They recognized that the piece with writing on it might be important and rushed it to Shelmerdine.

“They held out this little piece of clay and, wow, I sat down and started hyperventilating,” she said.

Cosmopoulos rushed over to the museum at Iklaina, where Shelmerdine was working, to take a look. Later, Shelmerdine heard a Greek official shout in the phone to her colleagues, “Unbelievable!”

If the Mycenaean Greeks meant to keep records on papyrus or leather, those have been lost to fires and time. Some of those they meant to throw away – the administrative tablets – were accidentally preserved when caught in a fire.

“It’s like losing your library and managing to save all the grocery receipts from last week,” she said. “And we’re trying to piece together the whole culture based on last week’s grocery receipts.”

Now in her 11th year the Iklaina project, she’s returning there this summer to try to extract more information from the tablet and to look for more.