So far, excavations at Iklaina have yielded evidence of an early Mycenaean palace, giant terrace walls, murals, and a surprisingly advanced drainage system, according to dig director Michael Cosmopoulos.
But the tablet, found last summer, is the biggest surprise of the multiyear project, Cosmopoulos said.
"According to what we knew, that tablet should not have been there," the University of Missouri-St. Louis archaeologist told National Geographic News.
First, Mycenaean tablets weren't thought to have been created so early, he said. Second, "until now tablets had been found only in a handful of major palaces"—including the previous record holder, which was found among palace ruins in what was the city of Mycenae.
Although the Iklaina site boasted a palace during the early Mycenaean period, by the time of the tablet, the settlement had been reduced to a satellite of the city of Pylos, seat of King Nestor, a key player in the Iliad.
"This is a rare case where archaeology meets ancient texts and Greek myths," Cosmopoulos said in a statement.
Tablet Preserved by Cooking
The markings on the tablet fragment—which is roughly 1 inch ( 2.5 centimeters) tall by 1.5 inches (4 centimeters) wide—are early examples of a writing system known as Linear B.
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.
Because these records tended to be saved for only a single fiscal year, the clay wasn't made to last, said Cosmopoulos, whose work was funded in part by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The Society owns National Geographic News.)
"Those tablets were not baked, only dried in the sun and [were], therefore, very brittle. ... Basically someone back then threw the tablet in the pit and then burned their garbage," he said. "This fire hardened and preserved the tablet."
While the Iklaina tablet is an example of the earliest writing system in Europe, other writing is much older, explained Classics professor Thomas Palaima, who wasn't involved in the study, which is to be published in the April issue of the journal Proceedings of the Athens Archaeological Society.
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 thought to have descended from an older, still undeciphered writing system known as Linear A. And archeologists think Linear A is related to the older hieroglyph system used by the ancient Egyptians.