While digging in your backyard, you uncover a rectangular rock covered in a strange script. Some letters look a bit like English, while others are oddly shaped, and none of it makes any sense.
Who carved the rock? What does it say? And how long has this artifact been buried?
You take your rock to the university. Scholars in the Classical Studies department identify the script as an ancient version of Greek. What you thought was a rock is actually a clay tablet from nearly two thousand years ago!
Also, and I can’t believe I failed to mention this before, the backyard where you unearthed this tablet is located near the Greek city of Olympia, where the original Olympic Games took place, and site of the statue of Zeus that was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Could this inscription be related to an ancient athletic event? Could it have had something to do with the statue of Zeus? What secrets will be revealed when the experts finish their translation?
The script on the tablet, when translated, describes the construction activities of an unnamed swineherd, on behalf of his absent master, an unnamed mistress, and an old man named Laertes.
…..[swineherd] he himself built for the swine of his master who was away,
away from/unaided by his mistress and the old man Laertes,
with stones (he had) hauled, and he surrounded/crowned it with wild pear trees (prickly pears)
and he drove stakes outside it in continuous succession
dense and close-set, hewn from black oak:
and within the open court made twelve pigsties
You are informed that many surviving writings from ancient times record inventories or commercial transactions. Or in this case, the construction of a pigsty.
How does this compare with your expectations? How do you feel?
Something about that name, Laertes, strikes you as familiar.
You conduct a search, and find references to The Odyssey, an ancient story of Greek mythology. At the end of a ten-year war and ten-year return, the warrior-king Odysseus, the son of Laertes, arrives home to find his kingdom in chaos, his infant son all grown up, and his wife beset by suitors who all assume that he is dead.
The story is broken into 24 rhapsodes, and the tablet you’ve found is an excerpt from Rhapsode 14. In a story of gods and mortals, sorcery and monsters, seers and spirits, you’ve found the one part devoted to the construction of an ordinary pigsty. And it’s funny because Odysseus, dressed in rags at this point in the story and traveling under an assumed name, is the swineherd’s boss. He is the unnamed “master” of that first line.
Congratulations, you’ve discovered one of the greatest literary works of human history!
How likely is this scenario?
This tablet actually exists. It was recently unearthed by an expedition in Olympia, and represents the oldest existing excerpt of The Odyssey ever found in Greece. And yet, if we didn’t also have the rest of the story, we might easily mistake this masterwork of classical literature for just another record of daily life in ancient times.
It makes me wonder which of those inventories and transactional tablets might also be parts of larger stories that we no longer have.
And two thousand years from now, if archaeologists were to discover a single random page from your favorite book, would they be able to figure out what the story is about, or if it’s a work of fiction at all?
Leave your thoughts in the comments!