Early Iron Age inscriptions
Greek alphabetic writing was borrowed from the Semitic peoples of the Syrian-Palestinian coast whom the Greeks commonly called Phoenicians. This borrowing probably took place around 800 BC in places where Phoenician and Greek traders met, though we do not know precisely when or where. Some of the most ancient and numerous inscriptions in the Greek alphabet have been found in Eretria and in Pithekussai, a Euboean trading post on the island of Ischia (in the Gulf of Naples). These inscriptions date from the second half of the 8th century BC, and a few are even a little earlier. Most are written on small drinking cups and amphorae.
About thirty are known from Eretria, twenty-six of which come from the sanctuary of Apollo Daphnephoros. It seems that the sanctuary and the ritual practices held there constituted a framework propitious for an early use of writing. About thirty non- alphabetical graffiti (marks) were also found in the sanctuary, inscribed on the same kind of vases. These inscriptions helped personalize offerings or gave them value, but they may also have been made by the participants in sacrificial banquets in order to distinguish the vases from one another.
Writing appears in Eretria at a time and a place where the identity of the polis was taking shape, focused around a common place of cult, the sanctuary of Apollo Daphnephoros.
The main interest of the Early Iron Age inscriptions from Eretria stems from their great number and their well-established context, much more than from their intrinsic value, for most of them are very fragmentary. They give a reliable snapshot of the writing practices in the 8th c. BC. and are informative to help specify the chronology and context where this cultural revolution took place.
ChronologyThe chronology of most of the inscriptions is based on the stratigraphy of the sanctuary, rather than on stylistic grounds. There are two main phases in the development of the sanctuary: the earlier phase dates from the first half of the 8th century (MG II), while the later phase dates from the second half of the 8th century (LG I-II). Only two alphabetical inscriptions belong to the first phase: the earliest one is a graffito written in Semitic script, the other and oldest Greek inscription of the Eretrian corpus is an ostrakon carelessly written on the internal wall of an amphora fragment (three roughly sketched letters whose meaning remains unclear: θοι?).
The stratigraphy of the second phase allows for a finer chronology to be made. Only one graffito comes from a LG I context (an unintelligible graffito on a spindle whorl), whereas 14 alphabetic inscriptions are securely dated from LG II. However, it must be noted that 10 of them come from pits and fill layers and were therefore not in their primary context. One or two decades might have passed before the floor of the sanctuary was cleaned out and votive material deposited in pits. Nevertheless, we can observe that whereas the earliest inscriptions were very few and heterogeneous -Semitic and Greek graffiti inscribed on a cup, an ostrakon and a spindle whorl-, the later inscriptions are numerous and homogeneous. Indeed, the exponential increase in writing during the second half of the 8th c. BC concerns almost exclusively a single category of objects: vases related to the service and consumption of wine. At a yet undefined pace, writing becomes more prominent within the sanctuary of Apollo in the context of pre-existing practices.
The corpus of inscriptions from the sanctuary of Apollo uses an already mature Euboean script with its typical epichoric features (the so-called "red-chi", the Chalcidian lambda, the five strokes mu and multiple strokes sigma). There are no traces of experimentation in the letter-forms, as we might have expected from the "creation" of the added letters or the vowels, for instance. What we see in the Sanctuary is therefore the early use and diffusion of the practice of writing, but not the very moment of its transmission. The early 8th c. BC Semitic graffito found in the sanctuary is however an exception, but it is unfortunately difficult to interpret.
Archaeological contextA majority of the graffiti comes from pits. This might appear relevant at first sight, but when confronted to all the material, it is not statistically significant, since most of the pottery was found in pits. However, in certain cases, the spatial concentration of inscriptions might have resulted from specific practices of deposition. This being said, graffiti were discovered in all kinds of archaeological contexts: within and outside the buildings as well as in dump and floor layers.
More significantly, all the inscriptions are distributed within the sanctuary of Apollo. None has been found in the sacrificial area north of the sanctuary, a place of cult thought to be devoted to Artemis where a large number of oriental imports from the 8th and 7th c. BC were found. More broadly in Eretria itself, very few 8th century inscriptions are known: only four that we know of. This is partly a result from the state of research, since only few Geometric assemblages from excavations in Eretria have been thoroughly and exhaustively studied yet. But it is significant that most of the large corpuses of early inscriptions come from religious contexts, such as Kalapodi, Kommos and Mount Hymettos. Pithekoussai offers, however, a contrasting example, since a great number of the graffiti comes from burials.
Objects inscribedAll but one inscription from the sanctuary are written on ceramic, mostly local pottery, the exception being a bronze blinker dedicated to Hazael. This is likely to be partly the result of depositional and conservation factors, pottery being the commonest and most enduring material found in excavation. But not all kinds of pottery are inscribed and some recipients might have been specifically chosen to be inscribed for good reason.
Indeed, more than two thirds of the graffiti are inscribed on drinking cups, mostly monochrome, a figure that is found in similar proportion in the sanctuaries of Kalapodi and Mount Hymettos. These vases probably belonged to individuals as opposed to more "communal" vases such as kraters, large coarse ware or jugs, which in our context were probably the possession of the sanctuary and appeared to have been less frequently inscribed. The second best represented category of pottery inscribed is the amphorae. Inscriptions on amphorae are usually thought as commercial, although we often lack proof to assert this at such an early period.
Category of inscriptionsThe majority of the Eretrian graffiti are too fragmentary to secure a well-founded interpretation of their content, but they appear to be characteristic of the kind of inscriptions that have been found in Geometric Greece:
Abecedaries (]ΞΟΠ[), property marks (]λχιάδες)-probably the most common use among early inscriptions, usually consisting of the name of the owner in genitive with or without the verb ε(ι)μί- votive inscriptions (]hιερε[), verses, commercial signs and so on. This multiplicity of uses since the beginning of writing eludes any tentative to single out an original motive behind the adoption of the alphabet and its diffusion in Early Iron Age Greece.
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Semitic inscription on a local monochrome drinking cup.
Early 8th c. BC.
Greek inscription on an ostrakon
Greek inscription on a spindle whorl.
Graffito on the shoulder of a small jug.
The text must be read from right to left: Λεβετο [ς εμι]
«Lebes owns me».
Greek abecedarian on a monochrome drinking cup.
Votive inscription on a monochrome drinking cup.
Owner mark painted on a monochrome drinking cup.
«I belong to [Cha]lkiades».