During the recent excavation of a 1st-century CE Thracian grave in Bulgaria, archaeologists discovered something totally unexpected: a clay vessel inscribed with Greek characters. The writing appeared to be printed onto the vessel, rather than carved into it, and was scrawled in seemingly random directions; while some of the words were written horizontally, others proceeded vertically or diagonally. 

And, even stranger, archaeologists realized upon translating the writing that it wasn't the work of a 1st-century CE Thracian but that of Solon, a Greek poet and politician from the 5th century BCE. 

That Solon’s poem, “Prayer to the Muses,” should appear on a clay balsamarium (a vessel used to hold ointments or oils) was surprising. But the strange arrangement of the lettering on the vessel made the find even more mysterious. 

Fortunately, the archaeologists, led by Kostadin Kisyov, director of the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology, were able to get to the bottom of the mystery. Kisyov explained to Archaeology in Bulgaria that the writing on the balsamarium was likely accidental. At some point, the vessel was wrapped in parchment, and the poem printed on the parchment simply rubbed off.

The theory explains why the writing on the balsamarium was printed in multiple directions, but it doesn’t explain why a Thracian from the 1st century CE was buried with a Greek poem from the 5th century BCE. 

According to Kisyov, there’s a pretty simple explanation for that, too. It’s likely that the person who owned the vessel—probably an educated spiritual figure—was simply a fan of classic poetry. Kisyov explained, “These works were sold in antiquity like books. The owner of this parchment acquired it because he liked what Solon had written.”

The inscription on the vessel holds significant keys to what life was like in Thrace during the 1st century CE. The archaeologists now know these Thracians were not only literate, but that they could read Greek—a surprising discovery, since by then Thrace was under the rule of the Roman Empire. It also shows they had access to some of the great literary works of ancient Greece. 

For the curious, here’s the excerpt from “Prayer to the Muses” that this anonymous 1st-century Thracian liked so much (the parts of the verse missing from the balsamarium are in brackets): 

“[Grant me from the blessed gods prosperity, and] from all mankind the possession ever of good repute; [and that I may thus be a delight to my friends, and an affliction to my foes, by the first revered], by the others beheld with dread.”

[h/t: Archaeology in Bulgaria]