Earth & Fire

When The Daily Post listed its photo challenge this week on the concept of elemental, it immediately brought to mind the four classic ancient Greek elements that describe all of nature – earth, air, fire and water. In the Middle Ages, these same elements were enshrined in Alchemical theory which, among other things, involved the transformation of those elements. That got me thinking about the transformative nature of fire on earth – in this case clay.

Recently, I was lucky enough to observe a session of experimental archaeology carried out to test the preservation of clay tablets written with the Greek Bronze Age script called Linear B. Scholars have concluded that the ancient tablets were not deliberately fired, but were kept as temporary records which could be erased and reworked. Therefore, they have only been preserved for us when they have been accidentally fired – such as in the destruction of the buildings in which they were housed.

For the experiment, a number of students created replica tablets using different types of clay in known shapes – elongated leaf shape and larger page shape. These were loaded into natural wicker baskets and placed in a fire pit and surrounded by wood.

The fire was lit and the baskets were soon consumed.

The clay tablets were baked, cracking, breaking and exploding in the fire. The different types of clay, the shape and thicknesses of the tablets, the depth of the scoring and the prior air-drying time were factors in the breakage.

The pieces were rescued from the ash, ready for re-assembly when cool.

The experiment was to demonstrate the method of survival in archaeological contexts of Bronze Age Greek texts – differentially fired with a rare few whole, most in fragments with missing pieces.

Elemental: The Daily Post’s Weekly Photo Challenge.


  1. It is interesting to hear about the clay tablets, and nice to hear that replicas can still be made these days. Looks like a fiery process to create them, and looks like you made them well. Didn’t sound too hard too 🙂


    • The replicas were made for an academic experiment, so knowledge of what the signs looked like and what they mean (as it is an very ancient form of Greek) is required. Also, some skill was involved in incising those signs on the clay as it isn’t as easy as you might think. Firing them was the fun part.

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    • Thanks Lisa. I also love the minutiae of history. With Greek Bronze Age societies, we rely on that minutiae found in the archaeological record. Of course, the translation of the Linear B tablets also sheds some light on administrative practices. It’s like an elaborate jigsaw puzzle where you know there are pieces missing!


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