Ancient ivory tablets reveal high status of Illyrian women
Five 1800-year-old ivory tablets found in the Albanian city of Durres have just been deciphered shedding new light on the role that women played in ancient Illyrian culture, according to a report in Balkan Insight. Inscriptions on the wax tablets suggest that women engaged in high level financial transactions, adding weight to the view that women held equal status to men in ancient Illyria.
The wax tablets were first discovered in 1979 by Albanian archaeologist Fatos Tartari, who came across the unique finding of a large glass urn filled with a black liquid inside an ancient monumental tomb. Inside the liquid were two styluses, an ebony comb, and five ivory tablets used for writing, which were coated in wax. The hair comb, as well as other features of the tomb, indicate that it belonged to a wealthy and aristocratic woman.
“The fact that the wax tablets were preserved in very good condition inside the liquid is a strange chemical occurrence that should be analyzed and understood,” said Eduard Shehi, an archaeologist at Albania’s Institute of Archaeology. Finding tablets with the wax still intact is very rare because ancient ivory tablets usually detach from the wax and disintegrate after losing moisture. It is the first time that preserved ivory tablets have been found in Albania, providing a unique opportunity to study the ancient inscriptions.
Albania's ivory wax tablets. Photo credit: Eduard Shehi
The inscriptions have now been deciphered by Albanian and German scholars, who have revealed that the writing reveals new insights about life in the former Roman colony of Dyrrachium (now modern-day Durres) in the 2nd century AD. Dyrrachium had been inhabited since the 7th century BC, but came under Roman rule following the Illyrian Wars with the Roman Republic in 169 BC.
The translations revealed that the tablets formed a book of debts, recording amounts owed, including interest. It is believed that this money was owed to the woman who was buried in the tomb. “In some cases large debts are recorded, up to 2,000 denarii,” Shehi said. “In comparison, the yearly salary of a Roman soldier at the time was only 200 denarii - Roman silver coins.”
Scholars believe that the fact that the book of debts was buried in her tomb, may be linked to the ancient Illyrians belief in the afterlife. “If her role in life was that of a moneylender, it was perceived that she would continue to do the same thing after she died and maybe collect the debts in money or favours in the afterlife,” said Shehi.
The discovery adds weight to ancient historical writings, which describe women in Illyria as having equal status to men. “When a woman has control over her finances, has the right to do business, the right to property and inheritance, she is not a slave to a man,” said Shehi.
Historical records describe Illyrian women engaging in warfare, holding political and military power, and taking on leadership positions. They also drank with men at banquets and even raised a toast, something unheard of in ancient Greece or Rome. Shehi believes that women were more equal to men in Illyria than anywhere else in Europe at the time.
Featured image: An artist’s depiction of powerful female characters from our ancient past. Image source.