National Geographic recently posted about a work of incredible diligence and great interest on its website: in the forthcoming study of pottery dating from 550 B.C. to 450 B.C., study lead author Adrienne Mayor and J. Paul Getty Museum assistant curator David Saunders translated Greek inscriptions into their phonetic sounds for twelve ancient vases from Athens. The phonetic transcriptions were given to linguist John Colarusso of Canada's McMaster University in Hamilton, who translated the inscriptions into names to go with the images on the vases--without ever seeing those.

Vases from Athens were a hot commodity in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C., traded across the Mediterranean. Often they held wine or were used as decanters during symposia, celebratory drinking parties for men. The vases were often painted with legendary scenes intended to provoke debate at the event, and a minority were inscribed with words.

More than 1,500 vases preserved from the era contain 'nonsense' inscriptions that mostly use combinations of Greek letters but don't form words in ancient Greek. Some of these also include depictions of women warriors. Mayor first asked Colarusso, an expert on rare languages such as Circassian, Abkhazian, Ossetian, and Ubykh, to translate nonsense inscriptions on a vase that didn't have images of Amazons.

The vase, dating to 400 B.C., depicts a scene involving a policeman and a dead goose in a basket. On the vase, some characters speak decipherable Greek phrases, but the policeman says something that sounds like 'noraretteblo,' meaningless in Greek. Colarusso, blind to the scene on the vase, translated the phrase into 'This sneak thief steals from the man over there' in ancient Circassian.

On the Amazon vases, Colarusso found an archer named Battle-Cry, a horsewoman named Worthy of Armor, and others with names such as Hot Flanks that probably had erotic connotations. On one vase, a scene of two Amazons hunting with a dog appears with a Greek transliteration for the Abkhazian word meaning 'set the dog loose.'

The other figures shown, such as Hercules and Achilles, were also named on the vases, leading the researchers to think the Amazon labels were meant as names, not descriptions. The names were probably nicknames or heroic appellations given to Amazons, rather than real family names.

"I am impressed, and I find the conclusions quite plausible," says archaeologist Ann Steiner, an expert on ancient Greek vases at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, by email to National Geographic.