Most people are familiar with some ancient writing – Egyptian hieroglyphs, or the ancient Greek alphabet, for example – but cuneiform script is often an unknown quantity. And when people first see a Cuneiform tablet in a museum, they may think that it looks like a chicken has walked over the tablet!
But cuneiform is not chicken scratch – it is one of the world’s first writing systems. Developed to write Sumerian, in ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) around 3500–3000 BCE., it was adapted to write other languages, including Akkadian (Assyrian and Babylonian dialects), Eblaite, Amorite, Hattic, Hurrian, Uratian, Hittite, and Luwian.
And although it was modified for alphabetic use, it is not an alphabetic script. Rather the system uses both logograms (each character represents a word) and syllabograms (each character represents a syllable). Cuneiform was used for almost four millennia – until c. 300 CE! Texts predominantly survive on clay tablets, most no bigger than the size of your palm. Clay was readily available in the ancient Near East, and a small glob of clay was rolled into a ball and squished between the hands to form a tablet. Simple! The tricky part was writing the cuneiform, which was done with a reed stylus.
Luckily for Assyriologists, clay hardens when exposed to extreme heat, and cities were often destroyed by fire in ancient Mesopotamia. Millions of tablets have thus survived to be unearthed in excavations, and now they are kept in museum drawers around the world, waiting to be read. The problem is not a lack of sources, for a change, but a lack of those who can read them!
Most of what survives are ’receipts’ recording all manner of transactions, which are not always the most fascinating reading, but they provide a lot of information concerning the ancient Near Eastern economy. There are also many other types of texts: letters, hymns, epics, narratives, poetry, love songs, a range of other literary genres, musical texts, school texts, divination/omen texts, as well as astronomical, mathematical, and medical texts.
The Museum of Ancient Cultures has a collection of 27 cuneiform texts: administrative texts, letters, royal inscriptions, and some have their clay envelopes still attached (MU4129)! The Museum’s texts include examples of some bad handwriting (MU4081), seal impressions (MU2091, MU2093), numbers (MU2092, MU4079), school exercises (MU4086), and on one (MU4082) a fingerprint of the tablet’s scribe is preserved.
Cuneiform tablets very often tell the human stories of the people who used them. For instance, we have different complaints about the same dodgy copper merchant, letters from homesick people, excited people, and people working hard for a better future. The snapshots of life that these tablets provide is truly incredible, and often unparalleled.
All it takes to engage with these texts is some abstract thinking and an understanding that, four millennia aside, it’s just about the human experience.
Ilana Chaffey, MRes Candidate
The Cuneiform Texts in Australia and New Zealand (CANZ) project is in the process of fully translating and publishing the Museum of Ancient Culture’s texts, amongst others held in collections across Australia and New Zealand.
For more information and updates on the project:
Further reading and the tablets mentioned:
- Customer complaint to Ea-nasir the copper merchant
- Babylonian map of the world
- A schoolhouse from Nippur (House F) with a gaming board similar to dominoes, ‘recycling bins’, school rooms and courtyard (a ‘playground’ of sorts) and practice tablets from students.
- Translation of letters from Mesopotamia (includes images and many personal letters, see pp. 84, 193)
- A medical tablet discussing the causes, diagnosis, and treatment of epilepsy
- Medical text for treating headaches
- 100 most important cuneiform objects (Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative)