Over five millennia ago, a medical practitioner related how to use the pharmacological tools of his trade – resins, bark, leaves – in the healing of his people. His specialized knowledge of healing lore may have seemed magical to the folk of Mesopotamia. His use of advanced technology to record his knowledge, using a stylus on a hand-sized tablet of wet clay, may have seemed equally magical; however, it no longer inspires awe today, for such technology is grasped by toddlers in our own time.
To say the written word is taken for granted is an understatement of the highest magnitude. You are reading this now, or perhaps you skim to get the gist before moving on to some other article or blog or meme poster. This conceptual breakthrough should not be forgotten, for almost every tool and device you use, your food, your water, your clothes, your vehicles – almost everything you have or use or know is only available because someone wrote down instructions or information of some sort. We’re talking about the deceptively simple process of converting concepts into language, and then representing the sounds of language into written symbols. Then – and this is the real magic – the process is done in reverse, by other people, perhaps in other times.
Writing appeared independently in several places around the globe, but the proto-writing of Mesopotamia was arguably the first. The writing system evolved over the centuries in the cities between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Simple drawings representing simple concepts – “ten sheep” for instance – appeared around the mid-4th millennium BCE. These representations become increasingly abstract until the symbols became tied to sounds in the Sumerian language rather than ideas. As Sumerian power waned and other peoples rose to take their place, the writing system was adapted to work with the completely unrelated Akkadian language (imagine the Japanese katakana syllabary being reworked to represent German). Cuneiform tablets written in the Elamite, Hurrian, and Hittite languages show the flexibility of the technology, or perhaps the limited desire for innovation in the face of an adequate method of recording information.
Time passed, the fortunes of kingdoms and empires shifted, and cuneiform-based languages gradually slipped from power and thus popularity. The last known cuneiform tablet was imprinted in the 1st century BCE, by which time the Library of Alexandria, hundreds of miles from the lands of the Sumerians and Akkadians, was already in decline. From pictographs to the highly stylized scripts, this earliest of writing systems was in use over three thousand years. By comparison, the common writing system for much of the Old World and most of the New World evolved from the script first used by the Phoenicians some three thousand years ago. Before rag paper, before parchment made from animal skins, the people of Mesopotamia used a stylus to draw patterns of wedges on soft clay tablets. Some of the tablets were baked on purpose, and others survived to this day through calamity, as fires in the libraries hardened the tablets. A combination of durable material, dry climate, and lack of disturbance allowed far more written material survive from the Bronze and Iron Age Middle East than in all the time before the early Middle Ages in Europe or around the Mediterranean.
For this year’s gift-giving season, I had a very short list. Apart from some books, there wasn’t much in the way of stuff that I desired to add to the general clutter. Knowing that I would be pestered by the relatives for more, I decided to ask for something quite unusual – a replica of a cuneiform tablet.
This one, composed of lines in three columns on the front and back, was written in the ballpark of the 24th century BCE. During a subsequent period of neglect, this tablet and tens of thousands of others were buried in rubble, where they remained until excavated in the late 19th century in Nippur. The face of it is badly damaged, but the reverse is legible. I plan on giving this replica relic a place of prominence in my library, to remind myself and all visitors that the impulse to gather and preserve knowledge has been around a long, long time.
I will end here with a quote from Carl Sagan, who eloquently expressed his thoughts on the topic some forty years ago:
“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”
Cuneiform entry on the Omniglot site
A short animation about cuneiform.
Irving Finkel, a genuine character from the British Museum, lectures on cuneiform
A scene from the film Black Robe illustrating the magic of writing to the uninitiated.
Carl Sagan’s “Books Are Magic” scene (the above quote comes in around 2 minutes in)