The Immortal Complaint

This is a tale of two fellows linked by a letter of complaint: from Nanni the disgruntled customer, and Ea-nasir the merchant.  It seems Nanni paid good money for products, and when his assistant went over to collect the items, he was offered third-rate merchandise and treated rudely.  The irate customer wrote on every bit of the complaint form, detailing his many injuries at the hands of this shameful purveyor of shoddy goods. He made it absolutely clear that in the future the goods would be brought to Nanni’s  own yard, and they’d better be top notch or he wasn’t paying.

The letter was found in Ea-nasir’s house along with some others, but we don’t know if Nanni got satisfaction.  We can’t ask him, because Ea-nasir has vanished, along with his business, like dew on a desert breeze. 

The letter was written on a clay tablet in Akkadian cuneiform, around 1750 BCE.

My son, who does his best to keep his old man appraised of all the geek things, sent me a meme involving Ea-nasir.  It turned out to be but one of many, framed around “The World’s Oldest Complaint Letter”.  There are also quite a few videos of variations of the same joke: Customer service hasn’t changed in four thousand years.

By Zunkir – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

While I can appreciate the humor (such that it is), this isn’t what struck me about this artifact.  It was the names.  The further back you look in time, the fewer individuals can be seen.  A thousand years back, we have records of the heads of state or notable churchmen and nobles whose names graced deeds or court records archived in stone buildings.  Two thousand years ago, writing was perhaps more common in some locales but still available to a minuscule fraction of the general population, and almost no parchment or papyrus survived the ages; even the names of the mighty which were chiseled on stone  are now too often weathered to obscurity.

Farther still, when writing was necessary for civilization to function yet still mystic enough to be wielded by specialists,  a powerful man at the apex of a city-state would use some of his power to immortalize his likeness and his name on a stone tablet, or perhaps have the embellished story of his military victories drawn on baked clay; like as not such mementos would be destroyed or lost when the next big man came to power.

Yet the astoundingly short list of identities to survive the rise and fall of kingdoms, countries, languages and cultures, include two folks who were not great warriors, not great lords, not godspeakers.  No, they were tradesfolk, strictly middle-tier. 

To put it in perspective, imagine that millennia from now the museum talks mention the names of folks known in the North American continent: maybe half a dozen presidents, a few prime ministers, a few military figures and one or two social leaders.  And on a shelf in one corner of museum is piece of paper – a miraculous missive to one Crazy Eddie, purveyor of used vehicles, from an angry Frank.

AlbatrossGiftsCo

I was reminded of a scene in the movie The 13th Warrior.  Buliwyf, the illiterate leader of a warband, had become intrigued by a civilized fellow’s magical ability to write (or as he put it, “draw words”).  As he lies on his deathbed, he hinted to his friend his last request: “A man might be thought wealthy if someone were to draw the story of his deeds, that they may be remembered.”  By that mark, Nanni and Ea-Nasir only have loose change in their accounts, but they remain among the richest people of the Bronze Age.

Additional Information:

See the full translation of the tablet.

Buliwyf’s request

What Does It Mean to Own Land?

I was on an online forum discussing ownership of property and how to manage the land. One participant, perhaps seeing this as a moment to remind me of my place in the ecosystem (and not knowing I revere Leopold), took the position that one cannot own land; that we are merely stewards of the land. 

In a sense, that’s true.  But whether I choose to nurture or exploit this pack of dirt is a matter of ethics; whether someone else believes I have treated the land well or poorly is determined by that individual’s personal philosophy.  And it wasn’t my point.

I can most definitely own land. I recognize that my ownership is fictive, species-specific, and overlaps uncounted other claims of ownership. The songbird claims territory, but only others of its species care. You can have several different species proclaiming dominion over the same tree, but ignoring each other.  Other critters, such as the white-tailed bucks who are pawing the ground and rubbing off the bark of saplings, have home ranges, but their defensible territory seems to be located within sensory distance of wherever they happen to be when another buck is in the vicinity.

I pounded in a stake to mark the invisible line through the woods. If I chose, there would be consequences for any human walking across that invisible boundary. On the other hand, a flock of turkeys can meander back and forth across the same line without any consequence.

So, in the human world, my claim to this acreage is power – the power to protect 20 acres from being turned into a housing development or an unofficial dump. But yes, that power lasts only as long as I maintain my claim– by guarding the border and paying the taxes. When I die, it’s out of my hands. But I can protect it while I’m here.  In theory, I can sign an easement to lock away the legal rights to turn the hardwood forest into anything other than a hardwood forest, but that protection is still a piece of paper, and in jeopardy if someone wants to cut or build badly enough.

But for now I am the owner of record, duly recorded in a deed book in the courthouse. And of course, my claim of ownership is irrelevant to the animals that dwell in the same space. But I feel better knowing that the land that has suffered two centuries of abuse can rest for a decade or three.

Meet the New Orb-Weaver…

This weekend I received texted photo of a spider, with the question: “Friend or Foe?”  What she meant, of course, is whether the arachnid posed a danger to her.  The picture she sent was that of a Joro spider (Trichonephila clavate). I told her it wasn’t dangerous, but in truth it requires a more complex answer. 

Fat and Happy Joro

Until recently, I could comfortably identify the big spiders around my house as either the garden or writing spider (Argiope aurantia) or the golden silk orb weaver (Trichonephila clavipes).  When late-summer spider season hit and webs were being spun in every available tree and porch pillar, the usual suspects aren’t in attendance.  Instead, the Joro spider, an Asian native, has set up shop all over Athens and throughout our woods in a neighboring county. 

In the Fall of 2014, a fellow in Madison County, Georgia, sent photos of a strange spider to the Department of Entomology at the University of Georgia.  This is the first record of the Joro spider in North America. They probably arrived, as so many invasives do, in packing material for goods shipped across the ocean. Since then, they have expanded their range across the Piedmont of Georgia and South Carolina.  Given that the spiders lay egg sacks with hundreds of eggs (up to 1500!), it is easy to see how they overwhelm the other large orb weavers in the ecosystem.

My ecologically-aware friend was incensed.  “…are we just meant to let them naturalize, or are we supposed to be coming up with ways to get rid of them?”

Golden Silk Orb Weaver

Good question.  If one species takes over a niche from another species, that is cause for a naturalist’s concern.  Unfortunately, unless the usurper causes some economic harm, you aren’t likely to have any of the Powers That Be care enough to devote resources to it.  Not that there is likely to be a way to combat this species that doesn’t threaten all other spider species. 

No, I think we will see the Joro continue to spread and naturalize.  They will capture insects with as much efficiency as their predecessors, and their bites are just as harmless to humans. Whether the transition of arachnid power will impact the ecosystem beyond displacing some species remains to be seen. 

Links:

Spiders in Georgia: Identify the spiders you find.

Autumn Equinox

The Autumnal Equinox is officially the first day of Fall, but such hard demarcations have little relevance in the natural world.  The temperatures always lag behind the changes in angle and duration of sunlight that create the differences in season to our tilted Earth.  For months the Georgia air grew more oppressively hot even though the sun has been easing southward since late June.  For the past month or so, I’ve watched as the daily temperatures crept down; highs solidly in the 90s have given way to the 70s.  Warm evenings, thick and heavy with moisture and the distant rumble of thunder make me feel sluggish, and ready to shelter in a climate controlled room. But tonight is pleasantly cool, and I think we are safely done with summer temperatures.  A scattering of trees are showing their colors, but it will be late October or so before the wave of reds and yellows that has already begun north of the border will sweep into Georgia.  The changing of the seasons, and the turning of the leaves, is more abrupt and decisive around Athens than it was in Waynesboro; mark it down to a difference of 70 miles of latitude and 400 feet of elevation. My seasons are muted and indistinct by comparison to, say, New England, with their long summer days, long winter nights, and winters as brutally cold as ours are brutally hot.  

Of course, as we look towards shorter days, the inhabitants of the Southern Hemisphere have had their first official day of Spring as their days lengthen.  People in their temperate zones are enjoying the warming air and breaking buds as we did 6 months previously.

Spring is nice. but Fall is my favorite season, and the promise whispered on every cool puff of air whets the anticipation.  

COVID’s Fifth Column

I must say, a submicroscopic agent is proving to be more efficient than any army, navy, or air force our country has ever faced.

The Axis powers of World War II couldn’t kill Americans nearly as fast as this virus.  It took them 44 months to kill 405,000 Americans.  In a little over 18 months, COVID-19 has taken the lives of 662,000 Americans.  The virus will soon kill more Americans than all of the combined militaries ever arrayed against the U.S. (not counting the Civil War).  This coronavirus is quite an efficient killer. 

It doesn’t deserve all the credit, though.  It has had considerable help from fifth columnists – celebrities, politicians, radio hosts, and social media influencers – who spread lies about vaccines or about the medical professionals who have tried to stem the tide of this disease.

Politicians were, and continue to be, powerful agents of the fifth column.  From Trump – who downplayed the threat from the beginning and throughout, even after he himself fell ill – to DeSantis’ efforts to keep schools from requiring masks in the classrooms, those with authority can sabotage a nation’s defensive capability. 

But ordinary citizens can do their part at undermining their communities as well. Anyone can get a social media account and write text or shoot a commentary video on their phones.  They can add their voices to the echo chambers, fan the flames of petulance, and sow the seeds of doubt in ground fertile for such a weed.  Enough popularity may earn them a radio spot or a sponsorship for more videos, and thus more credibility for their incredible opinions. 

I see reports from the front lines: from hospital workers I know who struggle to go to work swathed in protective gear, working long shifts because so many of their coworkers are sick, or dead, or have killed themselves.  These workers, no matter what department they worked in previously, are pressed to care for the sick, hold the hands of the dying, bag the dead.  Beds line the hallways, stretchers and cots lie where they can fit.  I know a fellow who can’t book a surgery for his cancer because the hospital is filled with COVID patients. 

And yet.  I also know people who feel a mask is an offense against their dignity, even an offense against their God. So many people around me believe wearing a mask or getting a shot is an individual choice, and that they have no responsibility to their community. They believe the vaccine is somehow not worth the risk, or (what the hell?) contains tracking devices. 

I don’t listen to radio talk shows as a rule, but while surfing channels last week I heard a host defending the use of ivermectin – you know, the dewormer commonly used by veterinarians.  He sounded quite exasperated, in the “Why is the Left still going on about this?” sort of way.  Not that the Left doesn’t have their fringe conspiracy nuts as well.  The virus doesn’t care which end of the political spectrum you cling to, though; it only wants a foothold in your body.

Several talk show hosts have gotten sick or died, their systems overrun by the virus.  Some have gone on record saying they wished they took it seriously and gotten the vaccine.  But there are plenty of other voices to take their places, to drown them out.

I know this new fifth column isn’t deliberately working for the disease.  I mean, the disease will kill them as quickly as anyone else.  No, they have their own agendas: votes, ratings, adulation, fear of da gummit, or whatever.  But at the end of the day, they still serve a virus.

Ghost Pipe

I learned something new! I love it when that happens.

In the last few months I moved from just below to Fall Line to deep in the Piedmont.  As a result the collection of counties I am responsible for have gotten hillier, wetter, and slightly cooler.  I’m seeing a different suite of flora and fauna than before, including some things that haven’t previously been on my radar.

A bowshot from National Forest land in the high hills of North Georgia, something caught my eye beneath the white pines, oaks, beeches, and maples.  Small white stalks rose from the leaf litter, curling over at the top with a petaled capsule like a lamp post for gnomes.  I snapped some photos so I could look up what kind of fungus this was when I got home. 

Monotropa uniflora is known by several common names, including ghost plant, Indian pipe, ghost pipe, or corpse plant. It was much more interesting than I gave it credit for.  For starters, it isn’t a fungus; it’s a plant in the heather family.  Instead of spraying spores to reproduce,  ghost pipe requires native bees to visit its flower and carry its pollen. Unlike heather (and most plants), ghost pipe doesn’t produce chlorophyll, so it can’t use sunlight to make energy.  So how does it live?

That’s the next interesting bit.  There are many fungi that engage in mutualistic association with plants.  These fungi, known as mycorrhizae, colonize the roots of plants. They assist the plant in collecting water or nutrients, and collect carbohydrates created in the plant’s chlorophyll factories above.  The ghost pipe is a parasite of certain mycorrhizal fungi.  This is a switch; usually a fungus parasitizes plants.  But we have a plant stealing sugar from a fungus that said fungus “traded” from a tree that produced that energy in the sunlit canopy 80 feet above. Thus, it can grow in the densest, darkest forests.  Ghost pipe pops quickly up after a rain, and flowers in early summer to autumn; I was fortunate to have wandered the woods at just the right time to see them.

Curiosity is an important trait for any aspiring naturalist.  Knowledge can be gained by seeking answers, but curiosity is the driver.

Encounter With a Shrew

I have a brief encounter I’d like to relate.

I’d just finished a meeting on the northern edge of the state, and I wasn’t entirely ready to head to lower lands.  So I found a pull-off where I could park the truck and ambled down next to the river.  Here the water was deep enough to roll on fairly smoothly, but only lightly clouded compared to the brown waters a few counties south.  I sat here for a few minutes, trying to be present – my mind pushing away the people I’d dealt with earlier and the long drive ahead of me.  Off in the distance rose the high, thin whine of Brood X cicadas.  By my knee, an adult dobsonfly, another short-lived but far quieter insect, twined around a grass stalk.

It’s not hard to lose track of time beside running water, but home called so I didn’t tarry too long.  Back up to the roadside, I paused to take one more look at the river.  I don’t recall hearing anything noteworthy, but my eyes flashed down to the ground.  There, beside my boot, a shrew about the size of my thumb lunged out from under a leaf to grab an earthworm by the middle.  The tiny insectivore backed into the leaf litter with its thrashing prey.  I knelt and flipped over the leaf, revealing a tunnel of sorts in the humus; the shrew was already away to eat and resume its neverending hunt. 

My meetings with shrews are rare enough to make this close encounter notable. I wouldn’t want to handle a shrew, of course, as they are among the only venomous mammals.  A nip from one of these fellers would cause localized pain and swelling for a few days, but their toxic saliva renders worms, insects, and even mice paralyzed and comatose.  Shrews store their captured prey in caches for later use.  Given their high metabolic rate – starving in a matter of hours if not fed – storing ready food is not a bad strategy.

This is a common theme with me, but one which I hope will sink in. Take the time to stop, to be still, to look and listen.  How can Nature grace you with a moment if you aren’t there to appreciate it?

Heroes and Sumbitches

Much is being said about the removal of statues honoring figures of the Confederacy.  In the summer of 2017, a rally to preserve a statue of R.E. Lee brought out the very worst people, shocking many who didn’t seem to realize that Nazis and racial purists and their ilk were so prevalent or so willing to “Make America 1930s Germany.”

Why on earth am I writing this now, with Trump gone but his cult fighting on, and other fronts of the culture wars claiming lives and dividing the country?  Actually, I wrote this in August 2017.  And after some thought, I quietly shelved it.  It just seemed too divisive a topic to broach – a discussion about statues, history and perspective could be seen as throwing gas on social media’s bonfire.  Maybe there’s enough space for people to gauge my intention without assumptions.

 The Lens of History

People and events of the past should be viewed through two lenses: the contemporary and the modern.  You look at a subject in the context of the times, though the eyes of those who were there, ideally through multiple points of view.  Then you look again through the filter of your own time. 

A man can be a hero to his friends and a villain to his foes, and somewhere in between from point of view.  A moderate human being can look cruel across the centuries;  the past’s extremist becomes our visionary. 

Ain’t About You, Jayne

Statues say more about the people raising them than about the folks whose likenesses are fixed in bronze or marble. Joss Wedon said it well (through the voice of Malcolm Reynolds): “It’s my estimation that every man ever got a statue made of him was one kind of a sumbitch or ‘nother.  Ain’t about you Jayne. It’s about what they need.”

Athens Confederate Memorial, removed to the outskirts of town

That’s very true.  Take the epicenter of the  Charlottesville flashpoint: Robert E. Lee .  He was a man.  He thought things and did things as men do.  He was more famous than many. Generations of people made his memory into what they wanted: a wise general, honorable to a fault, devoted to duty, beloved by his men and quick to set the example for reconciliation.  To those whose elders recounted tales of privation, sacrifice, subjugation and the upturning of the social order, he was an icon, a secular saint in the pantheon of the Lost Cause.  Now, a century and a half after the war, a new generation is reframing him with a modern lens, to suit their modern needs: a traitor, a racist, a demented graybeard and patron saint of slavery.  These iconoclasts would have him reviled and then forgotten.   Neither vision truly represents the man, though he may resemble elements of both.

Application of Power

I spent 20 years in a small town where over 40% of the residents live in poverty; in a park, a group of citizens erected a bronze statue of Old Fella, a stray dog.  Why?  Because the dog’s story touched their hearts, and because they had the money and influence to do it. The money might have gone to help other strays, or the poor folks of the town.  But plucky Old Fella meant more to animal-lovers around the nation than children with growling stomachs.  I care more for my dogs more than I do for most people, yet that use of funds didn’t sit well with me.    

Although many modern Americans would cringe at my choice of words, I see the raising of statues as a form of worship–ancestor worship, hero worship, or the exaltation of ideals.  It is also a visible application of power.  A monument goes up with the assent of those in power, and is removed when that power wanes.

The act changes little – one group feels a moment’s satisfaction, another is rankled, but in all my years, I’ve never seen changing a flag or playing musical statuary bring about economic or social reform.    Not once.

The Myths They Carried

We all carry myths with us, even if deep down we realize they aren’t true.  In the same way that Ivanhoe and King Arthur celebrate nobility rather than wallow in the brutality of the age, or how honor, clean living and good diction ensure that the Lone Ranger always triumphed in those thrilling days of yesteryear, many southern elders found comfort in the notion of moral, noble ancestors who were honorable in peace and valorous in war.   All these are myths, only dimly resembling the folk of the time, who carried virtue and flaw in individual measure.  But what are myths but stories that showcase the virtues that a culture aspires to? 

It is proper – indeed, imperative – to revile the Nazis, the alt-right and their ilk, and it is perhaps inevitable that sepia images of the past are swept away to make room for whatever passes for the current “how things really were” that gleeful iconoclasts foist on us.  In between bouts of two-minute hates, take a moment to see the small consequences.   Look beyond the shrill hate-mongers and see the quiet elders who watch with befuddlement and sadness as today’s society strips away their cherished myths.   Search your own beliefs for myths on which you have built your worldview, and delve deeper into their origins.

Addendum

Singer Dolly Parton has been much-lauded, most recently for donating to vaccine research and buying books for children. There was a petition to put her statue on the state capitol grounds. She humbly — and I think shrewdly — declined the honor.

Gone With The Rain

Many moons ago, I was on a van with my college Soils class, riding past farmland south of Athens. One of the students hailed from the Midwest.  Surveying newly-tilled, rusty-red earth, she asked the professor, “Do you have any soil here?”  All the southerners laughed, but it’s a fair question, and one with a depressing answer.

It’s been called “one of the most significant environmental disasters to occur in the state.” The evidence is all around, in forest and river, and indeed the consequences can be seen in how limited our choices of land use are today.

Most soil profiles have several distinct layers, or horizons.  The O (organic) layer and A (surface or topsoil) layer contain most of the accessible minerals, organic material, water-storing pores, microbial life…everything that makes soil valuable for plant life.  The Georgia red clay, synonymous with southern dirt,  is the B or subsoil layer; it contains very little organic material and is stingier both with nutrients and water.  In much of the south, and especially in the Piedmont, we simply have little to no topsoil.  But this was not always the case.

Tree being undermined on a bank

Think back to the first half of the 19th century.  The native peoples were swept out, and settlers opened the forests and savanna.  The supply of land seemed inexhaustible, so it was deemed more important to wrest what one could from the soil than to tend it carefully.  Cotton was the primary cash crop, and straight furrows were easier than rows that curved to follow the contour of the land.  Rains came and washed away centuries worth of topsoil, hastening the decline of fertility and forcing farmers to abandon exhausted farms for new ground. By mid-century, many upland farms had lost their topsoil completely and farmers were trying to coax crops from subsoil. The problems compounded as the lost soil washed into waterways.  Millponds filled with silt; rivers clogged up with earth, increasing flooding. There were some efforts to control erosion – contour farming and planting pines, for example – but war put those efforts on the back burner. 

Recent erosion leaves only a rootball on this oak

Subsequent decades follow a pattern of waning agriculture, a rise of forests, a clearing of forests, and a new rise of agriculture.  Poor farmers trying to coax crops from even poorer land was the recipe for a cycle of poverty and destitution.  In my lifetime I have seen the cycle more or less continue, with eroding fields planted in pines or left to grow wild; some of those stands have since been cleared again for agriculture or other developments. Erosion is still a pervasive issue.

Take a look at this creek in the Georgia Piedmont. See the broad slabs of stones and smaller rocks in the creek? That’s likely the natural base level of the creek, about where it would have been two centuries ago. See the 10’+, nearly-vertical banks? Those are largely composed of earth that has eroded from the surrounding hills due to clearing, development and poor farming practices.  Steep banks of silt such as these are unfortunately a common feature of creeks and rivers in much of Georgia.

I’ve been told that one reason for the University of Georgia’s location at the turn of the 19th century was the clear waters and abundant fishing on the Oconee River.  Current students may be forgiven for assuming the steep banks and opaque brown water is the natural state of Piedmont rivers.   Not that many years ago, crews dredged behind the dam at Whitehall Forest; 20 feet down into the muck, they came upon a sawn tree stump!

I drive past so much land with stubby, slow-growing pines or thickets of spindly sweetgums and scrawny oaks, with little on the ground beyond stubborn tufts of grass or reindeer moss – a lichen that even as a kid I learned to associate with poor soil. Across the land, gullies – some bandanged by leaves and brush, others bare gashes that continue to hemorrhage soil – remind us of the natural wealth lost through ignorance, indifference, or greed. 

But I haven’t visited the most famous monument to this human-enabled catastrophe: Providence Canyon.  What started in the mid-1800s as series of gullies a few feet deep have become a fan-shaped series of canyons spanning hundreds of acres and plunging up to 150 feet below ground level.  The super-gullies continue to gnaw at the land around them, extending further every year. It is sometimes called the “Little Grand Canyon,” as if its existence was a point of pride and not the most visible scar of a curse our ancestors bequeathed to us.

I see turn-of-the-century farm houses, mobile homes, and dilapidated ranch style dwellings lining the backroads I travel. Around these homes are either pine stands or clearcuts, for the hard, gullied subsoil is neither fertile enough for seasonal crops nor (in some cases) level enough to run a tractor. The preponderance of political banners touting modern lost causes suggests to me where these folks stand on the subject of climate change. They are willfully ignorant of the effects that human irresponsibility will have on their descendants; yet I suspect that they are innocently ignorant of the impoverishment bequeathed to them by their own forebears.

A 8′-10′ deep gully. It still carries soil away when it rains.

Breaking the Shackles of Time

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.

Tablets from a display at the British Museum

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.”

Related Links:

Wiki article on cuneiform

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)