This clay tablet was discovered in in the rich Mesopotamian city of Uruk (modern day southern Iraq) and was created around 5,000 years ago (3100 - 3000 BC). It displays some of the earliest writing discovered in the world.
The form of writing displayed is cuneiform, which means wedge shaped. Cuneiform will be used throughout Mesopotamian history for record keeping. This specific tablet is describing the allocation of beer rations for workers. Beer was one the most popular drinks in Mesopotamia and was also used as pay for the workers [see Early Writing Tablet Recording the Allocation of Beer]. This clay tablet is currently being kept in the collection at the British Museum in London.
The basic form of writing that quickly developed in to Cuneiform was devoloped in the city of Uruk around the year 3000 BC. It began as a system of pictograph characters but when it developed in to Cuneiform it began to phonetically represent the sounds of words. It is considered a form of writing rather than a language because it can be used to render many different languages such as Akkadian, Eblaic, and Hittite [see Van De Mieroop 1999, 10].
The tablets used to record this Cunieform writing were made out of clay. The symbols were engraved on to the clay while it was still soft using a straight pointed reed called a stylus. The scribes would use a rounded stylus to record numbers [see Knowledge and Power in the Neo-Assyrian Empire]. Both the reed and the clay were abundantly available and cheap. The symbols that the stylus made were wedge shaped, hence the name Cuneiform from the Latin roots cuneus (wedge) and forma (shape) [see Cuneiform Tablets: From the Reign of Gudea of Lagash to Shalmanassar III]. After being enscribed, the clay (also called the brick) was either baked in a kiln or left out in the sun to dry. The tablets were later stored in buildings; however, if they were found to not be useful they would be used to fill under floors or bench seats [see Van De Mieroop 1999, 11].
After the clay was either baked or dried out, it was almost indestructible. This shows why archaeologists are able to discover tablets that are in such great shape. The climatic characteristics of the region around Mesopotamia is very dry, which is another reason why the clay tablets of the time are in such great condition. Archaeologists have discovered that only when the water tables have risen above the levels at which the tablets are found they will dissolve because of humidity. This occurred with tablets in Babylon during the early second millennium BC [see Van De Mieroop 1999, 11].
Local Historical Context
The clay cuneiform writing tablets originated out of the Mesopotamian city of Uruk. They were created for the purpose of keeping records for public institutions. The complexity of the economy, making Uruk the largest Mesopotamian urban center, at the time also required this book-keeping to be developed to make sure all items were accounted for [see "Uruk (Iraq)"].
The city of Uruk was broken into to different areas divided by the Euphrates River: Kalluba and Eanna. The two
areas were devoloped based on opposite principles. Kalluba, or the White Temple, had a center temple that everything else surrounded. The earliest forms of writing were discovered in Eanna, associated with the goddess Inana [see "Uruk (Iraq)"]. Eanna was surrounded by a wall itself. This is the main evidence proving that Uruk developed from two settlements. Eanna did not have an apparent central structure like the White Temple.
The wall surrounding Eanna was built by the legendary Gilgamesh, King of Uruk. The legendary tale about him, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is said to be one of the greatest cuneiform literatures. It was obviously reproduced many times, possibly in school where children were learning to write cuneiform, because fragments of the tale have been found in several areas including Israel, Syria, and Turkey [see The Metropolitan Museum of Art].
Eanna served as an economic site. There is evidence of metalwaorking shops and immense pottery kilns. There is also evidence of a structured division of labor. One of the best known artifacts that depicts social heirarchy is the Cult Vase from Uruk [see Heine 2009, 30]. This vase clearly depicts a ruler greater than his servants and commoners.
During this time, the scribes and their apprentices were the only ones that knew the cuneiform language. They were under the orders of the palace and the temple. These two institutions had to keep a close record of their belongings. The scribes would write tablets as receipts from trade and also as an inventory list for barley, animals, and precious goods [see Van De Mieroop 1999, 13]. Clay cuneiform tablets were also used to record legal documents for the palace and temple such as contracts and military rations.
World - Historical Significance
In the larger scheme, this clay cuneiform tablet is important because it is one of the first forms of writing to ever be created in the world. Before the cuneiform writing style, only symbols were used to depict certain items, not the phonetic sound of the word.
Cuneiform writing spread all across the civilazation of Mesopotamia. However, when it spread it was modified a little by each of the adopted civilizations. The Akkadians adopted it but there was confusion in the pronunciation of some of the words due to added syllabic values. It also spread to Babylon, where the Code of Hammurabi was written in Old Babylonian cuneiform [see International World History Project]. Cuneiform began expanding outside of Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium BC when it spread to the country of Elam. Then it went on to be devoloped in Persia. Even after the decline of Akkadia and Babylon, their forms of cuneiform were still being used up until the time of christ [see International World History Project].
The cuneiform writing style was important as a unifier. As it spread to surrounding civilizations, even though it was modified some, the civilizations were allowed to communicate and trade with each other. It circulated throughout the Middle East as a universal form of communication [see International World History Project].
Heine, Peter, and Hans J. Nissen. From Mesopotamia to Iraq. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Van De Mieroop, Marc. Cuneiform Texts and the Writing of History. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Britannica Online, "Code of Hammurabi," http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/253710/Code-of-Hammurabi
Britannica Online, "Cuneiform," http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/146558/cuneiform
Britannica Online, "Epic of Gilgamesh," http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/189673/Epic-of-Gilgamesh
Britannica Online, "Erech," http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/191160/Erech
Britannica Online, "Euphrates River," http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/195441/Euphrates-River
Britannica Online, "Gilgamesh," http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/233644/Gilgamesh
Britannica Online, "Kiln," http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/317805/kiln
Britannica Online, "Stylus," http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/570347/stylus
The British Museum BBC, "Episode 15 - Early Writing Tablet," http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/about/transcripts/episode15/
The British Museum BBC, "Early Writing Tablet," http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/TnAQ0B8bQkSJzKZFWo6F-g
The British Museum, "Early Writing Tablet Recording the Allocation of Beer," http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/t/tablet,_allocation_of_beer.aspx
The British Musem, "Scribes in ancient Mesopotamia," http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/article_index/s/scribes_in_ancient_mesopotamia.aspx
The British Museum, "Uruk (Iraq)," http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/article_index/u/uruk_iraq.aspx
The Hellenic World, "Inanna Adored: The Uruk Vase," http://www.ancientsites.com/aw/Article/764564
International World History Project, "Cuneiform," http://history-world.org/cuneiform%20developement.htm
Knowledge and Power in the Neo-Assyrian Empire, "Cuneiform Script and the Sumerian and Akkadian Languages," http://knp.prs.heacademy.ac.uk/essentials/cuneiformscript/
The Library of Congress, Cuneiform Tablets: From the Reign of Gudea of Lagash to Shalmanassar III, "Selections from the Cuneiform Tablets Collection: About the Collection," http://international.loc.gov/intldl/cuneihtml/about.html
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Gilgamesh," http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/gilg/hd_gilg.htm
Map of City of Uruk (picture) http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_zBwAaY7HSjc/TK2lGGICyJI/AAAAAAAAACA/wEvs7SBb4N0/s1600/uruk1.jpg