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UCLA Magazine Fall 2004
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Fall 2004
From Distant Days
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IF IT’S NOT HISTORY’S FIRST WRITING FORM — recent finds in Egypt have opened the subject to debate — there is no doubting that cuneiform is far and away the most informative of the ancient writing systems, documenting in dramatic fashion the development of early script in Mesopotamia and opening a window on the civilizations of Sumer, Babylonia and Assyria, which began more than 5,000 years ago in the Near East encompassing most of modern Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Cuneiform’s wedge-like script is best known incised on stone slabs that could weigh several tons, but the vast majority of the texts were impressed with the aid of a stylus onto more portable clay tablets that hardened almost immediately in the region’s hot, dry climate. This hardening, and the fact that there was no reusing the lumps of clay, ensured that these documents of the times would survive in great numbers — more than 500,000 have been unearthed, with at least 10 times that many estimated to still be lying in ruins, awaiting discovery.

The tablets carry some of the world’s oldest pieces of literature (the Epic of Gilgamesh, written in Sumerian and Akkadian around 1800 B.C., describing the adventures of the king of Uruk and a version of the biblical flood story) and of law (the Code of Hammurabi, arguably more famous than any legal document surviving the ancient Middle East). Cuneiform has enabled scholars to verify the historical accuracy of Old Testament accounts of events that had previously been viewed as legend. But there are also plenty of everyday writings that, taken as a whole, reveal much about the day-to-day lives of thousands of years ago: a note from a son imploring his father to provide appropriate gifts for his teacher; the story of a cattle herder whose failure to pay the goods he owed as taxes resulted in the enslavement of his children; the tens of thousands of receipts, bills of lading, sales contracts and other documents from the administrative record that portray the conceptual roots of mathematics, a monetary system and a system for compensating labor.

“The beauty of the administrative texts is that unlike, for instance, Egyptian history or much of medieval history, there is no propagandistic effect in them,” says Englund. “They describe the destinies that were lived by people somewhat like you and me — how they were born, what they were born into, the kinds of households they had and the difficulties they experienced.”

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