Cuneiform text

From Clay Tablets to Digital Tablets

The Reed Stylus and Clay Tablet

From clay tablets to digital tablets.  Today texting, typing, writing, memes, … there are so  many ways in which we communicate with others;  technology has opened a veritable Pandora’s box of possibilities. Communications have become shorter and more frequent, full of the expectation of an immediate response.  The result is our modern world seems to travel at break-neck speed.  It is hard to imagine what it was like at the beginning of recorded time when humankind first put pen to paper… well, actually not paper — or pen for that matter — but a reed stylus to clay tablet.

Clay Tablet with Cuneiform

Cuneiform Tablet

Inscribed tablet with five lines of Cuneiform

As you may be aware, one of the earliest forms of writing is called Cuneiform. Cuneiform is thought to have been first developed by the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia c 3500 – 3000 BC. Mesopotamian scribes recorded everything from daily events such as trade records and sales dockets to astronomical happenings and political events. I was surprised to learn that some tablets inscribed with cuneiform were written in several different languages as it was used broadly by people throughout the ancient Near East. One of the earliest forms of writing, Ugaritic , is a Semitic cuneiform script of 30 letters.

In the Abbey Museum we have several clay tablets containing cuneiform script. Excitingly, one of them, our latest acquisition, is written in Ugaritic script. It dates to between 1500 – 1300 BC and was found in Ras Shamra (Ugarit) in Lebanon. The tablet is actually a clay envelope marked with a stamp seal, and inside, still preserved, is a clay letter.   It may be possible using x-ray technology to read the important document locked away inside without destroying the envelope.  Many Ugaritic texts contain literature with style and allegorical themes similar to early Hebrew and biblical texts.

Come and see for yourself!

Why don’t you pay a visit the Abbey Museum and see that we have five other cuneiform or clay tablets on display! One from the ancient Sumerian city-state of Ur (where the Royal Death Pits were found by Leonard Woolley) contains every-day and ordinary instructions for the issue of barley rations; another is  from Babylon and contains a more interesting  contract for the loan of silver between Rimut and Nabu-iqisha. I wonder if Nabu-iqisha was a good borrower and paid Rimut back? Let’s hope the interest wasn’t too high.!

One of the most important examples of cuneiform in the Abbey Museum is a rare Babylonian astronomical tablet. This clay tablet records the water levels of the Tigris River and the phases of the moon, stars and weather. It has been the focus of study by researchers from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Macquarie University who have teamed up to record all the examples of cuneiform in Australia and New Zealand.

Clay Cuneiform Tablet

Details of rationing barley

Voices in Exile: the lost Jewish Communities of ancient Babylon

Professor Wayne Horowitz and Peter Zilberg, both from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, will be visiting the Abbey Museum in September to continue their research into these amazing clay tablets and will also be presenting an evening talk on Tuesday 19 September entitled ‘Voices in Exile’. This event will leave you fascinated about our ancestors and how they managed their affairs! Book here to attend this intriguing lecture.

And why don’t you ask us about becoming an Abbey Museum Friend!