Trivia 068: A tale as old as time

During my senior year of high school, I took a course in art history. At one point during the class, we were discussing ancient architecture. Our teacher showed us a picture of a sculpture that looked like a winged bull with the head of a man. He stated that this sculpture was carved over 5000 years ago, and nobody knew what it was. However, after looking at the picture, I realized I had seen the same picture somewhere else. And then it clicked. I raised my hand. “I do know what that carving is,” I said. “It’s a lammasu, a guardian diety. There would be two on either side of a doorway or gate to protect it.” My teacher was very surprised and asked how I knew that. I told him that I had just read about them in another book – The Story of Science, by Joy Hakim. It’s a fascinating trilogy all about the development of modern science, from prehistoric times all the way up to the modern era. One of the first chapters discussed the history of writing. The reason I knew what those Bronze Age sculptures symbolized was because their details had been written down.

As I mentioned in my entry about Easter Island, there have been several instances of writing being invented independently throughout history.But perhaps the best-known example of this is Sumerian cuneiform. Developed by the people of ancient Sumer (now Iraq), cuneiform writing is made by pressing a reed stylus into soft clay. By changing the angle of the stylus, different shapes could be made. The tablet could then be baked to allow it to harden. This form of writing spread across Mesopotamia, and was used by the Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and others for their own languages.

About half a million cuneiform tablets are held by various museums around the world. Because they are so hardy, unlike writing on papyrus, paper, or wood, these tablets have survived for thousands of years. Even through the sacking and burning of cities, these tablets often come through unscathed. In fact, the fire would only cause the clay to harden more, increasing its durability.

Thanks to this, we have an incredible view of what life was like in Sumer, Assyria, Babylon, and the other civilizations of Mesopotamia. There are many incredible stories told by these clay tablets. For example, consider Ea-Nasir. Back in 2015, this merchant from 1750 BC became an internet meme. Ea-Nasir was a copper dealer, buying and selling a metal vital to the production of bronze. However, it seems that he was not a very scrupulous merchant. Several cuneiform tablets have been discovered complaining about the poor quality of his copper and bad customer service.

Or, a letter from a student, Iddin-Sin, to his mother, Zinu. In the letter, he complains that his clothes are not as good as those of his classmates.

At a time when in our house wool is used up like bread, you have made me poor clothes. The son of Adad-iddinam, whose father is only an assistant of my father, has two new sets of clothes, while you fuss even about a single set of clothes for me. In spite of the fact that you bore me and his mother only adopted him, his mother loves him, while you, you do not love me!

I find this letter to be particularly touching, because it offers a tantalizing glimpse into the daily life of these people. This one in particular sounds like something that could have been written today. Children complaining that their parents don’t get them the newest and best things appears to be a tale as old as humanity itself.

Perhaps my favorite example is the Royal Game of Ur. This is a board game which was played throughout the Middle East since at least 2,600 BC. A variant of it was still played by Jewish populations in the 1950s. In the 1980s, Irving Finkel from the British Museum translated and reconstructed the rules of this ancient game. I have a copy myself, and I can see why it has lasted so long. It’s a very fun game.

This post was a bit of a scattershot, as I combined several topics I’ve wanted to talk about into one discussion. But to wrap it all up, I want to point out that perhaps the most important thing these tablets show us is that the people who wrote them were not really “ancient” at all. They considered themselves to be living in the modern era, and in the most advanced civilizations around. And that is true of people in every era. In 401 BC, a Greek mercenary named Xenophon fled back to Greece after a disastrous campaign in Persia. He documented his expedition in a work known as Anabasis. In the poem, he describes coming across huge ruined cities. These ruins are now thought to be Nimrud and Nineveh, two of the most important cities in the Assyrian empire. Nineveh in particular was the largest city in the world until it was sacked in 612 BC. But to the Greeks passing through, these were just ruins where they could find a night’s respite. And yet, we look back on Xenophon as being a voice from antiquity as well.

To end this post, I want to share with you a song. This song comes from the Amorite-Canaanite city of Ugarit, and is 3400 years old. This makes it the oldest piece of written music in the world. Because the musicians devised a way to use cuneiform to notate their music, this hymn to the goddess Nikkal can now be played once again. I think it’s worth listening to as you ponder what records and documents we will leave behind for others to piece together when we are gone.

If you know anyone who would like to receive these, please have them send an email to [email protected]. And if you think I should write these in cuneiform instead of English, let me know and I can take you off the list.

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