From Ancient Mesopotamia to a Modern Basement; on Cuneiform Tablets and the Origins of Writing

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Indiana Jones movies have popularized archaeology as a romantic discipline that allows for spectacular discoveries of forgotten civilizations. Many important archaeological discoveries are made not during excavations but in the basements of various institutions or even private homes. There, with the passage of time, the existence of collections often has been forgotten.

Cuneiform tablets, which are the earliest written records, are some of the best examples among thousands of artifacts that, unrecognized, can be stored or disposed of in the most unexpected places. One such place with a "forgotten" collection is the Utah Museum of Natural History. There, in 1995, ninety-nine tablets resurfaced after eighty years of being scattered among artifacts from North and South America.

I will never forget how excited I was when I walked to the small room of the Collection Department to see the tablets for the first time. Only a few hours earlier I had received a phone call from Laurel Casjens at the museum with the news: "Ewa, we found them . . . the tablets."

Although I was extremely happy to be proven right, after twelve years of chasing ghosts of the past I did not have high expectations. After all, the blue piece of paper that I had pulled from a museum garbage can so many years before only mentioned the existence of a collection of Babylonian tablets. It did not specify their location or their number. I expected to find perhaps five or ten tablets, definitely not nearly a hundred.

While it was not difficult to convince the museum's officers that I am not in the habit of going through other people's trash (if we don't count excavating it), it was much more challenging to persuade them that among their treasures of southwestern archaeology, a collection in which the museum takes pride, ancient tablets from Mesopotamia (more or less modern Iraq) might also be found. Indeed, I had to wait eleven years for any "physical evidence" of the forgotten tablets' existence.

This came by way of one of my non traditional students, Peggy Kadir. During a class she mentioned that, in the 1950s, she had donated an inscribed brick from Babylon to the museum.

As luck would have the museum was just starting a major project of all its rooms. It was possible to advise alert eyes to on the lookout. One year later, I had "my" tablets (we are still looking for Kadir's inscribed brick).

What caused me to De so excited after almost twenty years in Middle Eastern archaeology? The answer is simple: mystery. On this beautiful day in May 1995 I was looking at the records of a people who, thousands of years ago, wrote on clay somewhere in southern Iraq. And here I was, in Utah, trying to retrieve these messages. The distance, both in terms of miles and years, was simply overwhelming.

Reading Sumerian records

The majority of tablets in the collection were written by the Sumerians, the mysterious people of southern Mesopotamia whose origin and language still baffle modern scholars. While there is no doubt that the Sumerians culturally dominated the Middle East--from the fourth millennium B.C. to the end of the third millennium B.C.--and contributed so many "firsts" to the development of civilization, we still do not know whether they were natives of this area or newcomers from an unknown place. Although both the language and the cuneiform script they invented now can be read and more or less understood, there is no other language, ancient or modern, which can be unequivocally considered a cognate of Sumerian.

So how can modern scholars read Sumerian records? It is quite simple: The Sumerian vocabulary has been translated with the help of ancient "dictionaries," bilingual, trilingual, and sometimes even quadrilingual lists of various objects and activities. These lists were necessary because many languages of different linguistic groups (among them Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian [all Semitic], Hittite [IndoEuropean], and Hurrian [isolate]) were recorded with a modified cuneiform script based on that of the Sumerians. …