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Archaic writing tablets

© 2011 Musée du Louvre / Thierry Ollivier

Near Eastern Antiquities
Mesopotamia

Author(s):
Iselin Claire (after a notice by André-Salvini Béatrice)

The first documents written on clay tablets appeared in Uruk IV, around 3300 BC. For the most part, they were accounting records or inventory lists. These documents present a number indicated by a notch, followed by the name of a person, an animal or a commodity designated by a drawing or a pictogram. This system of graphic - and later cuneiform - writing was the fundamental characteristic and unifying factor of Mesopotamian civilization for almost 3,000 years.

A new means of communication

During the latter half of the 4th millennium BC, the complex new social order rising in Mesopotamia from the birth of cities and the idea of a state led to the invention of an original means of communication. The first form of writing appeared in the city-states around 3300 BC. The eponymous site of this invention was the southern city of Uruk, which was situated in the heart of the region later referred to as the "Land of Sumer" in texts. Approximately 5,000 labels and tablets of clay, and in some cases of stone, were unearthed there starting in the late 1920s (levels IV and III). Scattered archival elements from the same period were found further north, mainly at Habuba Kabira and Tell Brak (Syria) in the region covered by the civilization known as that of Uruk. The fact that these pieces are spread over a wide geographic zone is proof that writing was diffused through one large historical current of civilization of which it was the defining element.

Pictography, an early attempt to record language

In the beginning, the writing system was logographic or ideographic. Signs represented a word or an idea. It is not possible to identify the written language that these signs conveyed, but in all likelihood they were used for the Sumerian language. They can be grouped into four categories:
-pictograms (realistic images) that represent all or part of a designated object;
-realistic or abstract symbols, transcribing a concept or an idea whose figurative meaning was not immediately recognizable;
-numerical signs composed of notches or circles impressed in the soft clay with a round stylet;
-complex signs formed by adding or combining two signs in order to convey elaborate pieces of information.
Thus an ear of grain in front of a stylized head symbolizing a person indicates a barley ration (a laborer's daily wage). The image of a bowl is sketched next to this. It is similar to the coarse earthenware bowls found on the site of Uruk, which were used to hold the amount of food allotted to each worker (approximately 0.8 liter of barley). From the beginnings of writing, the need to record proper nouns stimulated attempts at a phonetic alphabet. Signs were indeed used as much for their sound as for their meaning, even though in this early period the writing of proper nouns was probably based on a graphic convention (Louvre, ao29560 and ao19936). One of the tablets (Louvre, ao29560) bears the ideogram of Dilmun (the modern-day island of Bahrain) - proof that the system of commercial exchanges was already well established and quite elaborate.

Administrative archives of a great state organization

These little rectangular tablets deal with earnings and expenses, entries and exits of merchandise (foodstuffs, fabric, and cattle), as well as with the various employments of personnel. Some tablets document how to raise cattle; others show how to calculate surfaces and how to tend the fields. The surface of the tablets is divided into columns and cells, each one containing a single piece of information. They were part of a sophisticated archive system whereby each item of information was meant to supplement another, thus increasing the difficulty for the modern reader attempting to decipher the tablets. Furthermore, the scribes of Uruk IV-III (3300-3000 BC), who were concerned only with essential facts, wrote down isolated words rather than the whole grammatical structure of a sentence. Without these elements, it is not possible to ascertain the nature of the transaction. Moreover, there were several different numbering systems depending on the type of goods listed.

Bibliography

André-Salvini Béatrice, Notices, in Naissance de l'écriture : cunéiforme et hiéroglyphes, Exposition, Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, 7 mai-9 août 1982, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1982, p. 52, n 7-8.
André-Salvini Béatrice, "Les Tablettes cunéiformes de Qal'at al-Bahrein", in Bahrein, la civilisation des deux mers, Exposition, Paris, Institut du monde arabe, 18 mai-29 août 1999, Paris, Institut du monde arabe, 1999, p. 41.
Damerow Peter, Englund Robert K., Nissen Hans J., Frühe Schrift und Techniken der Wirtschafts-verwaltung im alten Vorderen Orient. Informationsspreicherung und verarbeitung vor 5000 Jahren, Exposition, 16 mai-29 juillet 1990, Franzbecker, 1990, p. 205, n 4.28.
Les Donateurs du Louvre, Exposition, Paris, musée du Louvre, 1989, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1989.


Technical description

  • Archaic writing tablets

    Proto-urban period (late 4th millennium BC)

    Iraq (Mesopotamia), Uruk (now Warka) (?)

  • Pre-cuneiform writing tablet:limestone, clay, translucent green stone

    L. 4.5 cm; W. 4.3 cm; D. 2.4 cmL. 7.2 cm; W. 4.5 cm; D. 1.5 cmL. 4.2 cm; W. 4.2 cm; D. 2.4 cm

  • Purchased 1947Purchased 1988Purchased 1924

    AO 19936

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

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