As a Sumerian being progressed in agriculture during the period 8,000–7,500 BCE, Sumerian agriculturalists needed a method for keeping records of their animals and objects. For this, small tokens of clay were constructed and shaped by palms to represent certain animals and objects.
Clay tokens allowed for agriculturalists to keep track of animals and food that had been traded, stored, and/or sold. Because grain production became such a major part of life, they needed to store their extra grain in shared facilities and account for their food. This clay token system went unchanged for about 4,000 years until the tokens started to become more elaborate in appearance.
Dawn of Clay Tablet
As the clay tokens and bulla became difficult to store and handle, impressing the tokens on clay tablets became increasingly popular. Clay tablets were easier to store, neater to write on. Impressing the tokens on clay tablets was more efficient.
By using a stylus to record the impression on the clay tablet was more efficient and much faster. They could record much information than clay tokens. For instance, clay tablets could record not only “how many” but also “where, when, and how.” As a result, clay tokens and the Bullae became less favorable.
What is Clay Tablet?
The clay tablets were written by cuneiform characters were imprinted on a wet clay tablet with a stylus often made of reed. Collections of these clay documents made up the very first archives. They were at the root of the first libraries. Tens of thousands of written tablets, including many fragments, have been found in the Middle East. Some of the found tablets are distinguished on the basis of re-usability.
Once written upon, many tablets were dried in the sun or air, remaining fragile. Later, these un-fired clay tablets could be soaked in water and recycled into new clean tablets. Mostly these types of clay tablets were used in the ancient Mesopotamia schooling system where students could reuse the same tablet again.
Once written, they were fired in hot kilns (It’s like the technique we used to make the brick strong) making them hard and durable. Administrative related clay tablets like Customer complaint clay tablets or records which need to revisit again in the future (like Mathematical clay tablets) must be created on non-reusable clay tablets.
Types of Clay Tablets
These multi-column tablets usually containing several hundred lines of a composition written in two or more columns. These tablets are often large enough to accommodate an entire composition and sometimes even contain parts of multiple compositions.
Type II tablets are formatted with two or more columns on the obverse (the front of the tablet), and multiple columns of a different text on the reverse (the back of the tablet). The left-hand column of the obverse contains a passage or “extract” from a school text (usually about 8-15 lines) written in a neat hand, presumably by the teacher. The right-hand column contains a copy of the passage, usually more sloppily written and presumably written by the student.
Known as extract tablets or imgidas (Sumerian for “long tablet”), are single-column tablets containing extracts (usually around 40-60 lines) from longer compositions, often belonging to the advanced stages of scribal education.
Type IV tablets, also known as “lentils,” are circular tablets containing one or a few lines of a composition written out once by the teacher and then a second time by the student. The student’s copy appears either underneath the teacher’s inscription (typical of Nippur tablets) or on the reverse (more typical of other sites)
This tablet is usually a four- or six-sided prism, with one to four columns per side and a hollow central axis through which a stick could be inserted. It usually contains an entire composition or a collection of model contracts. Prisms are rarer than Type I Tablets.
Deciphering of Cuneiform Script
The story of the decipherment of cuneiform script is almost the same as the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics which could have been possible by the discovery of Rosetta stone.
In cuneiform’s script case, something of the same kind happened. Travelers had noticed several inscriptions sculptured on rocks in Persia. Each inscription was repeated three times, in what we now know to be three separate languages: Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite. This inscription is known as Behistun Inscription which is known as Rosetta stone for the decipherment of Cuneiform script.
Few interesting clay tablets are listed here
Lipit Ishtar Law Code
Sumerian Law Tablet of Lipit Ishtar dates from about 1860 BC and depicts one of the oldest documented laws in history and dates back to c. 1870 BC – c. 1860 BC. Lipit Ishtar was the 5th king of the First Dynasty of Isin, according to the Sumerian King List (SKL).
The Law of Lipit-Ishtar follows the laws written by Ur-Nammu (2112-2092 BC) and pre-dates the Code of Hammurabi by 150 years. The laws on this tablet were used for school practice.
Due to its location in the chronology, the code of Lipit-Ishtar is an excellent observational specimen for studying the development of cuneiform law codes from their historical foundations to their eventual manifestation within Hammurabi’s code.
Evidently, the code of Lipit-Ishtar possessed various features commonly associated with the earlier codes of Ur-Namma and the following code of Hammurabi. For example, like all law codes within the cuneiform legal tradition, the code of Lipit -Ishtar begins with a prologue stating that the laws were divinely bestowed to King Lipit-Ishtar by the deities Anu and Enlil.
In accordance with actual code itself, the god’s had named Lipit-Ishtar the wise shepherd of his people and designated him as a divinely sanctioned administrator of justice and equality.
The text exists on several partial fragments. Some law codes from the tablet are:
- If a slave-girl or slave of a man has fled into the heart of the city and it has been confirmed that he (or she) dwelt in the house of (another) man for one month, he shall give slave for slave.
- If he has no slave, he shall pay fifteen shekels of silver.
- If a man gave bare ground to another man to set out as an orchard and the latter did not complete setting out that bare ground as an orchard, he shall give to the man who set out the orchard the bare ground which he neglected as part of his share.
- If a man entered the orchard of another man and was seized there for stealing, he shall pay ten shekels of silver.
- If a man cut down a tree in the garden of another man, he shall pay one-half mina of silver.
- If a man rented an ox and injured the flesh at the nose ring, he shall pay one-third of its price.
- If a man rented an ox and damaged its eye, he shall pay one-half its price.
- If a man rented an ox and broke its horn, he shall pay one-fourth its price.
- If a man rented an ox and damaged its tail, he shall pay one-fourth of its price.
Shopping List Clay Tablet
The shopping list clay tablet dated back to the reign of the Sumerian Ur III Dynasty of 2028 B.C. The tablet represents a day-in-the-life of ancient Sumeria, demonstrating how moistened clay tablets became the “pocket note-pad” of the period, recording many aspects of daily life, from love letters and shopping lists to financial transactions and legal documents. In this case, the tablet lists an inventory of luxury items that offer a brief vignette of life at the local temple.
“6 pairs of *** linen and green-yellow leather boots.
17 pairs of *** boots
7 pairs of soft green-yellow boots
1 pair of dyed gall-nut leather boots
15 pairs of green-yellow leather sandals
10 pairs of soft green-yellow leather sandals
Nippur Flood Tablet
An ancient flood is an event which is common across all the ancient culture. Every culture has more or less the same story for the ancient flood. A catastrophic event that occurred in the past but when it is not clear. Mystery or Myth – A Universal Catastrophe
Preserved columns each have 10-15 lines and the competing tablet would probably have had 260 lines. Text, written in Sumerian deals with the creation of humans, prediluvian cities and their rulers, and the flood. Text dated to 17th century BC by script.
- Divine instructions to man include the building of cities under the protectorship of specific deities.
- 5 city names preserved including the port town of Eridu to Ea, god of water.
- Enki reveals the gods’ plan to destroy the human race by means of a flood to Ziusudra, the king, and urges him to heed his advice.
- Wind and storms come and with them the flood, which lasts for 7 days and 7 nights before the sun returns.
- Ziusudra emerges from his boat and offers sacrifices. After Enki mollifies their fury, An and Enlil grant Ziusudra eternal life.
AKKADIAN-SUMERIAN Bi-Lingual Dictionary
Nineveh bi-lingual cuneiform clay tablet is an Akkadian and Sumerian synonyms dictionary, excavated from the Nineveh Library of Ashurbanipal. It is one of the oldest known dictionaries ever found.
The words are arranged in three sets of double columns. The left-hand column of each set contains a rare Assyrian or foreign loan word for furnishings. For example, the word “door” appears in the center.
The right-hand column of each set contains the equivalent Assyrian word in common use. The left-hand column ends with the colophon of the royal library of Nineveh. The original, found in the library of Nineveh, dates from the 7th century BC.
Ashurbanipal created an extraordinary underground library at Nineveh, where he gathered all ancient texts, tablets, and literature available in the known world, dispatching emissaries as far as India, Egypt, and Thrace.
Pythagoras Triplet Clay Tablet
A Mesopotamian version of the Pythagoras theorem is available on one of the clay tablets which is believed to have been written about 1800 BC.
That tiny clay tablet has a table of four columns and 15 rows of numbers in the cuneiform script of the period. This table lists two of the three numbers in what is now called Pythagorean triples, i.e.
integers a, b, and c satisfying a2 + b2 = c2
The main content of the tablet is a table of numbers, with four columns and fifteen rows, in Babylonian sexagesimal notation or base 60. A fourth column is just a row number, in order from 1 to 15. The second and third columns are completely visible in the surviving tablet.
Let’s take one example from above table. Equation
That tablet shows that ancient Mesopotamian people had a knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem in a more general framework. It might not exactly match with Pythagoras theorem but Mesopotamian people had their own way to use it and find out desired results from their equation.
Pharmacist Clay tablet
This Sumeria 2400 BCE medical Clay Tablet is a reproduction of a Sumerian medical tablet, one of the oldest found. It lists prescriptions and was most likely used by early pharmacists.
Some of the formulas and instructions on the tablets include pulverization, infusion, boiling, filtering, and spreading. In addition to herbs, ingredients such as beer, tree bark, and wine are mentioned. Unlike later medical tablets, no ailment of treatment is listed.
Categories of Clay Tablets
When clay tablet was in use at that time they were used like we use paper. People were using them to write each and everything whether it is record, poetry, shopping list. Few of the clay tablet covered by me in different articles are:
- Customer Complaint
- Authenticity in Trades
- Visa For a Messenger
- Complaint to the King
- Caravans Delivery to King
- Catalog Clay Tablet
- Schooling Clay Tablet
- Mathematical Clay Tablet
How communication used to happen during those early days whether it is about asking for a visa to enter another country or raise a complaint against someone to the king, by analyzing these clay tablet letters it is clearly understood.
Hundred of thousand such letters have discovered in Mesopotamia which has helped modern society to prepare a blueprint of an ancient civilization. If similar kinds of artifacts can be found for other ancient civilizations, then it will be possible to get comprehensive knowledge about them as well.