Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Do You Want Your Receipt?

How old are the oldest objects in the Alice collection? Approximately 4,000 years! What are they? fossils?... a saber toothed tiger tooth? No, and no... there are fossils in the collection, no teeth though - and saber toothed tigers were long gone by the time these objects were created. These are human-made objects inscribed with the earliest known writing system in the world - cuneiform.

Cuneiform evolved from a more pictographic type of writing using stylized representations of real objects. The lines employed to represent each object evolved as they were pared down and simplified, gradually becoming words that no longer looked like the objects they described. The writing was incised in moist clay with a stylus made of a sharpened reed, and the clay tablets were in turn baked to preserve the writing. Cuneiform writing was developed in southern Mesopotamia by the Sumerians over 5,000 years ago, and was later adopted in the same region by the Babylonians and others.

Included in the eclectic collection in the American Indian Room at The Alice are five small clay tablets, each less than two inches square, all created in 2100 - 2400 B.C. in ancient Mesopotamia, (which roughly corresponds geographically with modern Iraq). Two of our cuneiform tablets were found at Drehem, and three at Tell Jokha. Drehem is the modern name for the ancient city of Pazurish-Dagan, which was known as a distribution area for ancient Mesopotamia. Livestock was brought to Pazurish-Dagan to be redistributed to temples, officials and palaces in nearby Nippur. The two tablets in our collection found in Drehem are both receipts for sheep; one to be brought to market, with the others to be offered to the temple in honor of the gods Bel and Belit.

Tell Jokha is the modern name for the Sumerian city of Umma. Two of the tablets from this area are receipts for temple offerings or supplies, but the third is a bit more interesting because it is a list of supplies given to a temple messenger for a journey, and the items include oil, dates and bread. This particular piece is made from clay that is darker than the other four, and it has many more words contained in a tighter, more concisely written script.

Object X.2909 in The Alice collection.
This tablet lists supplies given to a temple messenger needed for a journey. Dated ca. 2350 B.C.

Another of the tablets found at Tell Jokha is described in the accompanying card... "A typical receipt of the temple offerings. After the tablet was written, and while the clay was still soft, the Temple Scribe rolled over the entire tablet his cylindrical stone seal, and the seal impression made it impossible to change the record. Seal impression bears name of scribe in raised characters, the seated figure of the Moon-god Sin of Ur, and the standing figures of priests. Dated about 2350 B.C."

Object X.2911 in The Alice collection. Dated ca. 2350 B.C.

If the date given these tablets is correct, they would have been produced during the Early Bronze Age in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers... an area many scholars have referred to as the cradle of civilization. Year-round farming was first started in this area. By fostering a less migratory civilization with a large population base and a specialized work force, this method of farming contributed to the development of a written language. We can see that livestock, for example, was often moved to centralized locations near big cities to be distributed to temples, officials and palaces. This soon required development of a method to keep records of the myriad transactions.

It's exciting for me to closely inspect these small square pieces of clay and muse about the busy ancient civilization that created them. Cuneiform was in use and continued to evolve for approximately another 3,000 years. The eventual extinction of cuneiform, however, was so complete that the meaning of the writing was completely lost until around 1850 A.D. The clay tablets are so old, and were used by people with lives so different from our own, but they served a currently common purpose - receipts! They were not created as works of art, but instead as necessary objects of daily life. These little tablets would not fit in your wallet, but they will last much longer than your grocery receipt!

An illustration of the ancient cities of Sumer, a civilization and historical region centered during the Early Bronze Age around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

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