The Earliest Written Records

Cuneiform script, which evolved in Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium B.C.E. and recorded over 3,000 years of Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, and other cultures, is the earliest known writing system. Unlike pictograms, such as cave paintings, writing systems are established and commonly understood codes for recording language. The complex causes that led to the development of writing included the need to remember large amounts of data and to transmit information across both time and space. Cuneiform tablets were written by scribes using styli of reed, bone, hard wood, or metal, usually on soft clay that was then either baked in an oven or left to dry in the sun. Occasionally, texts were also recorded on stone, glass, or metal. The majority of surviving cuneiform tablets are routine accounting documents of various types. The Library's tablets are filled with traces of now-vanished civilizations, covering such matters as housekeeping, inventory, labor relations, payroll, barter or exchange rate, and title transfer:

May they give ... two reed mats [to] Ur-Gu-gu, the janitors!

Two items of barley flour from Lú-dingir-ra.

... to inspect and control the plowmen.

Sixty-eight workmen paid per day for carrying har-an-plants, 30 workmen paid per day for removing earth, 20 workmen paid per day are stationed at the inlet of the canal....

Nine dead sheep from Lugal-sum-ma-ti ... two dead goats ... Ur-Nin-mug has received [in exchange for a large quantity of garments]

Lú-sa-lim the son of the sanga-priest ... and Gemé-En-lil his wife have bought a house in good repair or in ruins [i.e., as is], the purchase price being 18 1/6 shekel silver.
That their prosaic contents are very similar in function to routine bookkeeping records of the present day is as remarkable as the fact that such ancient documents have survived and proved translatable.


Cuneiform tablets. Baked clay, 3rd-2nd millennium B.C.E.
The New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division.


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