Cuneiform characters were imprinted on a wet clay tablet with a stylus often made of reed (reed pen). Once written upon, many tablets were dried in the sun or air, remaining fragile. Later, these unfired clay tablets could be soaked in water and recycled into new clean tablets. Other tablets, once written, were fired in hot kilns (or inadvertently, when buildings were burnt down by accident or during conflict) making them hard and durable. Collections of these clay documents made up the very first archives. They were at the root of first libraries. Tens of thousands of written tablets, including many fragments, have been found in the Middle East.
In the Minoan/Mycenaean civilizations, writing has not been observed for any use other than accounting. Tablets serving as labels, with the impression of the side of a wicker basket on the back, and tablets showing yearly summaries, suggest a sophisticated accounting system. In this cultural region the tablets were never fired deliberately, as the clay was recycled on an annual basis. However, some of the tablets were "fired" as a result of uncontrolled fires in the buildings where they were stored. The rest are still tablets of unfired clay, and extremely fragile; some modern scholars are investigating the possibility of firing them now, as an aid to preservation.
Writing was not as we see it today. In Mesopotamia it started out as simple counting marks, alongside which sometimes a non-arbitrary well understood sign, in the form of a simple picture image, that was cut into wood, stone, pots but more often pressed onto clay tokens. In that way, recorded accounts of amounts of goods involved in a transaction could be made. This convention began when people developed agriculture and settled into permanent communities that were centred on increasingly large and organised trading marketplaces These marketplaces traded sheep, grain, and bread loaves, each and every one of these items was recorded by clay tokens. These initially very small clay tokens were continually used all the way from the pre-historic Mesopotamia period, 9000 BC, to the start of the historic period around 3000 BC, when the use of writing for recording was widely adopted.
The clay tablet was thus being used by scribes to take down the events of what was happening during his time. Tools that these scribes used were styluses with sharp triangular tips, making it easy to leave markings on the clay, the clay tablets themselves came in a variety of colors such as bone white, chocolate and charcoal. Pictographs then began to appear on clay tablets around 4000 BC, and after the later development of Sumerian cuneiform writing, a more sophisticated partial syllabic script evolved that by around 2500 BC was capable of recording the vernacular, the everyday speech of the common people.
Sumerians used what is referred to as “pictograms”. Pictograms are symbols that express a pictorial concept, a logogram, as the meaning of the word. Early writing also began in Ancient Egypt using what are called “hieroglyphs”; early hieroglyphs and some of the modern Chinese characters are other examples of pictographs. The Sumerians later shifted their writing to Cuneiform, defined as “Wedge writing” in Latin, which added phonetic symbols, syllabograms.
Uses of clay tablets
Clay tablets took the forms of myths, fables, essays, hymns, proverbs, epic poetry, laws, plants, and animals. What these clay tablets allowed was for individuals to record who and what was significant. An example of these great stories was The Story of Gilgamesh. This story would tell of the great flood that destroyed Sumer. Remedies and recipes that would have been unknown were then possible because of the clay tablet. Some of the recipes were stew, which was made with goat, garlic, onions and sour milk.
By the end of the 3rd Millennium BC, (2200-2000 BC), even the "short story" was first attempted, as independent scribes entered into the philosophical arena, with stories like: The Debate between Bird and Fish, and other topics, (List of Sumerian debates).
Communication grew faster as now there was a way to get messages across just like mail. Important and private clay tablets were coated with an extra layer of clay, that no one else would read it. This means of communicating was used for over 3000 years in fifteen different languages. Sumerians, Babylonians and Eblaites all had their own clay tablet libraries.
Evolution in clay tablet writing
As Sumerian writing on clay tablets became mainstream, others began to complain that the Sumerian word-signs, were indeed too complicated to master. Not everyone could interpret the signs and they wanted a writing system that was simple yet got the message across. Elamites, Hurrians and Ugaritans then eliminated this from their style or form of writing. Tablets that were found south of Baghdad were made up of literary works, dictionaries, prayers, omens and astronomical recordings that were still in their own positions. Ugarites took advantage and created the first of the Alphabets. The tablet was said to have 32 cuneiform letters which was discovered in Syria about 1450 B.C. Egyptians took it to the next level by becoming the earliest individuals to have their very own writing system. Mentioned earlier they used “hieroglyphics” instead of the normal alphabets. Defining hieroglyphics you get the Greek phrase “sacred writing” because of the early belief, that knowledge was a gift from their gods. The two main types of hieroglyphics were logograms and phonograms. Logograms represented ideas while phonograms focused on sounds that were closely alike to the alphabet.
The Tărtăria tablets, the Danubian civilization, may be still older, having been dated by indirect method (bones found near the tablet were carbon dated) to before 4000 BC, and possibly dating from as long ago as 5500 BC, but their interpretation remains controversial because the tablets were fired in a furnace and the properties of the carbon changed accordingly.
A modern clay tablet
This is a modern clay tablet including text in morse code and computer tape (punched tape) formats
- Clay tokens system
- Code of Hammurabi
- Complaint tablet to Ea-nasir, the oldest known complaint letter
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- Guisepi, Robert Anthony; F. Roy Willis (2003). "Ancient Sumeria". International World History Project. Robert A. Guisepi. Retrieved 5 November 2010. External link in
- The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative gives an estimate of 500,000 for the total number of tablets (or fragments) that have been found.
- "Early Writing". Harry Ransom Center - University of Texas at Austin. Retrieved 9 October 2015.
- "Cuneiform - Ancient History Encyclopedia". Ancient.eu.com. Retrieved 2014-06-16.
- Cuneiform, Sumerian tablets and the world's oldest writing (factanddetails.com)
- Ioana Crişan; Marco Merlini. "Signs on Tartaria Tablets found in the Romanian folkloric art". Prehistory Knowledge. The Global Prehistory Consortium, Euro Innovanet. Retrieved 5 November 2010. External link in
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