Texting in cuneiform

I blogged earlier about the Tower of Babel associations in this museum exhibition; here, though, I was drawn to the tactile, portabile nature of all those stylus-embossed notes and epics and receipts—in the case of this image, a record of a gold delivery by the chief eunuch of Nebuchadnezzar II.

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Held in the hand, a typical cuneiform tablet is about the same weight and shape as an early mobile phone. Hold it as though you were going to text someone and you hold it the way the scribe did; a proverb had it that ‘a good scribe follows the mouth.’ Motions of the stylus made the tiny triangular indentations of cuneiform characters in the clay. The actions would have been much quicker and more precise, but otherwise rather like the pecks you make at a phone keypad.

Some tablets are of course larger. Gilgamesh, thousands of words long, is an epic in 12 tablets more than a foot high, and inscriptions carved in rock are more expansive still. But it is the small tablets with tiny writing that are the most tantalising objects in Babylon, Myth and Reality (at the British Museum until 15 March). Can one, through them, get beyond archaeological evidence and inference, bypass the fevered imagination of William Blake’s and John Martin’s Bible illustrations and hear the voice of a Mesopotamian Pepys?

Well, not exactly, but the range and character of what is written down give some idea of the texture of everyday life in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. The majority of tablets may be the equivalent of office files – letters, legal documents, contracts, mortgages, lists of goods – but there are also messages addressed to the gods, some of them expressing indignance that good behaviour has not been rewarded. Astronomical observations are detailed and medical texts full of diagnostic descriptions. There are records of refurbishments: the kings, who had responsibility not just for religious ceremonies but for the maintenance of temple structures, celebrated their building works.


from “At the British Museum,” by Peter Campbell, London Review of Books, 18 December 2008 :: via Polymeme

Originally published at culture-making.com.

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