4 incredible secrets revealed by deciphering what was written on 5,000-year-old tablets

Inscripción en cuneiforme, la escritura más antigua. PIXABAY

Inscription in cuneiform, the oldest writing. PIXABAY

“Holding a tablet that was written thousands of years ago and being able to read what it says is an incredible feeling,” says Dr Christina Tsouparopoulou from the Department of Archeology, University of Cambridge.

“It’s a form of time travel: it catapults you thousands of years ago and puts you directly in the shoes of someone who lived so many years before us,” says Dr. Selena Wisnom, from the Department of Archeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester.

The oldest known form of writing is called cuneiform. First used more than 5,000 years ago, it is believed to predate Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Various societies living in Mesopotamia used the cuneiform as their writing system, including the Sumerians and Akkadians.

Pressed into clay, cuneiform tablets are incredibly durable, they are literally fire retardant, but for thousands of years, no one could translate them.

After much trial and error, the cuneiform writing it was finally deciphered in the 19th century.

What they revealed was extraordinary.

“Once the cuneiform was deciphered, many unexpected things came to light, but probably none that had a greater impact than the discovery by George Smith in 1872 of the 11th tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh on which it was first found. , the story of the flood ”, emphasizes Dr. Irving Finkel, curator of the Department of the Middle East, British Museum.

1. Noah’s Ark predates the Bible

Make all living things get on the boat. The boat that you are going to build.

Detail of decorative tablet showing Gilgamesh, from Assyrian civilization, 9th century BC

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Detail of decorative tablet showing Gilgamesh, from Assyrian civilization, 9th century BC

Finding an ancient tablet with the story of Noah’s Ark written hundreds of years before the Bible shattered the understanding of many of the world.

“When it was discovered, it was an explosive. The parallelism was much more than a kind of general similarity to a ship, water, and animals.

“It was in the same order and there were many nearby points that convincingly showed that the same story had been told in Mesopotamia a millennium before the earliest date that the Hebrew text was likely to have come into being.”

2. The first author is an author

It was not easy being a woman in Mesopotamia, but women from wealthy families were treated quite well.

The first known literary work in all recorded history it was written by a woman.

The Enheduanna disk, discovered by British archaeologist Charles Leonard Woolley and his team

Wikimedia Commons
The Enheduanna disk was discovered by British archaeologist Charles Leonard Woolley and his excavation team in 1927.

La sacerdotisa acadia, Enheduanna.

“The Enheduanna case shows us that women could reach extremely high and important positions in Mesopotamian religion,” Wisnom says.

Beyond that, by reading the tablets written in cuneiform, “we learn a lot about society, about beliefs, relationships between husband and wife, about business transactions…”, Tsouparopoulou adds.

We know from the cuneiform tablets that women had agency.

We have contracts in which they are allowed to buy houses and retain control of their dowry.

They could run and manage businesses in their own right as long as they were together with their husbands.

3. We count time in the old fashioned way

If you’ve ever wondered why there are 60 seconds in a minute or 360 degrees in a circle, it’s because the Sumerians and Akkadians used a numbering system that was sexagesimal.

Clock with 60 seconds

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“Which means they had a base of 60 and divisions of 60 and multiplication by 60 where we tend to use the decimal system,” explains Finkel.

“Our own measurement of time in 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour is a direct inheritance from the Mesopotamian academic tradition“, Add.

“It is amazing how many concepts we take for granted in our modern society that can be found for the first time in ancient Mesopotamia.

“The whole concept of mathematical models, the very idea that data can be used to predict things that will happen in the future, something fundamental to all modern science,” Wisnom emphasizes.

4. They liked writing as much as we did.

Mesopotamians were enthusiastic letter writers who sent sealed messages with merchants and travelers.

As you read these letters today, you realize that, in many ways, not much has changed.

Picture showing envelope and letter

BBC Ideas
The letters came with an envelope: the two pieces to the right and left covered the letter that is the one in the center.

“We can see that there were specific formulas in their correspondence,” says Tsouparopoulou.

“When starting an email today, we usually have specific formulas like ‘I hope you are doing well’; they had them too.

“But When they were mad, they forgot this formulaic convention and they just started the letter in a very practical way. “

In addition to writing about product stocks, taxes, and receipts on their tablets, cuneiform writers loved to gossip.

“We have letters from these women complaining that men are not sending enough money home,” Wisnom says.

“And others in which you see the desire to be on a par with the neighbors, who say things like ‘those next door built an extension of their house, when are we going to have the money to build an extension of our house? ‘.

“That kind of thing really comes out and we see these little human concerns, those little aspirations, disputes, jealousy, etc.”

Time to get more cuneiform?

By studying the past we learn a lot about ourselves and the world we live in.

But the secrets revealed in the cuneiform tablets are only known to us today because to durability of clay.

Tablets with ancient writings

There was a conceptual leap that opened the doors to writing.

The way we record things is constantly evolving. Technological progress means that things get stale very quickly. The messages we send every day are stored in the cloud.

How likely is it that someone will be able to read that in 20 years or a few thousand years?

“There is a project in Austria that is inscribing 1,000 of the most important books of our era on ceramic tablets,” says Wisnom.

“It seems that we are closed the circle: from writing in clay at the beginning of the story to writing in clay again, although in a different way. to preserve our information now ”.

There are many initiatives that try to prevent digital data from being lost.

Is it that despite all the incredible technology at our fingertips, ancient methods of recording information are the best way to preserve our secrets for generations to come?

this article is an adaptation of the video of BBC Ideas “The ancient secrets revealed by deciphered tablets”, rconducted with the academic consultant Dr. Rodrigo Hernaiz-Gomez, Professor of Languages ​​and Linguistics, The Open University

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