It’s As If It Was Written in…Clay. For 4,200 Years.

Clay tablet with geometric markings

One of the Library’s cuneiform tablets, more than 4,200 years old. African and Middle Eastern Division

This is a guest post by Leah Knobel, a public affairs specialist in the Office of Communications.

Perhaps the oldest pieces in the Library’s collection of 171 million items are a group of clay tablets from ancient Mesopotamia that date to the dawn of civilization.

The tablets contain an ancient writing system known as cuneiform developed by the Sumerians, who thrived during the third millennium B.C.  Sumerians influenced culture and development beyond their original home in Mesopotamia (present-day southern Iraq) — the site of the world’s earliest civilization.

The materials used to create cuneiform — clay and reeds — were both readily available in this region at the time. Initially, cuneiform signs were pictograms but later became based on symbols, causing some ambiguity in their interpretation.

The Library acquired this collection of cuneiform materials in 1929 from art dealer Kirkor Minassian. The items were part of Minassian’s collection of Islamic book-bindings, manuscripts, textiles and ceramic and metal objects that demonstrate the development of writing and book art in the Middle East.

The oldest tablets in the collection date from the reign of Gudea of Lagash, from 2144–2124 B.C. That makes them more than 4,200 years old.

The tablets’ contents are diverse. Several contain inscriptions pertaining to the receipt of and payment for goods and services, while others appear to have served as school exercise tablets, used by scribes learning the cuneiform writing system. These latter tablets were originally unfired, as they were meant to be erased and reused; the account records, on the other hand, were fired and stored for future reference.

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