This blog entry will be a bit different and I have to confess it’s a bit of a self-indulgence but as a former teacher of Ancient Civilisations (at the American School of The Hague 2001-2006) I couldn’t let the opportunity go by of giving some consideration to the earliest surviving tablet devices. These are, of course, the clay tablets inscribed in cuneiform and found in archaeological excavations in Mesopotamia, the earliest of which date from (and indeed define) the first writing systems in the mid-fourth millennium BC.
The languages in which these tablets were written vary. The earliest are written in Sumerian, (the tablets found in Sumer from the “Uruk” period date from the last centuries of the fourth millennium BC). Other tablets are written in Babylonian, Akkadian or West Semitic. It so happens that many of the tablets are school tablets – originally prepared so that boys (rarely girls) at “edubba” scribal schools could practise their writing by copying onto the reverse side of the tablet a phrase or word provided for them to memorise and then copy onto the obverse side.
Cuneiform tablet with schoolwork
Old Babylonian, about 1900-1700 BC
© Trustees of the British Museum
Writing was a hugely important skill because it opened up career opportunities to the student that were otherwise closed to him. The scribal schools (known also as tablet houses) taught not only how to wield a reed stylus to make the wedge-shaped characters that give cuneiform writing its name (from the Latin for wedge) and distinctive form, but also how to mold clay into the correct form for a tablet (different shapes were used for different purposes – school tablets are typically small and round) and how to make a clay envelope into which to place the finished article so that its integrity could be preserved in transit to the recipient.
Tablets prepared for students to use were rarely fired. It was intended that the clay be re-softened after the lesson for reuse by other students. On some school tablets only one side is used and there is a space in the margin for the teacher’s comments. The role of the teacher seems to have been habitually left to monitors known as big brothers. According to some of the tablets discipline was harsh. Big brothers and teachers habitually beat poor students, and bribery was common. One famous tablet takes the form of a letter written by a schoolboy to his father in which the boy begs his father to invite the teacher to dinner so that he would treat him more favourably in class in the future!
Texts translated from cuneiform tablets range from formal letters to poems, to estate audits, to hymns, to medical records and remedies to civic documents to intimate correspondence and into the fields of astronomy and oration. One truly great work of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and several other (though lesser) works give fascinating insights to the literary tradition of the day. Gilgamesh is clearly a Sumerian legend, but the tablets that form much of our knowledge of the poem come from the library at Nineveh that was founded by the Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal. Fortunately, the burning of tablet libraries did not destroy their contents completely and Nineveh’s eventual sacking was not the disaster for posterity it could have been. The burning of the papyrus texts at the Library of Alexandria robbed the world of a priceless repository of human knowledge and wisdom from which we shall never recover. But at Nineveh the fires served to bake the clay still harder and, though damaged and blackened even after nearly twenty-five centuries* many of the tablets detailing the stories of Gilgamesh and Enkidu are still legible.
Damaged but largely legible clay tablet describing the episode from The Epic of Gilgamesh in which Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight the giant Humbaba (Chuwawa) in the Cedar Forest.
© Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden
Also found in the library at Nineveh were many mathematical texts. In fact, Asurbanipal boasted of his own literacy and numeracy and his library is the earliest known to have been organised by genre. All of this might seem a little out of left-field (although those of you who know my intense interest in Mesopotamia won’t be surprised) but the shape of these tablets is thought by scholars to have been a direct influence on the shape of the early codices that became the accepted pattern for books – and these in turn still more centuries later influenced the shape of modern tablet computers and eReaders. This storage pattern (i.e. single pages sewn together and fixed inside a durable external protective cover) seems obvious to us now, but it wasn’t the only pattern to have been considered, and mediaeval manuscripts depicting scroll libraries and chained libraries remind us that other designs were seriously considered and in some cases trialled before the book form familiar to us today prevailed. Not all clay tablets were rectangular, to be sure, but the vast majority were, and certainly the evidence available to us today suggests that non-rectangular forms were rarer than non-rectangular books are in the modern world.
I could perhaps stretch this consideration to one last extreme by observing that as the Latin for counting is computare (from which we derive several obvious modern English words), and as clearly one of the key functions for scribes was to record tally counts of all sorts of materials (sheep, servants, farm acreages, populations, bags of grain etc.), one could consider the Mesopotamians to have been the first regular users of tablet computers.
*Asurbanipal died in 627 BC and his library and its treasures were excavated in 1853.