I don’t know about you, but things tend to be a tad jumbled up in my head when it comes to ancient history. For example, was Stonehenge erected before or after the Great Pyramid in Egypt? And which came first – the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, or Sumerians?
Actually, now I come to think about it, I’ve always been a bit confused with regard to historical timelines. I remember watching block and white films on television when I was a kid and being convinced that the age of the “Cowboys and Indians” came long before the swashbuckling times of Sir Walter Raleigh and the Elizabethan era (which was 1558–1603). It’s funny how you view the world when you are young… but we digress…
The reason I’m waffling on about this is that I love to see ancient objects and to ponder about the people who created them. A couple of weeks ago I was perusing a magazine (either Discover or Scientific American, I cannot recall which one) when I ran across a one-page advert for a company called the Sadigh Gallery. Based in New York, these folks specialize in ancient artifacts.
What particularly caught my eye was the fact that they had some small clay tablets bearing cuneiform symbols. These were created by pressing the symbols into soft clay with the slanted edge of a stylus. The tablets were later fired to make them rock-hard. Cuneiform was not a written language like English – instead it was a picture-writing system that used symbols, similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics or the Chinese system of ideographs.
Example of cuneiform
Experts can decipher these tablets, which tell about the Sumerian government, law, business practices, and religion, and also show that the Sumerians had knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, and medicine.
Anyway, I couldn’t resist, I went online to take a peek. You would think that objects of this ilk would only be allowed to be displayed in museums, but it seems that thousands of them have been discovered and the smaller ones are actually very affordable. I purchased a small terracotta tablet (only 1¾ x 1½ inches) with five lines of cuneiform inscriptions on both sides. It just arrived – the picture below shows me holding it in my hand.
Just in case you were wondering – and to put things into perspective – Sumer (the purple area in the image below) was located north of what we now know as the Persian Gulf, and the Sumerian civilization spanned 5300–2900 BC. According to conventional chronology, the Egyptian civilization (the green area in the image below) coalesced around 3150 BC. Meanwhile, archeologists now believe that the first stones at Stonehenge were erected around 2400–2200 BC.
Historical Atlas created by William Shepherd circa 1923
to see a larger, more detailed version)
My tablet is from 2200 BC, which means that it’s 4200 years old. I cannot tell you what it feels like to hold something like this. It sends shivers down my spine. Just thinking that 4200 years ago someone was creating this for some purpose and wondering who they were and what they were like.
Was the creator of my tablet young or old? Male or female? A businessman or a priest? I wonder what they would have thought if they had known that their tablet would still be around 4200 years in the future.
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