Saturday, September 1, 2012

On the Beginning of Writing in Mesopotamia

It’s hard to imagine life without reading and writing.  Speech is fine as far as it goes, but it’s essentially non-persistent and short-range: the need to communicate over time and space can’t be filled by speech.  

If you ever were, or knew, a teenage girl, you have seen the true manifestation of an insatiable need for communication. This need is now filled largely by writing, in the form of texting, Facebook, emails and whatever else has been invented lately that I’m too old to know about.

Historically, however, teenage girls were unlikely to be those with the resources for inventing writing in a largely pre-literate world.  Instead it was the poets, stirred by the divine breath of the gods themselves, stretching the wings of song...not!  It was rich guys and their accountants.  Surprised? 

"The oldest signs in the system seem to be imitations of clay tokens of diverse forms, used as counters in an accounting procedure throughout the Near East from the 9th millennium B.C. to the 2nd; each type of counter presumably represented an individual type of goods, and therefore an individual word."
-Introduction to Akkadian, Fourth edition, Caplice and Snell.

This wasn’t so much about communication (yet) as counting. However, where clay tokens were, taxes, tax bills, and letters about taxes soon followed.  And since you’re writing, it was natural enough to ask after the guys over in Accounts Payable in the Ashur office.  And by the way, are you avoiding my calls?

            A letter:
“Speak to Bibiya
            Thus (speaks) Gimil-Marduk,
May Shamash and Marduk keep you alive forever for my sake.
I wrote concerning your well-being: send me (news about) your well-being.
I came to Babylon, but did not see you; I became very upset.
Send me news of your traveling that I may rejoice…
Be well forever for my sake.”
-Saison de Fouilles a Sippar, Vincent Schiel, pg. 131.

Sadly, (S)he’s Just Not That Into You won’t be written for another four thousand years.  Let’s hope Gimul-Marduk figured it out.

To the left is a clay tablet from the British museum from 1850BCE.  You can also see the envelope and read the story here.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed your post (I've always kinda hated those rich guys and their accountants!) =) It left me wondering if Gimil-Marduk's effusiveness was common for letter writing duing this period? Or if he just had a huge man crush? More problematic, is that I love letter writing and your post left me bemoaning the flimsiness of paper mail.