Ancient History & Civilisation


The Wedge between Us

Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform

And tell you ev’ry detail of Caractacus’s uniform

In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral

I am the very model of a modern Major-General

W. S. Gilbert

The ancient Babylonians believed in Fate, and I suppose it must have been Fate that made me become an Assyriologist in the first place; it certainly seems to have played a hand in the writing of this book. I had decided by the age of nine that I wanted to work in the British Museum. This unswerving ambition was probably not uninfluenced by the curious upbringing to which the five of us children were subjected, for we used to visit the Bloomsbury galleries when it wasn’t even raining and there was no glass case in the building against which my nose had never been pressed. At the same time I had a long-running interest in dead and ‘difficult’ writing, far more interesting than any schoolwork, and vacillated regularly in the weighty choice between ancient Chinese and ancient Egyptian.

When I went off to university in 1969 with my copy of Gardiner’s Egyptian Grammar held proudly under my arm it was then that Fate intervened properly for the first time. The Egyptologist at Birmingham was T. Rundle Clark, a sedate and well-rounded scholar of cinematic eccentricity who delivered but a single introductory lecture before peremptorily expiring and leaving the department, noisy with new students, bereft in Egyptology. The worried head, Professor F. J. Tritsch, called me into his study to explain that it would take months to procure a new teacher of hieroglyphs and, since I liked such things, why didn’t I do a bit of cuneiform or wedge-writing in the interim with Lambert down the hall? Lambert was known not to have much truck with beginners as a rule but, the head thought, might be persuaded to take me on under the circumstances. I and three young women accordingly found ourselves waiting expectantly outside the cuneiform door two days later. It was in this completely accidental way that the Assyriologist W. G. Lambert became my teacher, although at that stage I had no conception of how great a scholar he was, nor of the unclimbed mountains that lay ahead. I had just turned eighteen.

Our new professor hardly said good morning and showed no interest in what our names might be, but chalked three Babylonian words on the blackboard: iprus, niptarrasu, purussû, and asked the four of us if we noticed anything about them. There was silence. After boyhood Hebrew it was obvious that the words shared a common ‘root’ of three consonants, p, r and s. I suggested that. There was a slight nod, and I and the young ladies were then handed two sheets of cuneiform signs which we had to ‘learn for Monday’, and that, thanks to Fate, was it. The moment we started reading our first Babylonian words in cuneiform writing, ‘If a man …’ in Hammurabi’s Law Code, I knew that I was going to be doing Assyriology for good. It was one of those absolutely life-changing instances. No one else in the room knew the fateful inner turmoil that was in progress. But that is what happened to me. Lambert soon proved to be an austere and unforgiving teacher with a tendency to ironic acerbity: one had to take an unspoken vow of dedication and, one by one, the young ladies, unaffected by epiphanies, quietly gave up; before long I was alone with, if I may put it this way, destiny.

Cuneiform! The world’s oldest and hardest writing, older by far than any alphabet, written by long-dead Sumerians and Babylonians over more than three thousand years, and as extinct by the time of the Romans as any dinosaur. What a challenge! What an adventure!

I suppose it is in some way a remarkable matter to sit day by day over the dusty writings of the ancient kings of Mesopotamia within a mile or two of Birmingham’s Bull Ring and surrounded by useful university departments like French or Mechanical Engineering, but the oddness of it never struck me. Extinct languages that have been deciphered can be learned from grammar books in a classroom like any other, for the I do, you do, he does paradigm that comes with Latin, Greek or Hebrew also works for Sumerian and Babylonian.

Apprenticeship in cuneiform, as I soon discovered, actually involves two mountainous challenges: the signs and the languages. In normal walks of life it is counter-intuitive to separate language from script, for speakers and writers never think in such terms, but a language and its script are as much separate entities as a body and its clothing. Historically, Hebrew language, for example, has often been written in Arabic script, Aramaic occasionally rendered in Chinese characters, and, if necessary, Sanskrit could be carved in runes. Learning a new dead language in a new dead script is what some people might call a double whammy. With cuneiform, it is several degrees worse. Cuneiform script was used (primarily) for two dead languages, Sumerian and Akkadian, and until you read a few words of a tablet you cannot tell which language it is written in. Sumerian, the older language, has no known relative. Akkadian, of which Assyrian and Babylonian are northern and southern dialects, belongs to the Semitic language family and is helpfully related to Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic, much as Latin is related to Italian and French and Spanish. Sumerian and Akkadian existed side by side in ancient Mesopotamian society and a properly educated scribe had to master both, a principle that still held vigorous sway in Lambert’s classroom.

The thing is, too, that these were real languages. The Akkadian verb was fluent and complex, capable of expressing humour, irony, satire and double-entendre just like English. Vocabulary, also, was rich in every direction: the miraculous, expensive and confusingly named Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, only recently completed and weighing in at five feet of shelving, has tried to document all Akkadian words in American. In 1969, when I began my studies, most of the available grammars and dictionaries were in German. The Akkadisches Handwörterbuch, for example, grey and monotonous in double columns of small print, was more or less affordable and indispensable, but dependence on it for me meant that I often ended up knowing what an Akkadian word was in German without remembering what the German meant in English. Fellow students reading history or physics seemed to me frankly to be on a cushy ride, and it was a source of only mixed satisfaction when even my friend Andrew Sutherland, who got an outstandingly good First in German, found himself quite unable to tell me what on earth Adam Falkenstein was talking about in his exposition of Sumerian grammar in the ‘helpful’ little book entitled das Sumerische.

Lambert favoured a Holmes-like exactitude in class where uncertainty or ignorance was exposed with a merciless needle. Cribs were forbidden: the naked text had to be in plain view on the table, read out loud, translated exactly, and the grammatical forms analysed. There was absolutely nowhere to hide. This was a school of Assyriology altogether different from that prevailing, say, in Oxford, where apparently even a tutor might rely on notes under the table to navigate through Assyrian royal inscriptions. Another thing they did there during the first weeks – according to my friend Jeremy Black – was to transliterate the opening chapter of Pride and Prejudice into syllabic cuneiform signs. This, it was felt, served to introduce students emphatically to the realities of cuneiform writing, for it clarified the impossibility of writing adjacent consonants in a syllabary and focused attention on the lack of ‘o’, ‘f’ or ‘j’ in cuneiform; this exercise resulted in a distilled product such as tu-ru-ut u-ni-we-er-sa-al-li ak-nu-le-eg-ge-ed.1 Lambert had no interest in such infantilia, nor did we ever try writing cuneiform with cross-cut lolly-sticks and Plasticine. One learned one’s signs, all of them, and that was that. Years and years later, starting off an experimental evening class in cuneiform at the Museum, I wrote on the blackboard the following inscription in cuneiform signs:

a-a a-am tu-u bi-i ma-ar-ri-id tu-ma-ar-ru.2

which sentence was literally true: I really wanted to leave early. It provoked the greatest excitement when the signs were identified in random order by the students from their list and called out one by one so that they could see the sentence finally emerge. I had to think up a completely different sentence, I am happy to say, for the same purpose, when I started another class some years later.

Cuneiform signs, which I think of as jewels in a bowl, full of meanings obvious and subtle, never seemed strange or alien to me, and I practised them endlessly. A red-letter day came when John Ruffle of the Birmingham City Museum gave me a copy of René Labat’s wonderful (and at that time utterly unobtainable) Manuel d’Épigraphie Akkadienne, in which three millennia of sign forms were clearly laid out across double pages in black ink and all you had to do was remember them. This was the only book I have ever possessed which fell to pieces through use.

Studying the world’s oldest writing for the first time compels you to wonder about what writing is, how it came about more than five thousand years ago and what the world might have looked like without it. Writing, as I would define it, serves to record language by means of an agreed set of symbols that enable a message to be ‘played back’ like a wax cylinder recording; the reader’s eye runs over the signs and tells the brain how each is pronounced and the inert message springs into life.

As far as we know from archaeology, writing appeared for the first time in the world in ancient Mesopotamia. The most important point here is not the date, which was in or around 3500 BC, or all the trials and experiments before things really took off, but the unromantic fact that writing was bestowed on humanity by ancestors of the Inland Revenue service. The stimulus that set writing on its path was not the urge to create poetry or the desire to record history but the need to accommodate the demands of book-keepers. While the ultimate beginnings of it all remain irretrievable, the first documents which we encounter deal with the practical, large-scale administration of individuals, goods and wages, all carefully documented with names and numbers.

And their preferred medium from the outset was clay. Clay at first does seem a strange choice of writing support in a world where others employed wood, parchment, skin, leather or potsherds, but all of these are suitable for writing in ink and serve an entirely different mechanism. Riverside clay was liberally to hand; scribes always knew a source for the best quality requiring least preparation (hence, perhaps, the expression laughing all the way to the bank), and the essence of script was crucially intertwined with the quality of clay fabric from the outset. Ancient Mesopotamians, it must be said, knew clay like no one else. The medium lent a depth and sculptural quality to the writing; it is probable that, with a fluent scribe, both left and right hands moved subtly together in the creation of the signs. And what they wrote can last in the ground for ever. Since ancient inscriptions on organic materials tend to perish, we should be doubly appreciative that writing began that day in Mesopotamia on handfuls of beautiful clay and never swerved.

The earliest Sumerian signs, which we can represent in CAPITALS, used in these tablets resemble simple outlines drawn by a four-year-old child: ‘to stand’ is represented by the outline of a FOOT; a JUG represents ‘beer’. A large number of such picture signs came into being which, at first, functioned uncomplicatedly: each sign meant what it looked like. With a bagful of such signs and a handful of other symbols for numbers, it is possible to produce surprisingly complex records of ingoing or outgoing materials, but while the result was a recording system that might satisfy bureaucracy it could scarcely do justice to language. As long as matters were limited to monthly returns, things might have stopped there, but at a certain moment an outburst of explosive creativity meant that, before long, anything, including poetry and history, could be recorded too.

The primary revolution involved the idea that a given sign, representing some object graphically, could also convey the sound of that object’s name. For example, the very early sign for ‘barley’ was EAR-OF-BARLEY. The actual word ‘barley’ in Sumerian, was še, pronounced something like the syllable sheh. The EAR-OF-BARLEY sign now could be put to two different uses: to mean ‘barley’, or to express the sound of the syllable sheh to spell another word or part of a word, where the meaning ‘barley’ had no relevance, as if writing the beginning of the English word ‘shellfish’. The conception that a graphic sign could convey sound isolated from meaning is the Great Leap, for it meant that real and full writing could become possible. A whole system of signs was engendered that in combination could record words, speech, grammar and ultimately narrative literature in Sumerian and Akkadian – as well as other ancient Middle Eastern languages – with all their subtle and complex demands.

Even today we can visualise something of the important issues that must have arisen, such as having to agree on a new sign that hadn’t been needed before, or finding a sign to write something that cannot be drawn. No one beyond Lewis Carroll could envision drawing an ‘it’, for example, but a sign was needed for such an essential word. The solution was to employ an underworked sign that already existed and give that a new meaning. The Sumerian sign JUG was first used to write ‘beer’ (pronounced kaš) but otherwise had no other use than for jugs. It was this sign that was recruited to write bi. So it came about that the JUG sign now had the values kash, meaning ‘beer’, and bi, meaning ‘it’.

The Sumerian sign KA represents ‘mouth’, by means of a man’s head with the salient part emphasised. The same sign can also be used to write the words DUG4, ‘to speak’, ZÚ, ‘tooth’, KIR4, ‘nose’, INIM, ‘word’, and meaning and pronunciation come from context. This sign, KA, could also function as a box in which a smaller sign inside gives new meanings and new sounds. The small sign, NINDA, meaning ‘food’, was inserted inside KA to create a new sign, GU7, which means ‘to eat’, and A, ‘water’, was inserted inside KA to create NAG, ‘to drink’.

The very early signs before 3000 BC were drawn in firm as-yet-undried clay with a pointed tool much as we use a pencil on paper. Eventually these more or less realistic and often curved drawings were reduced to combinations of straight lines impressed with a specially cut reed or stylus that looked something like a chopstick. In addition, the orientation of the signs was changed and their uses and values considerably increased. The evolved cuneiform proper which resulted is written in signs made up of separate strokes impressed into the clay. Inscribing cuneiform on clay is, therefore, more akin to printing than writing. The characteristic wedge feature is a direct consequence of impressing the signs with a straight-edged writing tool in contrast to drawing with a point, and it is this that led the nineteenth-century decipherers to name the script cuneiform, derived from the Latin cuneus, ‘wedge’. Each application of the edge of the stylus-tip left a line ending in a wedge-head, be it the top of a vertical, the left end of a horizontal wedge, or a diagonal produced by impressing the corner of the stylus. This feature was, perhaps, accidental, since the original plan was only to replace all sign elements with straight rather than curved lines. The reader’s eye sees the bottom of the triangular depression displaced by the stylus, which always appears like some kind of elongated wedge. Broadly speaking there are three primary strokes: horizontal, vertical and diagonal, and you can also find upward diagonal and downward diagonal wedges, but these are really modifications of the horizontal. With these five distinct shapes any cuneiform sign can be written. Neat individual strokes can be produced with a minimal movement of the right hand, ranging principally between due west to due north.

Cuneiform absolutely cannot be written with the left hand, and any school candidate who manifested that sinister tendency in antiquity would, no doubt, have it beaten out of him, as has often happened since in human history. I know from personal experience that it is impossible, having conducted countless museum workshops with schoolchildren, armed with clear sign drawings (and the lolly-stick and Plasticine bag). Children (unlike their parents or guardians) are always right on top of the complexities in minutes and dead keen to try it out, but every time about 70 per cent of them turn out to be left-handed. I always say, ‘You will have to do it with your right hand then’. The reply is usually, ‘I can’t write with my right hand,’ to which the correct riposte is, ‘How do you know you can’t write cuneiform with your right hand if you have never ever written cuneiform before?’

‘A good scribe,’ they said in Sumerian, ‘could follow the mouth’, which might mean the ability to write at dictation speed or just refer to accuracy. Some cuneiform signs consist of only a few ‘wedges’; complex signs can have many. Sign-shapes, structure and the sequence in which wedges should be impressed were fixed by convention, and youthful scribes had to learn them laboriously, much as Chinese characters have to be learned today.

In some sense, it has sometimes seemed to me, cuneiform signs on clay don’t really exist, for all that one has to work with is depressions in a clay surface; the depth of each produces sufficient shadow to delineate it for the reader’s eye; an ant strollingmicroscopically across the surface of a tablet would encounter a minefield of spindly, angular ravines.

Unfortunately for the young apprentice, as the signs became stylised into cuneiform wedges their ‘realistic’ quality became much diminished, and after three millennia of daily use there were hardly any in which the ‘original’ graphic significance survived as a clue to meaning. One clear exception is EAR-OF-BARLEY, which is still recognisable for what it is in tablets of the first century AD.

King Hammurabi’s Law Code could have been written with first-year students, 3,750 years later, in mind. It is repetitive in structure, lots of the strange words recur, and before long you see that this is codified rational thinking expressed in real language by real people, who can talk to us even though they have been dead for so long:

If a man, some of whose property is lost, seizes his lost property in a man’s possession, if the man in whose hand the thing belonging to him is seized states, ‘A seller sold it to me; I bought it before witnesses’ and the owner of the lost property states: ‘I will produce witnesses who know my lost property,’ if the buyer produces the seller who sold it to him and the witnesses before whom he bought it and the owner of the lost property produces the witnesses who know the lost property, the judges shall examine their statements and the witnesses before whom the sale was made and the witnesses who know the lost property shall declare what they know before a god, the seller is a thief; he shall be put to death. The owner of the lost property shall take his lost property; the buyer shall take the money which he has paid from the house of the seller.

If the buyer does not produce the seller who sold it to him and the witnesses before whom he bought it but the owner of the lost property produces the witnesses who know his lost property, the buyer is a thief: he shall be put to death. The owner of the lost property shall take his lost property.

If the owner of the lost property does not produce witnesses who know his lost property, he is a felon since he has uttered slander; he shall be put to death.

Code of Hammurabi, Laws 9–12

This is a code that embodied legal principles that prevailed in the background: there is no evidence that judges quoted from it or followed it literally, nor would either guilty party here be facing a death sentence. Hammurabi’s masterpiece, like all attempts to tell people how to behave, was written in stone, and the cuneiform signs in which it was recorded were deliberately old-fashioned (in comparison with writing on contemporary, everyday tablets), in order to convey to a reader that the guiding principles and the dynasty that had codified them were eternal. This ‘archaising’ of type of signs, too, happens to be perfect for the beginner, because they are clear and elegant and often still preserve within themselves something of the remote ‘picture sign’ from which they evolved.

After about three years of round-the-clock effort, everything becomes clear to the long-suffering acolyte. Reading cuneiform becomes second nature and the wedge, at first painful, becomes a magic bridge to a long-dead world populated by recognisable fellow humans. I would go so far as to recommend Assyriology enthusiastically as a way of life to many, especially when certain points about it are borne in mind. One is the cheerful fact that almost any cuneiform sign can be used in up to four distinct ways:

Logograms, which spell a complete Sumerian word, one sign per word, such as kaš = ‘beer’, or lugal = ‘king’.

Syllabograms, which spell one syllable, such as BA or UG, which usually form part of a word.

Phonetic complements, which are placed next to (or sometimes inside) other signs as a clue to their pronunciation.

Determinatives, which stand in front of or behind words, without being pronounced, as a clue to their meaning, such as GIŠ = ‘wood’, or DINGIR = ‘god’.

For example, the sign AN, if pronounced ‘dingir’, is just the Sumerian noun ‘god’, meaning god; if pronounced ‘an’ it is a syllable sign to write the sound ‘an’; if it is a phonetic complement it appears after a word ending in -an, or if a determinative sign it indicates that the name of a god follows. The reader’s decision as to which usage or value applies depends on the context.

The Sumerian language is written partly with logograms (especially nouns), partly with syllabograms (especially verbs and other bits of grammar), and partly with determinatives. Phonetic complements in Sumerian texts occur mostly inside complex signs.

The Akkadian language is written predominantly with syllabograms, based on the premise that to spell words in a retrievable way for a reader of Jane Austen they must be sliced up like a cucumber into their constituent elements, which are expressed in syllabic signs:

ku-ku-um-be-er = cucumber.

Cuneiform signs express syllables, and the slices are ‘pushed back together’ in order to reconstitute the sound of the underlying cucumber. The majority of cuneiform signs are used for syllables like this. Most syllable signs are simple like AB, IG, EM or UL, or BA, GI, ME or LU, but there are many like DAB, SIG or TUR. Rarer logographic signs with a longer structure, such as BULUG or MUNSUB, can hardly ever be used to spell words syllabically. Spelling with syllables is perfectly comfortable once you have learned the signs, but Akkadian is not always written that way. There is a special Mesopotamian device whereby traditional Sumerian logograms can be liberally used when writing Akkadian, leaving readers to supply the Akkadian equivalent themselves in the correct grammatical form. We are familiar with this process today in the specific case of the sign $, for which the sound ‘dollar’ is instantly supplied by the reader, who is usually oblivious of (and quite unconcerned with) what the symbol actually means. This substitution technique is central to the writing of Akkadian and is often aided by the use of phonetic complements.

For example, in the Ark Tablet with which this book is concerned, the hero Atra-hasīs’s name is spelt µat-ra-am-ḫa-si-is, where the cuneiform sign for the number ‘1’ precedes the personal name as determinative, which we show as µ (short for ‘man’), with the other syllables expressed by six straightforward syllabic signs, at, ra- and so on.

In contrast the famous words ‘destroy (your) house, build a boat’ are written ú-bu-ut É bi-ni MÁ. É and MÁ are old Sumerian logograms, or word signs, for which the corresponding Akkadian words are to be supplied by the reader; these are bītam, ‘house’, andeleppam, ‘boat’, respectively, both in the accusative case. The other Akkadian words ubut, ‘destroy!’ and bini, ‘build!’ are spelled out syllabically.

In itself, syllabic writing is not a complicated matter. Minimal consonantal signs to express English would require a table of 210 signs, which would consist of AB and BA, EB and BE, IB and BI, OB and BO and UB and BU, and so on for the twenty-one non-vowel letters, with a few independent vowels thrown in to be helpful. The cuneiform script, however, was never concerned to achieve helpful simplicity. It is characterised by three idiosyncratic factors:

Idiosyncrasy 1

In cuneiform writing, it hardly ever occurs that for a given syllabic sound such as ‘ab’ or ‘du’, there is only one sign that has that value. For historical reasons, there are usually several signs; in some cases there are many. For example, the syllabic sound ‘sha’ can theoretically be written with any one of the following six signs, if not more:

Idiosyncrasy 1: Multiple signs with one sound

This situation does not mean that all these values were in regular use at any one time. For many signs, syllabic use is fortunately limited, either by period, or genre of text.

Idiosyncrasy 2

In addition, most individual signs have more than one sound value; some, again, have many. Furthermore, things can differ from Sumerian to Akkadian.


In Sumerian, words:

utu = ‘sun’

dingir utu, ‘the Sun God’

ud, ‘day’

babbar, ‘white, shining’

zalag, ‘pure’.

In Akkadian, sounds:

ud/ut/ut/utam/tam/ta/sa16 /tú/pir/par/laḫ/liḫ/ḫiš.

Idiosyncrasy 2: Multiple values for one sign

Idiosyncrasy 3

When writing conventions were evolving, the earliest scribes tended to draw a box around signs that belonged together to produce meaning and it was up to the reader to put them in order. Such a system is not always free of ambiguity. Later Mesopotamian scribes displayed a different characteristic: all signs in a line touched and they wrote with no gaps between the words. Generally speaking, developed cuneiform is right justified and if there are not enough signs to fill a whole line naturally, gaps appear within the line. Fancy calligraphers such as those in the royal Assyrian library at Nineveh liked to stretch out or distort certain signs to avoid empty space. The realisation that there are no gaps between words is hard to believe for the absolute beginner. One crumb of comfort is that a word could never be divided over two lines.

These cuneatic idiosyncrasies mean that reading involves first identifying a given sign, then understanding whether it is a logogram, syllabogram, phonetic complement or determinative, and finally choosing the correct sound reading if it is a syllabogram. Young scribes like young Assyriologists just had to accept that all cuneiform signs had more than one sound value and all sounds could be represented by more than one cuneiform sign, or, in other words, Polyvalence is All. In practice, traditions restricted the use of many signs. Since words are usually spelled in syllables, the eye quickly learns to select readings that produce harmony and correct grammar, discarding unlikely or impossible sequences.

From the very earliest stages Mesopotamian scribes found themselves making lists of words, for it was crucial to establish what the signs were as they developed and were agreed on, both to avoid confusion and to allow them to be taught. We find that mature cuneiform ended up as a fairly tidy set of some six hundred signs that was universally subscribed to by all Mesopotamian writers thereafter. Sign shapes were certainly streamlined, similar signs might coalesce and once in a while a new value was introduced, but one is hard put to point to major innovations or changes over that vast expanse of time once writing was standardised. Any unwieldy proliferation of invented signs at the outset was evidently reined in and controlled, evidently anticipating the chaos that would ensue if all Mesopotamia’s cities came up with their own local signs and insisted that they were ‘right’. It is hard to credit that this remarkable script discipline would have come about of its own accord. One might imagine a ‘summit’ at which those who were responsible for the use and dissemination of the new tool would agree between them on what was to be the sign list that everyone would use.

Wedge shape and calligraphic proportion did not remain static over three thousand years of use. Teachers of sign-writing in cuneiform school always promoted the accepted shapes with vigour, and personal style in handwriting had no place at all. Early cuneiform around 2900 BC has long, slim wedges; the first-millennium Assyrian librarians perfected a canon of proportions to such an extent that one library scribe can hardly be distinguished from another without micro-photography, while under the Seleucids in the fourth century BC cuneiform signs leaned so far backwards that they look like dominoes on the verge of collapse.

Some of the first lists to appear came to be copied and recopied by apprentices ever afterwards, such as the ‘Names and Professions List’, which gives all titles and activities and was still revered at the end of the first millennium BC, even if many of the words were completely out of date. Certain lists concentrated on the signs, arranging them in a learnable sequence by their shape, and analysing pronunciation, composition and ultimately meaning. Others were assembled by subject matter: anything made of wood; anything made of stone; animals, plants or gods. Cuneiform signs could only be brought together by graphic structure or meaning: our default system of alphabetic order would not be possible for another two thousand years. As the linguistic domination of Sumerian declined, Akkadian equivalents to or translations of all the Sumerian words were included. The lists grew, evolved, and were eventually edited into established or even ‘canonical’ series of texts, the perpetual bread and butter of the scribal colleges. As the centuries unfolded and dynasties rose and fell, the Mesopotamian cultural backbone bent and swayed with changes but the written tradition remained a stable entity. A solid continuum of scribal tradition saw to it that the inherited lore in Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform was preserved for ever. It was this unique Mesopotamian institution that made it possible for the same list of words to survive from 3000 to 300 BC. Tradition was consciously and deliberately safeguarded and passed on by a winding queue of dedicated scribes to whose hands the whole of knowledge, transmitted by the gods after Atra-hasīs’s Flood, was entrusted.

The scribe’s responsibility was to ensure anonymous transmission of this heritage without intervention or change. The older a particular tablet the more valued its contents. The core of this heritage was exemplified by the word lists. In them all the words and signs for everything were logically and retrievably stored.

While cuneiform script was used for the writing of the Sumerian and Akkadian languages for three thousand years it was often exported way beyond the home borders by itinerant Mesopotamian scribes, with the result that it came to be used to write Hittite, Hurrian, Elamite, Mitannian and other languages too, while in the second millennium BC Akkadian was widely used as an international language for correspondence, diplomacy and treaties. The flexibility and adaptability of the cuneiform script meant that the sounds, and therefore the grammar and vocabulary of languages completely unrelated to Sumerian or Akkadian, could likewise be reduced to writing and, in the same way, ultimately consigned to posterity. Despite its spiky appearance and undeniable complexities, cuneiform served the civilised world for an unimaginable length of time and, in the same breath, it is much more fun than any alphabet.

Reading those first laws of Hammurabi with Professor Lambert led to a thesis on Babylonian exorcistic incantations under the same teacher, and working for three years on the Dictionary in the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Then, to my great joy, I was appointed Assistant Keeper in what was then called the Department of Western Asiatic Antiquities at the British Museum. Fate intervened at that point, too, for the intimidating Chairman of the interviewing board was Director David Wilson, a man who I later found referred to cuneiform writing as chicken scratches and favoured an attitude of apparent disdain for Assyriology as a way of life. During the interview, something prompted me to bring up my one dose of field experience at the University of Birmingham excavation in Orkney, where I had sat about on the edge of the trench for a month being sarcastic about illiterate civilisations but had happened to make the only real find of the season; a spot of desultory trowel work by me one morning accidentally laid bare a fine Viking sword in a ludicrously good state of preservation. All the other archaeologists present squirmed in unspeakable jealousy at the sight of my find, but as far as I was concerned the thing was uninscribed and therefore not that interesting. As I recounted this incident, David Wilson, unknown to me then as the international authority on the Vikings that he is, leaned forward in excitement to ask a technical question, and I have never quite got rid of the feeling that it was this archaeological fluke that got me the cuneiform job. After signing the Official Secrets Act, I was handed my heavy, passport-to-the-Nation’s-treasure key, which is soberly inscribed IF LOST 20/- REWARD.

The tablet collections in the British Museum defied and still defy belief. Cupboards full of shelves laden with Victorian glass-topped boxes house about a hundred and thirty thousand tablets of clay inscribed in cuneiform writing, with three thousand years of wonderful, wedge-shaped messages. Who could ask for more?

1 Truth universally acknowledged

2 I am to be married tomorrow

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