The first scientific texts were written in Cuneiform
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The COVID pandemic has highlighted the importance of medical knowledge. Thanks to ancient Mesopotamian scholars, we know that scientific observations were already being documented more than 4000 years ago.
by Pinar Durgun and Juliane Eule
In the Wissensstadt Berlin 2021 program, the Vorderasiatisches Museum demonstrated how ancient scholars wrote down their scientific and medical knowledge and how modern scholars employ high-tech methodology to study these ancient texts today.
How does one write in cuneiform?
These earliest scientific texts were written in cuneiform. Cuneiform is a “wedge shaped” script of ancient Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. Cuneiform signs were most commonly impressed onto clay, but also on wax, carved onto stone or metal surfaces, and sometimes even written in ink. The wedge shapes come from the corners of the reed or metal writing tools that created triangular, nail-like impressions. But we don’t know exactly how the ancient Mesopotamian scribes would hold their writing tools: With the first two fingers, like a pencil? Or with the last 4 fingers like holding a tool? Some of the depictions we see on ancient objects show different variations. The oldest known representation of a person writing shows that this person is holding a writing tool or stylus with three fingers (Fig. 1).
In our Wissensstadt program, participants experimented with writing cuneiform using a simple chopstick. Making their own tablets and writing on clay enabled our participants to see how cuneiform developed and what kinds of advantages the material clay had.
For our program, we provided self-drying clay. Some of the original clay tablets would dry on their own, but some were exposed to fire. Whether they burned intentionally or accidentally, fire made the clay more durable to the weather and soil conditions. This is why archaeologist can still find them today in their excavations of ancient sites after thousands of years.
Many different languages and dialects of ancient western Asia were written in cuneiform: For example, Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Old Persian, Urartian, and Hittite. Just like we can write German, Spanish, Italian, or Dutch using one script: Latin. But unlike the Latin script, cuneiform writing required around 1000 characters and signs! (Fig. 3) It took years for scribes and scholars to excel in cuneiform writing.
In our Wissensstadt program, we provided a handout with some of the most common cuneiform signs (you can find this handout by Klaus Wagensonner here under the Appendix). Participants then tried to write their own names in cuneiform. In many cases, this was a challenge, because some sounds and letters (such as “O” or “J”) are not represented in the same way in our language. The syllabic construction of the cuneiform signs may have to be different to reflect the sounds of our names. For example, I could write my name as following: Pi-na-ar or Pi-in-na-ar. How would you write yours in a syllabic construction? You can try to use Penn Museum’s helpful tool if you need help with writing your name.
The earliest cuneiform tablets date to more than 5000 years ago and often documented transactions and goods that were coming in and going out of the temple. Many of the earliest clay tablets were excavated from the site of Uruk (Warka in today’s Iraq). At the time, objects from excavations were divided between the local governments and the excavating museum or institution. The Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft conducted excavations at Uruk between 1912/13 – 1939. This is why there are objects from Uruk in the Vorderasiatisches Museum here in Berlin.
Some of our modern mathematical concepts can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia. Did you know that we owe the 60 based system of time to ancient Mesopotamians? Sumerians created the sexagesimal base, which is why still today one hour is 60 minutes. They would measure the time by observing the sky and by using sundials and water clocks.
Other clay tablets include treatment recipes and give us insights about the concept of sickness and healing in Mesopotamia. The cause of sickness was believed to be the result of divine anger. One could also become infected through direct contact with a person who has lost divine protection or through their food and drink. The following is a translation of a cuneiform tablet from the so-called “House of the Conjuring Priest” in Assur (Fig. 5):
“May he have eaten the bread of a person under a curse;may he have drunk the water of a person under a curse (…)! May he have drunk what a person under a curse has left.”
The boundaries between magic and medicine were fluid. It was believed that the deities transferred their healing powers to the drugs produced by pharmacologists. When a person got infected, the first thing to do was to identify the responsible deity. For this, the healer analyzed the symptoms of the disease, which could be assigned to certain gods or goddesses. Once the responsible deity was found, they could be appeased through prayers, incantations, or rituals (Fig. 6). In addition to magical treatment approaches, scientific methods and herbal recipes were also used.
The Sumerians even had a goddess of health and healing, her name was Gula. She was commonly depicted with her dogs, because dogs were often associated with healing and protection. On the other hand, demoness Lamaschtu is known to cause fever and serious illnesses, as well as infant mortality. She was depicted with a lion head, horns, and bird talons. People would wear amulets with an image of her and protective cuneiform text on the back for protection against her.
The scientific study of cuneiform texts: Past and present
Cuneiform stopped being written sometime around the first century CE. The knowledge of cuneiform was then lost for about 2000 years. In the 19th century, travelers and military officials started making copies of monumental inscriptions in the Middle East. But it took scholars over a period of fifty years to decipher cuneiform. One of the key texts in the decipherment was the trilingual inscription (Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian) at Bisotun/Iran. After large quantities of clay tablets were excavated in archaeological sites such as Uruk and Babylon (Iraq), scholars started to hand-copy the texts, transcribe, and then translate them. Many of the cuneiform tablets are still being translated and analyzed by Assyriologists, scholars who study the language and writing of ancient Mesopotamia.
Transcribing the cuneiform signs to our script and then translating them is a slow and meticulous process. In many cases the tablets are found broken off or the signs are no longer completely legible because of the tablet’s condition. This is one of the reasons why it takes many scholars and many years to translate cuneiform tablets, especially if it is a text that is not known from other tablets. Scholars all around the world visit the Vorderasiatisches Museum to study cuneiform tablets in the collection.
Thanks to new technologies like Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), today Assyriologists can photograph cuneiform tablets under different lights to better document the signs. Using a shiny object in close proximity to the photographed object, one can capture how the object reflects light from different angles. This enables us to see the surface shape and color better, and even allows us to enhance the images so that we can see details that are not visible to our naked eye. Cuneiform signs are most visible when the light source hits from the upper right, but this can depend on the shape of the inscribed object. You can experiment with RTI images of tablets shared on the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI) here. Today, we can also 3D scan inscribed objects and cuneiform tablets, so that researchers all over the world can read these tablets and view them in great detail digitally, without traveling to Berlin (Fig. 7).
Digital tools help us archive cuneiform texts digitally and preserve this information for future researchers. The digitization of cuneiform tablets and inscriptions is an ongoing process. The Vorderasiatisches Museums is one of the first and main collaborators with the CDLI. So far, over 13,000 inscriptions from the Vorderasiatisches Museum collection have been catalogued in electronic form by the CDLI and we are working on digitizing more.
Explore cuneiform writing and science in ancient Mesopotamia further in these resources: