University of South Carolina


No stone unturned

By Margaret Lamb, 803-777-5400

Ever dug through a pocket full of receipts looking to see what you paid for something?

Consider yourself lucky. Imagine if you had to plow through a bag filled with stones.

Think about it. Long, long ago – try 3 millenia ago – business transactions were recorded on clay tablets. And lest we forget that there was communication before the digital age, way before paper and papyrus, stone tablets were the medium for conveying ideas, prayers and recording commerce.

The Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library at the University of South Carolina owns three such tablets, which are inscribed in the language and cuneiform writing system of the Akkadians, Assyrians and Babylonians. All three recently have been digitized and translated into English, and the results have been surprising.

The tablets serve as a reminder that, while commerce and communication have evolved through the centuries, some basic human needs really haven’t changed much.

The 1-inch-by-2-inch tablets show transactions for the purchase and transport of beer and for a herd of sheep and goats – 61 to be exact. A third, cone-shaped tablet is inscribed with a prayer. All three bear the markings of the provincial governor to prove their accuracy.

Jeffrey Makala, librarian for outreach and instruction, said the tablets were unearthed in the Middle East, in an area between what is now Basra and Baghdad. And although ancient tablets such as these are rare, some are still being found today in Iraq and Syria.

“The first, and oldest, tablet shows that someone bought several different sizes of containers and different types of beer. There was regular beer, fine beer and a jug of ‘fine dida beer,’” Makala said.

No symbols or pictoglyphs appear on the tablets. Every word is written with the cuneiform alphabet, inscribed in the wet clay with a reed stylus and then baked to harden it.

The two receipt tablets are a half-inch thick and rounded on the edges. The third, cone-shaped tablet is about 3 to 4 inches long. Makala estimated that the two pillow-shaped tablets date back to around 2,000 B.C. and that the third is slightly newer, by about 100 years.

“These tablets are 4,000 years old and they are remarkable survivors,” Makala said. “They are fascinating when one considers the historical development of communication technology. Clay tablets were the most efficient way of recording and communicating thoughts over time and distance at this time. Remember that this is at least a thousand years before papyrus was used and 3,000 years before paper! It is truly the start of written communications.”

The library’s tablets were acquired in the early 1960s and are part of a small group of materials in the Hollings Library that documents the history of communications technology. The collection also contains papyrus fragments in ancient Greek and Arabic, as well as papyrus from Egypt, complete with hieroglyphics and a Babylonian stone cylinder seal.

The digital images of the cuneiform tablets were added to the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative at UCLA, which is recording cuneiform tablets in institutions in North America and Europe. Specialists at the CDLI translated the tablets into English. These and other tablets from around the world can be found on the CDLI website.

News and Internal Communications

Posted: 05/08/12 @ 3:30 PM | Updated: 05/08/12 @ 3:42 PM | Permalink



Media Relations

USC Times