Life Set in Stone
Archaeologists can learn a lot from ancient writing. Though few people in the ancient Near East could write, those who did wrote a lot. Government officials kept records of new laws and the accomplishments of kings as well as everyday economic transactions and mathematical equations. The tablets in this museum alone deal with ancient language, medicine, mathematics, and literature.
A Picture Worth One Word
Writing as we know it today developed from pictographs like this one, which were simply drawings of objects being discussed. By around 2700 BCE, carvings could represent abstract concepts, too. A drawing of the sun, for example, could mean the sun itself, or it could mean a concept like “brightness.” Eventually, drawings could also represent things that sounded similar. The same drawing of the sun could also mean “son" (at least in English).
A lot of early writing dealt with trade deals and other economic transactions. Pictographs served as a written record of the deal, much like a receipt today. This pictograph was used for administrative purposes and talks about land distribution.
Counting by Sixty
Even students in the ancient world had to practice math problems. This tablet from 1550 BCE shows a problem text for calculating the area of a triangle. Since Babylonians used a base sixty number system, as opposed to the base ten system we use today, this equation took up quite a bit more space than our ½bh.
Babylon had the most advanced mathematics of their time. Their base sixty system and knowledge of geometry made them extremely effective at constructing buildings and dividing up land, the primary uses of math in the ancient Near East. However, they also had knowledge of fractions, algebra, square roots, and linear, quadratic, and cubic equations.
Medicine, Magic, or Both
When ancient Mesopotamians got sick, they followed the same process we do: diagnosis, then cure. Whatever the diagnosis, prescriptions tended to include incantations to appease the gods as well as medicinal remedies.
Ancient people had effective medical practices and treatments, even if they did not always know why or how things worked. They recognized the importance of handwashing in ritual, which had hygienic and spiritual benefits. One recipe for antiseptic containing alcohol, myrrh, and honey, worked exactly as intended, though the people using it did not know that honey and alcohol killed pathogens. This tablet contains similar recipes, including a Sumerian physician’s favorite recipes for things such as salves, soap, and astringent.
The Original Classic Literature
As writing grew more complex, so did the things people wrote down. By 2500 BCE, people could clearly communicate abstract concepts through text. Gradually, they began to write literature, often inspired by earlier traditions that had been passed down orally. The most famous example of ancient literature is the Epic of Gilgamesh, written down before 2150 BCE. However, the first known author was writing Enheduanna, the daughter of Sargon of Akkad, a composer of religious hymns.
Sumerians often collected literary works in ancient libraries, which necessitated keeping records of the texts they acquired. This tablet lists sixty-two literary works, twenty-four of which have been discovered by archaeologists.