Tales Told 3000 Years On

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Cuneiform tablets from the Otago Museum collection.

Ancient inscriptions at Otago Museum are giving up their secrets, writes Moira White.

Cuneiform is an early writing system that was used by speakers of Assyrian, Hittite, Akkadian and other languages more than 3000 years ago. The name comes from the wedge-like shape of the individual marks made by the scribe’s stylus in soft clay.

Otago Museum is privileged to care for perhaps the largest collection of cuneiform inscriptions in the southern hemisphere. This is primarily due to the generosity and interest of  Dunedin-born doctor Lindsay Rogers (1901-1962). During his years as professor of surgery at the University of Baghdad after World War 2, Rogers acquired and donated the majority of these cuneiform tablets.

More than half a century later, we are learning what the writers of the individual inscriptions were saying, literally. This has come about through the Cuneiform in Australia and New Zealand (Canz)  project, which aims to translate and publish all known Australasian cuneiform material. Assyriologist Prof Wayne Horowitz, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem — the project’s leader — and other team members have visited Otago Museum several times over the past four years to work on the collection.

Most of the museum’s cuneiform inscriptions are administrative texts such as tablets recording transactions of livestock, but some are more unusual. There is a student’s multiplication problem, which translates as 37 x 37  = 1406. Prof Horowitz describes it as a typical round school tablet used by young children for exercises in class. He says, "Babylonian mathematical lessons were different than our own. The question and answer to the problem is presented in well-written signs on the upper right quarter. This may have been written by the teacher. The poorly written signs scattered elsewhere may show the student’s attempt to reach the teacher’s answer on his own."

Two inscriptions relate to Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Babylon (604BC-562BC); a name well-known to scholars of the Old Testament. Another, much rarer, royal inscription relates to the less well-known Kassite king, Hasmar-Galsu, a ruler of the city of Nippur in the 15th century BC.

Cuneiforms have inspired not only scholars and linguists. Steve Feigenbaum, the founder of the Washington DC music label, Cuneiform Records, says, "Cuneiform ... was a radical innovation in the ancient world. Unlike pictorial languages, it was phonetic and semantic and thus capable of expressing abstract concepts. Music is recorded information, and we wanted our label to record radically innovative music. So, naming the label after cuneiform seemed fitting."

A quick and fun way to engage with cuneiform is the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s "Write like a Babylonian" web page, where you can see what your monogram would look like written in cuneiform.

- Moira White is curator, humanities at Otago Museum.

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