Tag Archives: cuneiform


The word “hieroglyph” translates to “sacred writing.” If you’re like me, your first attempts to learn writing were probably not very sacred at all. Tongue pressed to the corner of my mouth, eyes staring fixedly at the paper flat in front of me, my hand going anywhere but where I wanted it to, writing was a burden. I soon grew to love it though, not realizing it was changing my brain even as I was assimilating how to do it. Anne Trubek introduces quite a few new angles to the story in The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting. She begins at the beginning, cuneiform, not hieroglyphics, and offers a brief sketch of how handwriting developed into the phenomenon we know today. And how it is now becoming something very different than what it once was.

Trubek’s book is full of delightful surprises about the development of scripts and the technologies that attend them. Like most non-specialists in cuneiform suppose, she suggests handwriting is basically anonymous therein. In fact, it’s not. Molding clay into a smartphone-shaped tablet doesn’t seem like technology, but the process of writing took a leap forward when someone figured out how to do this. Those who work with cuneiform can learn to identify handwriting. In the Ugaritic corpus, the tablets “signed” by Ilimilku can be distinguished from those written by others, and not just by his name. Technology has been devised to measure depth and order of stylus strokes in the clay, the angle the stylus was held, and many other seemingly insignificant features. Handwriting was present from the very beginning.

Perhaps what is most striking about Trubek’s study is how religion enters the discussion at almost every stage. Very early on writing was identified as a sacred activity. This continued through the middle ages when monks were those who performed writing as part of their non-secular duties. Even those who piloted penmanship in the modern period often noted that a person’s moral, Christian disposition could be measured by how said person made their letters. Writing, as those who do it for a good while know, becomes a sacred activity. Most world religions have holy books. Many of those books were the reason for an interest in literacy in several cultures. Even a surprising number of secular writers have understood the activity to have spiritual dimensions. Trubek’s book gives bibliophiles plenty to ponder. She doesn’t see the rise of keyboarding as a threat to writing because even in the computer age, individuality comes through. And for those who truly understand hieroglyphs, all writing is sacred.

On Practicalities

In a world where a metaphorical ton of money may be made by corralling electrons into specific shapes on an LCD screen, it may be easy to think of learning dead languages as a kind of autoerotic mental enterprise. Who has the time for clay-writing anymore? We have “money” (that we never see) to “make” at the click of a mouse. Although honestly, who uses a mouse anymore? So it was strangely gratifying to see Aviya Kushner’s article “Why Dead Languages Like Akkadian Still Matter” on Forward. Unlike Kushner, I didn’t grow up with exotic dead languages. Not even Hebrew. We took our Holy Bible neat. King James, of course. In English, just like God meant it to be. When I’d read every English translation available in my small town, I began to wonder about the original languages. I taught myself the Greek alphabet before going to college, but even at Grove City I couldn’t find any faculty willing to teach Hebrew. There was obviously something mysterious here.

Hebrew, generally printed in a calligraphic font, is difficult to teach oneself. Once I began, however, I had to learn what came before. That alien, runic Phoenician script fascinated me. Cuneiform even more so. I spent my graduate years pondering over Ugaritic, learning as much Akkadian as I could along the way. Then I realized Sumerian might take me even further back in history, but it was time to get a job. Earn a living. Make some money. Or at least some electrons.


As Kushner shows, however, these ancient languages tell us how we got here. Those who earned their own day’s equivalents of millions of electrons used to spend their excess wealth on ancient clay tablets. I’ve seen them in private collections in various parts of the world—they seem to validate those who can’t even read them. Artifacts can be status symbols. Having spent years learning the finer nuances of Ugaritic, I eventually had to put my interest into my own personal museum. Universities—the only places that can afford to offer doctoral programs in impracticalities for the unwary—are the sole bastions of employment where cuneiform might come in handy. The irony is that many scholars have to travel to private collections to examine a tablet that some entrepreneur has purchased, but can’t read. Its meaning is lost to the world, but it is valued for it’s power to confer status on its owner. Those who might be able to read the thing, unless they are very lucky, will be out chasing electrons in the hopes of paying the rent. What could be more practical than that?

Ancient Tech

I feel like scraping Roman numerals on the wall of my cave with a sharp rock. One for each day I have to spend without my laptop. I’ve been working on this blog, born in this very cabin in which I sit, for six years now. With some exceptions, I’ve posted something new (and, I hope, thoughtful) every day. Even holidays and weekends. Most of those posts have been written on the deceased laptop that’s sitting in my carryon, electronic carrion. This has caused me to stop and consider that the most lasting words—the ones we all quote or at least recognize—tend to come from a far older form of communication technology: the pen and paper. Of course, there are older technologies yet. The Sumerians figured out that clay of the right consistency keeps marks made by a pointed reed pressed into it while it was still damp. Cuneiform writing lasted for millennia as the most advanced technology humanity had devised. The results, however, were bulky, heavy, and fragile. Few could learn the technique. It was an elite skill.

Nobody quotes the Sumerians anymore. Well, maybe the occasional quip from Gilgamesh will work its way to memory, but not much else readily does. The Bible, perhaps the most quoted book of all time, at least in western culture, wasn’t written on clay. By the time the earliest books of the Bible came along, scrolls had been developed. Probably suggesting itself from the way that papyrus naturally rolled up, this early form of paper—indeed, the word “papyrus” gives us our word “paper”—could be marked up with styluses or brushes and ink. Prepared animal skills, or parchment, sometimes called vellum, could also be used, but they were expensive. Pens at this period were sharpened objects dipped into ink, but the most famous words, well, penned by humankind were passed down in that medium. Copied, recopied, memorized. Electricity hadn’t even been discovered yet.


Printing presses and their children—typewriters and the consequent qwerty—have led the way since they were invented. Until, however, the 1980s at least, professors would accept only the old fashioned manuscript for papers. Indeed, the medium had given its name to the end result. We still write academic papers, although they are more often published and read electronically. So here I find myself in a cabin on a beautiful lake, surrounded by nature, worried about a communication device that can speak with the stars. There may not be workable clay here—the soil is far too sandy and I don’t have the patience to look up how to make clay on my phone—but there is paper. Pens are scattered everywhere. I am at home in the matrix that has given us the great ideas of humankind.


It was an object of wonder. Handed to me as a child, the Bible inspired a kind of awe reserved for the big events of a young life. Here were the very words of God, in King James English, for me to read, mark, and inwardly digest. Well, at least read. And read I did, as only the fear of Hell is able to motivate an impressionable psyche. When a parish minister saw the trajectory of my life, he suggested exploring the ministry. More Bible reading ensued. With only Halley’s Bible Handbook as a guide, interpretation was largely a matter of what the minister said, and the kind of primitive reason that resides in a teenager’s head. I made it through college as a religion major without ever hearing about Mesopotamia’s influence on the Bible. Once I did hear, in seminary, it was clear to me that to get to the truth, you had to go back beyond the first page. Mesopotamia was only part of the story. The Bible was a book compiled in a region where other religions shared concepts, deities, and stories with the Israelites. While unique in some respects, it turns out the Bible wasn’t as unique as I’d been led to believe.

Mesopotamia, vying with Egypt, was the true cradle of the civilization that gave rise to who we are in the western world. Perhaps in the eastern hemisphere as well. The great cities of Sumer, and later Babylonia and Assyria, yielded cuneiform tablets and other artifacts that insisted we widen our view of antiquity. The heirs of this tradition developed Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three monotheistic religions have bred sects that despise this ancient past with its uncomfortable truths, and thus we hear of IS destroying the evidence with abandon. The years of my life spent studying these cultures disappears so quickly under the bulldozer’s blade. For all this, it is IS that is the passing fancy. You can’t destroy the truth. You can damage it, however, to the detriment of everyone.


Political regimes, and not just in the Middle East, operate with an unbecoming arrogance when they believe in their own self-righteousness. Were it not for those who wondered what these wedges on clay meant, we might still have to reckon (more seriously than we already have to do) with those who insist that it’s the Bible way or the highway. Unfortunately, it often takes disasters such as this wanton destruction of the past to wake the media from its lethargy concerning the cultures that gave our religions birth. There’s so much more to distract. The world can’t make up its mind about the color of a dress, and meanwhile those backed with a justification of true belief destroy that which can never be replaced. Given the rhetoric of political leaders even here, I suspect that our past is no longer safe, no matter where we house the artifacts bearing witness to the truth.

Cuneiform Lover

I’m busy. Too busy most of the time. You see, I used to be able to keep my mental files neatly in order. Recall was swift and efficient. I suppose that was back when I was doing the job for which I’d been preparing my entire life. Then a midlife, unexpected career change shifted things a bit. That mental file that you always kept here has now been shunted over to there. I suppose I always knew this was coming, and that’s why I started writing things down. Of course, this led to stacks of papers and a whole series of notebooks that follow varying forms of logic. “Commonplace books” as they used to be called. Then computers. I never used a computer until after my master’s degree. My wife showed me how. And then writing ideas down became pretty easy—who could ever afford more than one personal computer? And since they were as heavy as a small television (cathode-ray tube variety, of course), you always knew where you’d find it. Then laptops. iPads. iPhones. Something called “the Cloud.” A computer on my person at all times and I still can’t find that ruddy file, and has anybody seen my phone?

I wrote an important (for me) paper back in 2012. Just two years ago. I remembered vividly typing it on my laptop, working on it for weeks. Recently I wondered where I put it. I searched my laptop. Not there. I must have backed it up. Checked my backup files, on CD. Not there. Where did I put the thing? Although a Luddite at heart, I don’t delete old files. Please, tell me I didn’t do something like back it up on a floppy disk! I can barely remember when we used those. No, no, it was much more recent than that. Was it on this laptop or the one before? Maybe I stored it on the hard disk of the antiquated one. When you get a new computer (or at least when I do) it is such a rare occasion that you don’t bother backing up every single little loose file on your old machine—there’s too much shiny new stuff to admire. But the file wasn’t there. Finally I attached a terabyte backup, admittedly overkill for someone of my limited mental ability, and searched. Although the icon said it was on the terabyte drive, the file was actually on the Cloud, and since I hadn’t updated my software in a while, I was denied access.

I learned to write with fallible pencil on cheap, lined tablet paper. Back when tablets were paper. Our ancient ancestors started the process by writing on clay. For some five thousand years this pressing stylus unto substrate method worked fine. All of scared writ was scrivener-mediated that way. When computers were new you stored your files on floppies. At least you knew where they were. Now dialogue boxes ask me questions in a language more obscure than Sumerian and quickly shuttle my files off to I-don’t-know-where, assuring me that I’ll be able to get them back. Honestly. As long as I remember to upgrade my system, which will, of course, require periodic outlays of substantial sums of money. You can choose not to pay, but your documents are with us. I’ve still got some clay here, and a sharpened flint taken to a twig will make a stylus, old school. And clay tablets have been known to last for millennia.


Don’t Need No Righting

“If you can read this, thank a teacher.” So the old saying goes. Besides the virtue of venerable age, this proverb has the added advantage of being true. When I first peered at a page full of complex combinations of minute, triangular wedge-marks and was told I’d learn how to read them, I needed to head outside for a few gulps of cold air. My first attempt at Akkadian was doomed to failure, but eventually I learned to read cuneiform through the gateway language of Ugaritic. After that the bewildering sprawl of Mesopotamian languages didn’t seem so threatening. I don’t exactly remember when I was first exposed to English cursive in the classroom, but I do recall that same breathless fear of the unknown. The language I’d learned to print out neatly all seemed to be melting into curly figures that looked remarkably alike. How would anyone ever be able to read this?

According to a story in Sunday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger, schools are moving away from teaching cursive. Beginning next year 46 states will no longer require it. Beyond that, some politicians are questioning why teachers should be wasting their time instructing students in printing, or even keyboarding. The gold standard they are worried about is identity. Can you sign your name (to endorse this campaign check)? If we have another way of identifying you—eyeball scans seem to be very popular suggestion—why should you bother to scrawl your name? Keyboarding, well, kids already know that by the time they start school these days. If the texting craze really takes off we may evolve future generations with just thumbs. School is for teaching students science, math, business—practical stuff. Oh yes, and intelligent design. (Got to keep the gods, or anthropic principles, happy.)

In a world where languages are dying out at a disturbing rate (each language is a thought process as well as a way of stringing sounds together), we have become very cavalier about the very innovation that has allowed us to develop as we have. I used to tell my students that less than seventy years separated the Wright brothers from the moon landing. A human lifespan where technology outstripped our ability to think. And the pace has only accelerated since then. Are we premature in leaving out cursive from the curriculum? There is coming a day when future archaeologists will discover a strange substance that seems to have been manufactured from wood pulp. On it they will find scrawls with loops and curls that form a pleasing pattern in the repetition, but from which no intent can be discerned. And if they are like modern technocrats, they will quickly realize the utility of the wood pulp for starting a fire.

What's it say?

Illusions of Permanence

Blogging about the ancient world presents idiosyncratic problems. Quite apart from the fact that few readers show much interest in the shadowy ages of antiquity when new tunes and flicks are available to download just mouse-clicks away, the worldview of ancient people is difficult to comprehend. Most people before the common era probably focused their energies on their crops and beasts, hoping to survive for as long as possible in a subsistence world. I’m sure they would have appreciated an i-pod as they were out plowing or were at home weaving and cooking, but theirs was a solid, practical world where reality could be brutally felt.

Fast-forward to our day. I can’t teach a class of undergraduates without noticing their constant attention to their electronic arsenals forever at hand. Cell-phones, i-pods, laptops, and god-knows what-else making as much buzzing and chirping noise as a meadow in springtime. This constant interruption is what Linda Stone has coined “continuous partial attention.” Kids are raised to juggle many sources of input or stimulation at one time, an activity that befuddles those of us raised when television was black-and-white and telephones were heavy devices solidly settled in one place. The disconnect is palpable.

I read in Wired magazine some years back a whimsical analysis of data storage. A chart indicated the most reliable means of keeping data over long periods. Electronic media suffers from rapidly increasing technology (does anyone have a 5-and-a-quarter inch floppy drive I can borrow?) as well as the transience of the media itself (electrons marching in order). On the top of Wired’s chart for durability was the humble clay tablet with a period of about 5000 years. I chuckled at the chart, but deep in my psyche I know that a major power-outage, or a catastrophically failing server could plunge my electronic compositions and data into oblivion. We have so much information out there, but what happens if it flies away in the tale of an errant comet? My suggestion to the younger generation is to learn cuneiform. It may take a few years, but as a storage solution it is rock-solid.

The original hard copy