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Museum Mondays: Dan says “blame the Sumerians”

December 16, 2012


As you finish up those lengthy final papers (and why did you take a Bill Green and a Rob LaFleur class in the same semester anyway?), it’s easy to focus your anxiety and irritation on the person who gave the assignment. But to be fair, your professors don’t deserve your scorn. If you want to lay blame for all that writing, and the sleepless nights and carpal tunnel symptoms that result, you should take it up with the Sumerians.

Writing seems to have developed in several places independently, including China and Mesoamerica, but it appears first in the “Fertile Crescent,” the land that includes modern-day Iraq where agriculture became efficient enough that farmers could grow surpluses of food. In turn, this allowed some people to concentrate full-time on activities other than raising crops and cattle. A person could now work full-time making pots or weaving cloth. Cultures like that of the Sumerians in the Fertile Crescent became more complex. Cities developed. Social stratification became more pronounced. Local and regional trade expanded. Governments became large, formal, and centralized and began to collect taxes to pay for their bureaucrats and buildings. The need for a way to keep track of who owed what and how much to whom was critical. Writing was the solution. That’s right: those 30 pages you wrote for Anthropological Research in Museums can be traced back to sales receipts and tax bills first pressed into clay tablets around 5,500 years ago.

Among the collections of the Logan Museum of Anthropology are 16 of these ancient—rather small—clay documents. They include loan records, estimates for work to be performed, and receipts for services rendered. They’re written in a system called cuneiform. Using a reed stylus with a wedge-shaped tip (the word cuneiform comes from the Latin cuneus, which means “wedge”), a scribe pressed symbols into a patty of wet clay. At first the symbols were actual drawings of specific things (pictograms). These were eventually replaced with abstract signs representing specific things (logograms), and finally they came to represent the speech sounds (phonograms) required to speak the word.

The little tablet shown here dates to the sixth year of the reign of King Shu-sin (1967 BCE) and is an estimate for the completion of some field work. A “sar” is a unit of area a little less than 20 feet square. A “man-day” is a measure of the amount of work one person could complete in one day. For example one worker might clear the weeds from 15 sar in a single day. To clear 1005 sar would take one man 67 days or 67 men a single day.

MM 121712 

The tablet reads:

1005 sar removing of weeds

at the rate of 15 sar;

wages for this purpose [amount to] 67 man-days

1500 sar removing of weeds

at the rate of 20 sar;

wages for this purpose [amount to] 75 man-days

304 sar spade work

at the rate of 2 sar;

wages for this purpose [amount to] 152 man-days

210 sar spade work

at the rate of 3 sar;

wages for this purpose [amount to] 70 man-days

Field “clean mound”

Forman: Lu-Shara

Under the authority of Lugal-thegal

Not nearly as compelling as your research paper (we hope) but a glimpse of the importance of clear, concise writing and quantitative literacy nearly 4,000 years ago.

See a few more of the Logan’s early near-east objects here.