Made with academic consultant Dr Rodrigo Hernaiz-Gomez, Lecturer in Languages and Linguistics, The Open University
DR CHRISTINA TSOUPAROPOULOU, Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge: Holding a tablet that was written thousands of years ago and being able to read what it says is an amazing feeling.
DR IRVING FINKEL, Curator, Department of the Middle East, British Museum: If you see a cuneiform tablet for the first time you’re not likely to identify it as writing and you certainly wouldn’t know which way up it went.
DR SELENA WISNOM, Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester: It’s a form of time travel – it catapults you back in time, thousands of years and puts you directly into the shoes of somebody who lived so many years before us.
CAPTION: Four incredible secrets uncovered when ancient tablets were deciphered Made in partnership with the Open University
NARRATOR: The earliest known form of writing is called cuneiform. First used over 5000 years ago it’s believed to predate Egyptian hieroglyphs. Cuneiform was used by civilisations that lived in Mesopatamia. Several societies used cuneiform as their writing system including the Sumerians and the Akkadians. Pressed onto clay, cuneiform tablets are incredibly durable, they’re literally fireproof, but for thousands of years, no one was able to translate them. After much trial and error, cuneiform script was finally deciphered in the Victorian era. What they revealed was extraordinary.
DR IRVING FINKEL: Once cuneiform was deciphered lots of unexpected things came to light but probably none which had greater impact than the discovery by George Smith in 1872 of the 11th tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh in which he encountered for the first time, the flood story.
CAPTION: (One) The story of Noah’s Ark predates the bible
NARRATOR: Finding an ancient tablet with the story of Noah’s Ark written hundreds of years before the Bible…
CAPTION: Make all living beings go up into the boat. The boat which you are to build.
NARRATOR: …shattered the Victorian’s understanding of the world.
DR IRVING FINKEL: When it arrived, it was a huge… …bang, thing like that. It was a very explosive matter. And the parallel was much more than a sort of, general similarity with a boat and water and animals. It was in the same order and there were many close points that compellingly showed that this same story had been current in Mesopotamia a millennium before the earliest date when the Hebrew text is likely to have come into existence.
CAPTION: (Two) The first known author in history was a woman
NARRATOR: It wasn’t easy being a woman in Mesopotamia but women in wealthy families were treated fairly well. The first known author in all of recorded history is actually a woman. The Akkadian priestess, Enheduanna.
DR SELENA WISNOM: The case of Enheduanna shows us that women could reach extremely high and important positions in Mesopotamian religion.
DR CHRISTINA TSOUPAROPOULOU: We learn a lot about society, about beliefs relations between husband and wife business transactions going wrong. We know from cuneiform tablets that women had agency. We have contracts where they are allowed to buy houses and they retain control of their dowry. They can run and manage businesses in their own right as long as alongside their husbands.
CAPTION: (Three) We count time in an ancient way
NARRATOR: If you’ve ever wondered why there’s 60 seconds in a minute or 360 degrees in a circle it’s because the Sumerians and Akkadians used a numbering system that was sexagesimal.
DR IRVING FINKEL: Which means that they counted on a base of 60 and divisions of 60 and multiplications by 60 where we tend to use the decimal system. Our own time measurement into 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour is a direct inheritance from Mesopotamian scholarly tradition.
DR SELENA WISNOM: It’s amazing how many concepts we take for granted in our modern society can actually be found for the first time in ancient Mesopotamia. The whole concept of mathematical models the very idea that you can use data to predict things happening in the future and that’s foundational to all modern science.
CAPTION: (Four) They wrote letters like we write emails
NARRATOR: The Mesopotamians were keen letter writers sending sealed messages with traders and travellers. Reading these letters today, you realise that in many ways, not much has changed.
DR CHRISTINA TSOUPAROPOULOU: We can see that there were specific formulae in their correspondence. As we start an email today by “I hope all is well” they also started with specific formulae. But when they were angry they forgot about this formulaic convention and they just started the letter very matter-of-factly.
CAPTION: tracking the distribution of barley NARRATOR: As well as writing about stock levels, taxes and receipts on their tablets cuneiform writers loved to gossip.
DR SELENA WISNOM: We do have letters from these women complaining that the men are not sending enough money home. We have a certain sense of keeping up with the Joneses saying “next door has built an extension to their house, when are we going to have the money to build an extension to our house?” So these kind of things really do come through and we see these little human concerns these little human squabbles desires, jealousies and so on.
CAPTION: Is it time to get more cuneiform?
NARRATOR: By studying the past we learn so much about ourselves and the world that we live in. But the secrets revealed in cuneiform tablets are only known to us today because of clay’s durability. The way that we record things is constantly evolving. Technological progress means things become obsolete very quickly. The messages we send every day are stored in the cloud. How likely is it that anyone will be able to read that in 20 years let alone a few thousand years?
DR SELENA WISNOM: There is a project in Austria which is inscribing 1000 of the most important books of our era onto ceramic tablets. So humanity has really come full circle from writing on clay at the very beginning of history to writing on clay again in a different way to preserve our information now.
NARRATOR: There are many initiatives trying to prevent digital data from being lost. Could it be that despite all the incredible technology we have at our fingertips ancient methods of recording information are the best way of preserving our secrets for generations to come.