Within the main exhibit of the Museum of Biblical History in Collierville Tennessee is a small table covered by a plexiglas case, wherein lies a small, unfired clay tablet.  It is the second-oldest item in the museum, and is dated to 2,200 B.C.

Tablet 1997.2.1 as pictured in the Museum's catalogue

Tablet 1997.2.1 as pictured in the Museum’s catalogue

This small tablet, labeled as Tablet 1997.2.1, is 45 mm long, 32 mm wide, and 14 mm in depth.  It was discovered in Northern Syria, and was purchased by the museum via a trusted antiquities dealer in New York on December 10, 1997 (Turner).  The tablet has writing on both sides: however, wear on Side B has left the writing tragically illegible.  On the top edge of Side A, a partial fingerprint can also be seen as left by the tablet’s author during the writing process.

Tablet 1997.2.1 was written in the Sumerian language; a language that stands alone as the first language to find itself in written form.  The Sumerians were a group of people who settled in the region of southern Mesopotamia at some point during the fourth Millennium B.C. (Kramer, The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character 42).  The Sumerians didn’t call themselves Sumerians: they referred to themselves simply as The Black-Headed People (Jacobsen, The Eridu Genesis 513), or as Kramer translates as simply the Black-Heads (Kramer, The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character 285).  Sumer is what a later migrant group called the region of southern Mesopotamia; and so today we refer to the culture group by that name (Mark).  Sumer was not a unified nation, but a cluster of several city-states and surrounding rural-based groups in the region which shared common cultural traits.  Collectively, the Sumerian culture group was one of many “firsts.”  They were the first to develop writing, the first to build cities, the first to invent the potter’s wheel – and the list continues (Kramer, History Begins at Sumer xvii-xviii).

The first city built was Eridu, which was built ca. 5,400 B.C. (Mieroop 16).  The years that followed are today known as the Ubaid Period, named after the most prominent city-state’s cultural influence of the period (Mieroop 15).  By ca. 4,000 B.C., the Ubaid cultural influence had waned to give rise to the influence of the city of Uruk, and then to Jemdet-Nasr.  By ca. 2,900 B.C., local kings of various city-states gained power and began to war with each other during the Early Dynastic Period, until Sargon the Great seized power of the entire region, forming the Akkadian Empire in 2,334 B.C. (Mieroop 41-42, 63).  His empire lasted until 2,193 B.C., when it was overrun by the Gutians (Mieroop 70-71).

Tablet 1997.2.1, which is dated to 2,200 B.C., was made during the reign of either the famous Naram-Sin (2,254 – 2,218), or Sharkalisharri (2,217 – 2,193); or possibly during the intermediate period before the beginning of the reign of Gudea (2,144).  In any case, it was written during a time of uncertainty and political turmoil which saw the downfall of the Akkadian Empire to the Gutians.  Thus, we can say with some certainty that the author at least had at some point in his life observed the downfall of the Empire, experiencing the effects of it once its consequences rippled into northern Syria.

The tablet itself speaks nothing of this incident, as it was not designed to do so.  Dr. David Musgrave of Amridge University has been given to the task of translation for the past year, working with pictures of the tablet, as well as his own notes taken during his visit to the Museum of Biblical History on July 14, 2015.  Tablet 1997.2.1 is simply an administrative text, describing what appears to be a list of commodities (Musgrave).  Because of the general wear on the tablet, translation has proven to be rather difficult; and so it is difficult to comment with any certainty as to the exact nature of the record.  So far, he has identified the words še or its Akkadian cognate ipru (“barley rations”), udu (“sheep”), the word for “male,” and the numerical value of “one” inserted at the beginning of each line, all on Side A (Musgrave).

Tablet 1997.2.1 represents a relatively early form of writing that was only roughly a millennium old by this point in human history.  The script is an Archaic Cuneiform, which is pictographic – and it is Sumerian language.  There are also clues that suggest the author’s native primary language may have been Akkadian (Musgrave).

Writing began in Sumer in the form of tokens, which were used to produce a symbolic representation of business transactions and other administrative records.  The tokens were made of clay, and each set of tokens represented a specific type of commodity or service to be rendered.  The tokens were then rolled in a clay bulla for presentation (Schmandt-Besserat).  Eventually, the tokens were replaced with clay tablets, on which the author would use a pointed stylus to draw pictographs using similar symbols to the tokens to represent items.  Then the pointed stylus was replaced with the tapered edge of a reed stylus, which was used to make the wedge-shaped signs which we now call Cuneiform (Kramer, The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character 302-304).

Tablet 1997.2.1 has a particularly interesting feature which can be used to demonstrate the transition between the use of tokens and the inscription on clay tablets.  On Line 5 of Side A, there is a particular sign used which is a Sumerian logogram which represents še, or “barley rations” (Musgrave).  The same symbol was used on tokens to represent še.

Close-up of Tablet 1997.2.1, highlighting the sign for "še"

Close-up of Tablet 1997.2.1, highlighting the sign for “še”

According to Denise Schmandt-Besserat of the University of Texas, tokens such as that which represented še were eventually used in two-dimensional signs in the form of writing.  As she herself wrote:

Writing meant three extraordinary developments in abstraction that occurred in close succession, probably within the century between 3100-3000 BC. These abstractions concerned the creation of 1) two-dimensional signs, 2) abstract numerals and 3) phonetic signs. The magnitude of these strides in the mastery of abstraction can be realized by comparing and contrasting the degree of abstraction between tokens and writing (Schmandt-Besserat).

Tablet 1997.2.1 showcases an excellent example of this progression from the token’s abstraction of barley into a pictographic representation in Archaic Cuneiform; and therefore can be used as an educational tool to demonstrate the evolution of writing in the Ancient Near East.

Additionally, Tablet 1997.2.1 can be used as a tool to demonstrate the

Grains of barley (left), the Museum's reproduction of a token representing barley (center), and the close-up of Tablet 1997.2.1 (right) Image Credit (left): (Hays)

Grains of barley (left), the Museum’s reproduction of a token representing barley (center), and the close-up of Tablet 1997.2.1 (right)
Image Credit (left): (Hays)

process of tablet making and cuneiform writing.  Already, this has been taken advantage of by the Museum of Biblical History.  An activity is there offered by the name of Ancient Words, where visiting groups can learn to make their own clay tablet, and transliterate their name in a cuneiform script which uses the Ugaritic “alphabet.”

A tablet is made by taking a given amount of clay and forming it into the desired shape by hand.  Once the desired shape has been achieved, the author wets the tip of their finger, and smooths the surface of the clay with their hand to relieve the tablet of any cracks that can damage the tablet during the drying process, as is spoken of in the Sumerian myth Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta (Jacobsen, Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta 548).  According to the Messerschmidt technique, the stylus was made by splitting a reed stalk longitudinally and then again splitting the resulting section in half lengthwise (Cammarosano 66).  The stylus is then impressed into the clay at various angles and directions to make the various signs.  As Irving Finkel of the British Museum pointed out, there are three basic impressions used in cuneiform: the application of the tip of the stylus at a wide angle makes a simple triangle.  The lowering of the back of the stylus in this position presses the spine of the stylus into the clay, making a tail.  and the impression of the corner of the stylus at a different angle produces a wide diagonal wedge.  The tablet was usually unfired; but instead left to dry in the sun (Finkel 19-20), as was Tablet 1997.2.1.


Messerschidt’s stylus making technique (left), and one of the Museum’s bamboo styli made according to Messerschmidt’s technique (right) Image Credit (left): (Cammarosano 66)

In the activity Ancient Words, the Museum of Biblical History uses the Messerschmidt stylus; but uses bamboo rather than reed because of ease of access, and uses a natural clay for the tablet.  The activity begins with a lesson on the origins and historic and Biblical importance of writing, and uses Tablet 1997.2.1 as a visual example.  The group is then given the needed materials, along with a sheet depicting the Ugaritic “alphabet” with the corresponding English alphabet in a convenient chart, and the group is then briefly instructed how to transliterate their names into Ugaritic Cuneiform.

Finally, Tablet 1997.2.1 also carries a significance in terms of its Biblical connection, in accordance with the objectives of the Museum of Biblical History in several factors.  First, the multiple connections that can be made between the concepts of Cuneiform writing and the Biblical concept of the written Word of God can be demonstrated through the tablet.  For example, the concept of word as the physical embodiment of an abstract concept can be easily visualized using the instruction of Cuneiform writing with the aid of Tablet 1997.2.1.  The methods used by God and by Christ to communicate abstract concepts (for example, Christ’s use of parables) can also be practically demonstrated in an easy-to-understand way through Cuneiform’s instruction.  Second, the historical and cultural connections which can be drawn between Tablet 1997.2.1 and the Biblical patriarch Abraham, who lived in Ur (a Sumerian city), are invaluable to the Museum.

The significance of Tablet 1997.2.1 is therefore demonstrated in its historical, cultural, Biblical, and instructional applications used by the Museum of Biblical History.  Its origin being within the temporal range of the fall of the Akkadian Empire, its linguistic value, its demonstration of the evolution of writing, its application into the instruction on multiple facets in the museum, and its Biblical connections make Tablet 1997.2.1 an invaluable asset.




Works Cited

Cammarosano, Michele. “The Cuneiform Stylus.” Mesopotamia XLIX (2014): 53-91. Print.

Finkel, Irving. The Ark Before Noah. New York: Doubleday, 2014. Print.

Hays, Jeffrey. “Agriculture, Crops, Irrigation In Mesopotamia.” 2013. Facts and Details. Web. 22 Sept. 2016.

Jacobsen, Thorkild. “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta.” Hallo, William W. The Context of Scripture. Leiden: Brill, 2003. 547-550.

Jacobsen, Thorkild. “The Eridu Genesis.” Hallo, William W. The Context of Scripture. Vol. I. Leiden: Brill, 2003. 513-515. Print.

Kramer, Samuel Noah. History Begins at Sumer. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959.

—. The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1964. Print.

Mark, Joshua J. “Sumer.” 28 April 2011. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Web. 19 September 2016.

Mieroop, Marc Van de. A History of the Ancient Near East. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.

Musgrave, David. “A Little Something.” 22 April 2016. Received by Steven Turner. Email (unpublished).

Schmandt-Besserat, Denise. “Tokens and Writing: The Cognitive Development.” 26 May 2014. Denise Schmandt-Besserat . Web. 18 September 2016.

Turner, Steven. “1997.2.1 – Sumerian Tablet.” Museum of Biblical HIstory Catalog. Unpublished Catalog Form, 23 December 2014. Print.