Cuneiform goes to school
“In the beginning there was the wedge.” This is what school children in Mesopotamia learned on their first day of school more than 4000 years ago. The school was then called the Edubba, literally the “House of tablets.” They did not learn the letters of the alphabet, as we do today, but the different signs that represent words or syllables and make up what we call today “cuneiform.” We describe this writing system with the modern term cuneiform, derived from Latin, which literally means “shaped like a wedge,” because the signs look like they are made up of wedges.
But before they could start writing, students had to prepare their writing materials first: they had to form moist clay into round, flat discs, and cut a piece of reed into a stylus. The discs, also called tablets, were about the size of the palm of your hand. Students held the tablets in their left hands and took the stylus into their right hands. By lightly pressing the stylus into the moist clay, they were able to “write” vertical, horizontal, and slanted wedges that make up the signs. First the teacher would write a word into the clay, then the student would try to copy it. But, alas, the stylus perforates the tablet, the small hand squeezes the clay too hard, and so some of the tablets ended up in the recycling bin!
Just like 5000 years ago, students of the eighth grade of the Goethe-Gymnasium high school are learning to “write wedges” at the Institute of Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the Freie Universität Berlin. The project Edubba connects the past with the present at a place where the history, culture, and languages of the ancient Near East are taught. Scholars and students will be able to study together the small and, at first sight unimpressive, pieces of clay, which allow us insights into the long-lost civilizations of the rivers Euphrates and Tigris.
After a general introduction the fun begins! We hand out cuneiform tablets and students immediately begin asking questions: where’s the top? Where’s the bottom? Were the ancients able to read this? How long does it take to write a tablet? What happens if you make a mistake? Are there books made of clay tablets? In class we encourage students to first find their own answers to these questions by experimenting with the materials.
The “cuneiform-apprentices” will use clay, reed, and sign lists to learn how to write their own names in cuneiform. Both the writing material and the script itself are difficult to get used to. It is too tempting to not draw the sign properly. Most of the time only a few hints are necessary to point students in the right direction: hold the stylus level, tilt it lightly to press it into the clay, and remove it softly, keep your hand steady and slightly turn the tablet in your left hand: this is how one makes wedges that look exactly like they were written 4000 years ago! But not only the writing system itself is alien to us, also the syllables make writing modern languages with cuneiform script difficult. Several phonemes that are common in our languages did not exist in Sumerian or Akkadian, for example the letters f, o, or x. Also consonantal clusters are like -st- or -rnd- are difficult, if not impossible to represent in cuneiform. What about the name Mark, for example? The junior scribes can experiment and find solutions to problems, which will test even the most experienced cuneiform scholar.
Our program is adaptable depending on which grades the school children are in. Thus far we introduced students from grades 3-4, 5-6, and 8 to cuneiform. While for the youngest focus on uncovering the secrets of this alien script, the older students have found out to their delight that cuneiform script does not distinguish between capital and lower case letters, and that there is no system of punctuation. They discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the various kinds of script and then focus on the key issue of script as a representation of spoken language. The advanced classes will move on to discuss questions that a historian would ask: who could write and read? Who was allowed to go to school? Who was able to afford this? What career paths were open to educated scribes?
Through this process students begin to familiarize themselves with important issues of cultural history. The topic of the invention and development of writing systems offers an especially good opportunity to introduce local schools to the institutions of higher educations such as the Freie Universität Berlin. Students will gain insights into the various possibilities of writing systems and develop new perspectives on matters they otherwise think are self-evident.
Unfortunately, the history and culture of ancient Mesopotamia is a neglected topic in the K-12 school curriculum in Berlin. Now Edubba offers a new opportunity to disseminate knowledge of this long-forgotten civilization. Edubba’s motto “Knowledge through Practice” brings students into direct contact with scholars and allows them to gain first-hand experience with the methods and topics of scholarly research. We place special emphasis on communicating the relationship between the materials studied and its interpretation by scholars, that is theory and practice.
Edubba is organized according to several “units,” which we call “Modules.” These units may be combined according to interest. The basic unit is called “Writing Cuneiform” and can be combined with other units. For example, students who participate in the mathematical unit “1 x 6 no zero” will learn the mathematical notation system of cuneiform. The sexagesimal system is very convenient, now one finally understands why the day has 24 hours, why the number “zero” is a great idea but not essential, among other things. The unit “Images and Letters” offers insights into the development of script from pictorial to alphabetic representations. And the unit “Where can we find tablets?” will provide an opportunity to learn about real excavations. Archaeologists digging in Tell Sheikh Hamad (Syria) will show the students a burned library, a large house (c. 6000 m2), and provide insights into everyday life of a Mesopotamian city more than 3000 years ago. For those who are still more curious, the collections of the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin offer one of the best exhibits of Mespotamian culture in the world. There the materials from the German excavations of the famous ancient cities of Assur, Babylon, and Uruk are on display, among others the famous Ishtar gate from the city of Babylon.
Institut für Altorientalistik