A Short History of Proto-Cuneiform

(from: Hans J. Nissen, Peter Damerow and Robert K. Englund, Archaic Bookkeeping [University of Chicago Press: Chicago 1993])

The earliest true script in man's history emerged at the end of the fourth millennium B.C. in ancient Babylonia, the southern part of today's Iraq. The signs of this script were impressed with the aid of a stylus into the still soft surface of clay tablets. Such clay tablets hardened almost immediately in the dry and hot climate of that part of the world. As a result of this hardening, and because such lumps of clay could not be reused, these documents from early Babylonia survived in great numbers. The early script developed into the better-known "cuneiform," the hallmark of Babylonian history and culture; hence the name "proto-cuneiform" for the archaic script, which will be the focus of this book.

Clay cones on the facade of a Late Uruk temple in Uruk

Clay cones on the facade of a Late Uruk temple in Uruk

Most of the tablets of this early phase were found during the excavations in the ancient city of Uruk in lower Babylonia, conducted by the German Archaeological Institute from 1913 up to the present day and interrupted only by the two world wars and regional conflicts. During the seasons from 1928 until 1976, nearly 5000 such tablets and fragments were unearthed, forming the basic material for a long-term research project dedicated to the decipherment and edition of these texts.

The dates and circumstances of discovery of the archaic tablets from Uruk

The most prominent archaeological site of the Late Uruk period is the ancient city of Uruk, today a vast landscape of ruins in southern Babylonia. Since early in the twentieth century, German archaeologists have been carrying out excavations at regular intervals at the site (with interruptions during the two world wars and regional conflicts), which was continuously occupied from the fifth millennium B.C. until its abandonment in the fifth century A.D.

For the time before 2000 B.C., eighteen archaic layers, counting from top to bottom, were identified within Eanna, the central, sacred precinct of the city. Those layers numbered VIII to IV were ascribed to the Late Uruk period, layer III to the Jemdet Nasr period. Layer I with its subphases dates to the Early Dynastic period (layer II turned out to have been an erroneous designation and has therefore been excluded from current terminology).

The Late Uruk Eanna district in Warka

The Late Uruk Eanna district in Warka

The extensive buildings of the Uruk III levels were erected on great terraces after the older buildings had been razed and their grounds leveled. Thus, surface pits and holes were filled with cultural waste, consisting of weathered and broken mud-bricks as well as ash, animal remains, pottery sherds, and the like. This debris had apparently been taken from large waste deposits located elsewhere, which seemingly had been left by the great storage facilities from the lower levels whenever they were cleared of refuse. In this manner, large amounts of various kinds of once sealed objects found their way into the debris. After authorized individuals had broken sealed stoppers or collars in order to gain access to the stored contents of containers, the fragmented sealings may have been kept somewhere for control purposes but then lost their purpose and were consequently disposed of.

Written documents were unquestionably treated in the same way. They served to carry out future checks on, for example, the amounts of barley delivered to a particular granary on a specified day or to keep track of the amounts of barley or beer distributed to named laborers. After a certain time had lapsed, this information was no longer useful. Consequently, the tablets were probably thrown away at regular intervals, thus landing on the refuse heaps. Judging from the distribution and concentration of tablets in various areas of Eanna unconnected to major buildings as well as from the random distribution of lexical texts, it seems clear that no contextual relationships existed between certain buildings and groups of texts.

Examples of Uruk IV (above, excavation no. W 7227,a) and Uruk III (below, no. W 14804,a)

Examples of Uruk IV (above, excavation no. W 7227,a) and Uruk III (below, no. W 14804,a)

Since the tablets had become irrelevant before they were disposed of in the rubbish dump that was used as a source of fill for surface irregularities of the large terrace below the buildings of Archaic Level III, they were obviously older than the earliest subphase of that layer. Although we are left in the dark as to their exact date or origin, we can assume that they are not older than the buildings of Archaic Level IV, since no tablets were found in the layers below them. Unfortunately, we cannot establish a stratigraphic link between the tablets and any of the three subphases "c," "b," or "a" of Archaic Level IV. In order to get a better grasp of the dates of these texts, we are thus obliged to develop new criteria based predominantly on the internal evolution of the script itself.

In short, these findings suggest that there is scarcely enough time between the oldest tablets of script phase IV and the tablets of phase III to support the existence of an intermediate period between the two. The text corpus of script phase IV, moreover, seems itself so homogeneous that one is inclined to date all its tablets to a relatively short period. It therefore seems most likely that the period of the beginning of writing is more or less contemporary with the last of the stratigraphic subphases of archaic building layer IV, that is, with level IVa. Similar observations apply to another group of tablets from the period of archaic building level III. A considerable number of these texts were found in layers of debris upon which the buildings of layer IIIa were erected. The proposed dating of these tablets to the period of the preceding layer IIIb therefore seems quite plausible.

Despite the relatively safe assignment of these tablet groups to the archaic building layers IVa and IIIb, we have been forced to abandon the habit of referring to them as tablets from the respective levels. In order to stress that the dates of the tablets were not established as the result of a direct link between them and their stratigraphic location, we modified the terminology slightly to indicate the paleographic development of the script employed in the texts. Consequently, we date the archaic tablets according to their respective evolutionary phase of script. In reference to the stratigraphic nomenclature, these have been called script phase IV and III.3Ð1.

Other archaic texts

Excavations in southern Babylonia

Excavations in southern Babylonia

The tablets from Uruk, however, are not the only archaic documents known from this period. Similar tablets have been found in the northern Babylonian site of Jemdet Nasr, and some few originate from the sites of Khafaji and Tell Uqair, likewise situated in the northern part of Babylonia. Although their number is small in comparison to the corpus from Uruk, they share a great advantage for our research efforts. Whereas all of the Uruk tablets, found in dumps where they had been discarded after they were no longer of use, were as a rule in a fragmentary state, the tablets from the other sites were often fully preserved, presenting us with their complete original information. As will be seen in the following discussion, we are faced with the problem of deciphering texts of which both script and language are unknown. Hence most arguments have to be derived from the internal context of the tablets themselves. Textual analysis thus depends on information as complete as possible.

An example from the recently acquired Erlenmeyer collection, MSVO 3, no. 1, now on permanent loan by the State of Berlin to the Vorderasiatisches Museum

An example from the recently acquired Erlenmeyer collection, MSVO 3, no. 1, now on permanent loan by the State of Berlin to the Vorderasiatisches Museum

The number of completely preserved tablets available to us has been considerably augmented recently. Toward the end of 1988, a group of 82 archaic tablets, formerly part of the Swiss Erlenmeyer Collection in Basel, was auctioned off in London. Although their existence had been known since their purchase by the Erlenmeyers in the late 1950s, these tablets had not been subjected to detailed study. Through the good offices of the Senate of Berlin, it was possible to purchase most of these tablets for our research. We wish to take this opportunity to again thank the Berlin authorities for this generous support of our work. The authorities of the British Museum (London), the Louvre (Paris) and the Metropolitan Museum (New York) joined us in our efforts to secure most of the archaic tablets of that collection for public institutions, where they remain readily accessible for further studies.

The work of the project Archaische Texte aus Uruk

A long-term interdisciplinary research project Archaische Texte aus Uruk, directed by Hans J. Nissen, a leading specialist at the Free University of Berlin in the political and economic history of early Mesopotamia, in whose research Uruk has been particularly important, is dealing with these issues. Since 1982 the Sumerologist Robert K. Englund has served as the project's main investigator, interested primarily in the development of administrative structures and accountancy in the Near East of the third millennium B.C. This project commenced in 1964, when Nissen began cataloguing and copying all archaic texts found in Uruk after the publication of a first lot by Adam Falkenstein in 1936. Including all finds of excavation campaigns through 1976, the archaic Uruk text corpus amounts to almost 5000 tablets and fragments. Since 1971, the edition and analysis of these tablets is the major research project of the Seminar of Near Eastern Archaeology of the Free University. From 1976 on, it has been supported by the German Research Association (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft [DFG]) and the Free University of Berlin, for shorter periods by the Volkswagen and Thyssen foundations.

Beginning in 1984, a close cooperation evolved with the Center for Development and Socialization of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Education, Berlin. The historian of science Peter Damerow, associate at this institute, has concentrated his efforts on the question of whether the rich material pertaining to the period of early literacy in the ancient Near East may solve problems of cognitive psychology. Damerow has been concerned with the origin of mental structures, in particular the concept of number and the possible influence of culture-specific representations of cognitive systems on the development of such structures.

This cooperation had its impact on procedures and methods of the Uruk Project. As a result of our diverse perspectives in approaching the sources, new methodological concepts have arisen. On the more practical level, this led to the intensification of the use of electronic aids, and in particular to the application of programming methods of artificial intelligence to the analyses of text transliterations and to the text-editing process. Increasingly, the traditional techniques of drawing the individual signs or entire texts were replaced by methods using computer graphics. Owing to the support of the Max Planck Institute and the computer center of the Free University of Berlin, new technological possibilities were put at the disposal of our project, leading, we believe, to new methodological solutions. More important than the technical innovations derived from our interdisciplinary cooperation were the consequences this cooperation had for the study of the contents of the archaic texts, insofar as these combined efforts are targeted to research goals beyond the philological analysis of the written material.

The decipherment of ancient written sources traditionally presents the researcher with one of three goals: the decipherment of a script, the language of which is known; the decipherment of a language when the script is known; and the decipherment in cases where neither script nor language are known but enough textual material is available that an attempt can be launched to decipher one or the other, or both. This classification enjoys only limited application in the case of the earliest form of writing in the Near East, since we know that it did not originate as a means of rendering language but as a monitoring instrument for the purpose of the administration of household economies. It is thus questionable whether or to what extent we can expect to find the traditionally close link between language and archaic script. Obviously, this limits the potential of a traditional philological approach in the form most cogently described by the eminent University of Chicago scholar Ignace Gelb in his Study of Writing (Chicago 1952).

We can only speculate to what degree social organization and ways of thinking were influenced by the beginning of literacy. This innovation was quite certainly more than a simple change in the means of storing information, or in the representation of language. Observing that at the end of the third millennium B.C., during the so-called Ur III period, the human labor force was subjected to complete administrative control made possible through the developed techniques of writing, we must realize that this level of centralization would have been impossible without the methods of information processing developed more than 1000 years earlier. Incidentally, there is more than one comparison with our timeÑwhich has witnessed the second revolution in data processingÑbecause then as now the development began with arithmetical techniques and not with a need to proliferate knowledge or linguistic communication. Yet, now as then the most dramatic effects of this revolution are felt in the processing of knowledge. Obviously such concepts involved in the study of the origin of writing are beyond the traditional realm of philology; yet it is equally obvious that any study without a solid philological background would be condemned to failure. The phenomenon of the origin of writing demands an interdisciplinary approach such as we have enjoyed in Berlin; perhaps our approach is not even diversified enough. It derives from our conviction that deciphering the archaic documents does not mean to merely translate them into a modern language, because they were not primarily meant to render language. Decipherment for us rather means the reconstruction of the social context and function of the documents, the study of the dynamics of the development of writing toward a comprehensively applicable instrument of intellectual life, and the examination of the consequences this development had for our way of thinking and our treatment of information. The early documents can thus be freed of some of their ambiguity, but also of their apparent simplicity, and so become early witnesses of the origin and the basic structures of our literate culture.

Peter Damerow, “The Origins of Writing as a Problem of Historical Epistemology”

Peter Damerow and Robert K. Englund. “Die Zahlzeichensysteme der Archaischen Texte aus Uruk”, in: M. W. Green and H. J. Nissen, Zeichenliste der Archaischen Texte aus Uruk (=ATU 2; Berlin 1987) 117-166

Peter Damerow, Robert K. Englund and Hans J. Nissen. “Die Entstehung der Schrift”, Spektrum der Wissenschaft, February 1988, 74-85 (reprinted in: J. Dittami, ed., Signale und Kommunikation. Heidelberg/Berlin/Oxford 1993, 150-161, and B. Riese, ed., Sprache und Schrift: Ein Lesebuch. Verständliche Forschung; Heidelberg/Berlin/Oxford, 1994, 90-101)

id., “Die ersten Zahldarstellungen und die Entwicklung des Zahlbegriffs”, Spektrum der Wissenschaft, March 1988, 46-55 (reprinted in: B. Riese, ed., Sprache und Schrift, 102-111)

id., “Zur rechnergestützten Bearbeitung der archaischen Texte aus Mesopotamien”, Mitteilungen der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft 121 (1989) 139-152

id., “Indrukken in Klei: Het begin van det getal”, Natuur & Techniek 59 (1991) 696-707

id., “Die Geburt der Schrift”, die waage 30 (1991) 2-7

Robert K. Englund, “Administrative Timekeeping in Ancient Mesopotamia”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 31 (1988) 121-185

id., “Archaic Dairy Metrology”, Iraq 53 (1991) 101-104

id., “Late Uruk Period Cattle and Dairy Products: Evidence from Proto-Cuneiform Sources”, in: Bulletin of Sumerian Agriculture 8/2 (Warminster, 1995) 33-48

id., “Late Uruk Pigs and Other Herded Animals”, in: U. Finkbeiner, R. Dittmann and H. Hauptmann, eds., Festschrift Boehmer (Mainz 1995) 121-133

id., “Die Erfindung der Schrift in Uruk”, in: W. Seipel and A. Wieczorek, eds., Von Babylon bis Jerusalem vol. 2 (Milan 1999) 251-254

id., “Grain Accounting Practices in Archaic Mesopotamia”, in: J. Høyrup and Peter Damerow, eds., Changing Views on Ancient Near Eastern Mathematics (=BBVO 19; Berlin, 2001) 1-35

id. “Proto-Cuneiform Account-Books and Journals”, in: M. Hudson and C. Wunsch, eds., Creating Economic Order: Record-keeping, Standardization and the Development of Accounting in the Ancient Near East (CDL Press: Bethesda, Maryland, 2004) 23-46

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