What are the Clay Tablets of Mesopotamia?

R. Kayne

Mesopotamia was primarily located in what is now known as Iraq.
Mesopotamia was primarily located in what is now known as Iraq.

The clay tablets of Mesopotamia, dating back as far as 3,500 B.C., were used to record the earliest writings of mankind. Mesopotamia is believed to be the birthplace of modern civilization, with the great city of Ur founded around 4,000 B.C. by the people of Sumer, a "providence" of Mesopotamia. Ur was a cultural and commercial center millennia before the rise of the Greek and Roman civilizations, and is thought to be the home of the biblical Abraham. These areas today lay in modern Iraq along the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers.

Ancient Mesopotamians wrote on clay tablets because the Egyptian method of making paper with papyrus was kept secret.
Ancient Mesopotamians wrote on clay tablets because the Egyptian method of making paper with papyrus was kept secret.

Clay tablets were made from earth and water, inscribed while wet with a stick-like stylus, then sun-baked to preserve the cuneiform markings. The clay tablets of Mesopotamia extend over a 3,000-year period, are written in several languages, and provide a fascinating window into early civilization. From administrative records to sales receipts, schoolbooks to private letters, dictionaries to astronomy, the clay tablets of Mesopotamia allow modern scholars invaluable insight into our past. The tablets even include humor, such as a discourse between a plow and hoe debating the morality of humility verses pride.

One of the most renowned and repeated stories found in the clay tablets of Mesopotamia is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which first appears sometime before 2,000 B.C. Later versions have also been recovered, the best preserved written on a series of 12 tablets from the 7th century B.C. The epic tells of the adventures of the King of Uruk, involving many mythic tales including Gilgamesh being told a story about a great flood, thought to have inspired the Biblical writers who followed.

Around 2,100 B.C. Ur was invaded and much of it destroyed. The tablets faithfully recorded many poems and laments for the once-great city, including the following:

On that day did the storm leave the city
that city was a ruin. . .
The people mourn.
Dead men, not potsherds littered the approaches,
The walls were gaping;
the high gates, the road, were piled with dead.
In the side streets, where feasting crowds
would gather,
Scattered, they lay.

In all the streets and roadways, bodies lay.
In open fields that used to fill with dancers,
they lay in heaps.
The country's blood now filled its holes,
like metal in a mold;
Bodies dissolved - like fat left in the sun.

Source: Oates J. Babylon. London: Thames and Hudson, 1986

An estimated 500,000 clay tablets survived to modern day, held in museums and private collections. However, with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 many priceless artifacts were destroyed or looted from unprotected Iraqi museums. Among the lost treasures was a collection of some 170,000 clay tablets of Mesopotamia.

As a result of this devastating loss the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI) was founded. A joint venture of UCLA and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, the CDLI, working with Assyriologists, curators and historians from around the world, intends to digitally archive pictures and translations of tablets dating from 3,350 BC forward. This digital library-in-progress is available on the Internet at the CDLI website, where one can also find a list of museums with clay tablets on public display.

Though clay tablets served as the notepads of their day, the ancient Egyptians had discovered the forerunner to paper as early as 4,000 B.C. Papyrus was made from a plant that grew along the Nile River, however, the Egyptians valued their papyrus-making secret so much, it was the one thing they never wrote down.

Ziggurats were commonly built in Mesopotamia.
Ziggurats were commonly built in Mesopotamia.

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Discussion Comments


Was Babylonia one of the first empires to get the clay tablets?


What size was an average tablet?


What does cuneiform writing look like? I have always read about how it appears, but have never seen a true example.

Does anyone know of any real examples to look at?


I remember studying the mesopotamian clay tablets in school. I found it fascinating to think about something so old that a civilization left behind. It is also amazing to think that the first written word by man has survived after all these years.

I have often wondered what it would be like to live back then. I think the school records and sales records would be very interesting and offer a good look into the lives of the Mesopotamians. I would love to see the tablets on display somewhere. If only they had a traveling museum--but I realize the tablets are so old and priceless that it would be impossible.

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