Culture / History

This is not a cookie

Cuneiform student writing

Image courtesy of The British History Museum’s Teaching History with 100 Objects project.

This is 4,000-year-old homework.

Learning to read and write was tough in 1900 BCE, yet the teaching methods and writing assignments that have survived from antiquity were surprisingly similar to what you’ll find in today’s elementary schools. They’re just in a different language: Cuneiform.

Cuneiform was created by the ancient Sumerians around 3500 to 3000 BCE. Cuneiform was written by pressing a wedge-shaped stylus into wet clay, which isn’t the most labor-intensive or technically daunting way to write. Learning how to read and reproduce the intricate vertical and horizontal wedges that formed the oldest writing system in the world took years, however. In Cuneiform: Ancient Scripts, Irving Finkel and Jonathan Taylor give a step-by-step overview of the pedagogical process in ancient Mesopotamia:

“Learning how to read and write cuneiform was a long and often painful process. Under the watchful eye of their father or uncle, the young children (usually boys) would copy, memorize and recite a long series of schoolbooks. … Young [students] practiced wedge after wedge, sign after sign, name after name, word after word.

And it all started with a clay “cookie” that served as a student’s writing tablet. They weren’t difficult to make, nor were they cumbersome to write on.

“Tablets like this fit into the palm of a hand, and were made by squashing a ball of clay between the hands or against a flat surface,” Finkel and Taylor explain. On the front, the teacher would write a simple series of sounds, a list of names, or a popular aphorism. The young student then tried to reproduce their teacher’s work on the back of the tablet.

You can see another example of ancient cuneiform homework on the British Museum’s website, this one spelling out a proverb on its front and back.

Like today’s spelling tests, the students’ tablets were ephemeral exercises that weren’t made to be preserved down through the ages. But shockingly, there are thousands of them housed in museums today. There are so many in the British Museum—home to about 130,000 cuneiform tablets and fragments in total—that you are actually allowed to touch and handle these ancient objects. Their requirements are surprisingly lax: You must be a visiting scholar (not just a tourist who wants to paw some ancient artifacts), gloves aren’t necessary, you’re advised to remove your jewelry, you can’t carry the tablets around with you, and you should probably wash your hands first.

Keep track of your old school papers, kids: Four millennia from now, scholars may want to read your “My Summer Vacation” essay.

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