Ancient Near East, Mesopotamia, Middle Babylonian Period, ca. 1595 to 1155 BCE. A trio of hand-built terracotta administrative tablets with rectangular forms, slightly-rounded peripheries, and convex faces. Each tablet exhibits multiple bands of inscribed cuneiform characters - made by impressing a sharpened reed or stick into the still wet clay just before being placed into a kiln - with the smallest bearing fifteen lines, the middle with twelve lines, and the largest with seven lines. Though untranslated, these tablets were perhaps used to catalog the movement and distribution of goods, animals, and workers, or as a receipt of payment. Cuneiform was generally a pictographic style of writing in its infancy, though it became a more abstract style of letter-based script around the 3rd millennium BCE. Size of largest (blank verso): 2.875" W x 1.75" H (7.3 cm x 4.4 cm).
These cuneiform tablets are some of the roughly 2 million known; of these, between 30,000 and 100,000 have been translated. The earliest translations came in 1836 from the work of French scholar Eugene Burnouf and, by the 1850s, multiple scholars were able to produce similar translations, meaning the language had been sufficiently and accurately deciphered. In general, cuneiform tablets seem to have been used mainly as a way of tabulating economic concerns. Although it might be more romantic to imagine that these tablets discussed the doings of kings and gods, from a historical standpoint, it is much more interesting to learn about the daily transactions of humanity's first great urban center.
Provenance: private East Coast, USA collection; ex-Richard Wagner collection, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, USA, acquired in the 1960s
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