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October 05, 2023

This 5,000-year-old stone tablet at the Penn Museum is among the oldest examples of writing in the world

The relic is believed to tell the details of a real estate deal in Mesopotamia

History Museums
Penn ancient tablet Kristin Hunt/PhillyVoice

The Penn Museum's collect of artifacts include this 5,000-year-old tablet believed to be one of the earliest examples of writing in the world. Experts say its text likely describes a land contract. Here, Philip Jones, the associate curator and keeper of collections for the Babylonian section of the museum holds tablet for display.

Stored in one of the various cabinets and cases that make up the Penn Museum archives, there's a stone tablet that's barely 3 inches on each side. It easily fits in the palm of one's hand. It's chipped in some places, scuffed in others and features etchings that are indecipherable to the modern eye. Dots are bored into the stone, seemingly at random, next to triangles and fine lines.

  • PhillyVoice peeks into the collections at different museums in the city, highlighting unique and significant items you won't typically find on display.

What makes this tablet so special? It's actually one of the earliest artifacts of writing in the entire world.

Archaeologists believe the tablet dates back to 2900-2700 BCE, during the earliest dynastic period of Mesopotamia — a time when kings were a relatively new concept. It's supposedly from the region that is modern-day Iraq and thought to be written in Sumerian, an ancient language, though as with anything this old, experts have been debating its basic details for centuries.

They believe the stone's writing outlines a real estate deal, transferring several hundred acres of property to an unknown entity, likely an institution, such as a temple. The dots are numbers, probably indicating groupings of land. But the fine print is anyone's guess.

"That's a pot of some kind," Philip Jones, associate curator and keeper of collections for the Babylonian section of the museum, said as he scanned the tablet, pointing out individual symbols. "That's the sun coming up between two mountains, which is their word for day, or their sign for the word day."

He pauses over a collection of squiggles. "That's a space alien," he said, laughing. "It's not a space alien, we have no idea what it is."

Penn Museum acquired the piece in 1896 from John Henry Haynes, an American archeologist who joined excavations of the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, the region that today includes parts of Iraq, Syria and Turkey. The tablet was likely purchased in the ancient city of Nippur, located in the Iraqi province of Al-Qadisiyah, but its true origins are unknown.

The museum has owned the artifact since before it adopted its 1970 Pennsylvania Declaration, a decision by the curatorial staff to no longer buy antiquities unless an item was accompanied by information about its previous owners, place of origin and legality of export. Eight years later, the museum banned undocumented objects acquired after 1970 altogether.

The policy was meant to curb the illegal trade of cultural artifacts, a problem so pervasive that the United Nations took similar action with the UNESCO 1970 Convention that same year, but ownership of artifacts has continued to be an ethically thorny issue for institutions like the Penn Museum. In 2021, the museum received intense criticism for retaining the remains of some victims of the 1985 MOVE bombing; a small group of protestors claimed last month that, contrary to the museum's statements, not all of the remains had been returned.

"The really unfortunate part about this (tablet) is we don't really know where it comes from," said William B. Hafford, a research associate for the museum's Near East collection. "It was bought in Nippur, but that doesn't mean it came from Nippur ... Was it found underneath the temple? Was it found on a floor? Was it in the fill, someone had thrown away or dumped? We don't know."

Although its origin in a mystery, experts have put together a few contextual clues about the tablet. Since it's etched in stone, it would've been considered an important document at the time. Stone was rare in ancient Iraq, and it was a more labor-intensive writing surface than clay, a cheaper and more plentiful material. "This is almost like having it on platinum, or maybe silver," Jones said.

Clay tablets were typically penned with a stylus made of reed, but a stone document would require more elaborate writing tools. They were usually etched with a bow drill, compromising a bit of bronze sharpened with sand or emery, a reed holding the bit in place and a stone at the top with a bowstring wrapped around it. Moving the bow would spin the reed and help it bore into the stone. It was an intricate, laborious process that often involved multiple people. As Hafford explained, a scribe would sometimes write out the contract or record on clay for a stone mason to copy. But this could lead to mistakes, as the mason might misinterpret the scribe's words, leaving typos for future generations to find.

The tablet is also a classic example of the purpose of the earliest writing: bureaucracy. Writing systems initially evolved as a means to keep records or receipts, from even earlier systems of tokens dating back to 7,000 BC. Those who could count and later write essentially controlled these records, lending them a great degree of power. Tablets were often covered with cylinder seals — essentially clay or stone envelopes — with personal insignia to identify the person who authored them, making the accountants VIPs of ancient civilizations.

"Not everyone was necessarily numerate, but the people who understood numbers, it was kind of magic in a way," Hafford said. "And then the people who start writing, they've got a certain power 'cause it takes a lot to learn this and only a certain group learns it."

Penn Museum has continued to explore ancient Mesopotamia through recent excavations of southern Iraq, which turned up an equally old tavern and 5,000-year-old fridge. During the summer, Penn archaeologists also uncovered inscribed slabs in the ruins of the Temple of Ishtar in northern Iraq — though any writing there would likely be Assyrian, not Sumerian.

"They were ingenious, just as smart as we are," Hafford said of these ancient writers. "It's just they didn't have the technology that we have today. So they pushed their envelope, they worked hard, and they made these things and they did a great job of it."

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