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Mesopotamia: civilization, language, script, cylinder seals and clay tablets

Next (Seals from Ur, Mesopotamia)

See weapons, implements etc. made by fire-workers of Sarasvati-Sindhu

Let us proceed from the known to the unknown. Assyriology has provided clues as to the purposes served by cylinder seals and clay tablets used in Mesopotamia, ca. 3rd millennium B.C. 

There is evidence of a substrate language of anient Sumer; this language could be located in India in the contemporaneous Sarasvati-Sindhu civilization ca. 2500 B.C.

Many cylinder seals were used in trading moveable property items of the Mesopotamian civilization. [Note that some cylinder seals with the typical (Indus) script pictorials and signs have also been found in the sites of the Sarasvati-Sindhu civilization.]

Clay tablets were used for accounting, literary, administrative documents. [Indian historical tradition attests to the use of copper plates for conveyancing property rights. It is notable that some inscriptions are inscribed on copper tablets. So far, no other civilization has recorded such use of copper plates as recording devices for economic transactions.] 

We start with an overview of the Mesopotamian civilization. 

Millennia ago the fertile low lands in the river basins of Euphrates and Tigris were the home land of a rich and complex society. These civilizations were saved from oblivion by the unexpected discovery in the previous century of complete libraries in the archeological remains. Thousands of clay tablets, written in a cuneiform writing system, are buried deep under the ruins of ancient cities, when they were sacked and set into fire. The clay tablets, usually only sun-dried and stored on (inflammable) wooden shelves, are often inadvertently baked while a city was destroyed and treasures were removed. Clay was not valuable to treasure hunters and robbers in later times and clay tablets (at least until the 19th century CE) were left untouched and thus saved for eternity. 

The branch of science dealing with the study of ancient civilizations in the Near East is called Assyriology, named after an Assyrian empire uncovered by the first archeological excavations. 

Mesopotamia. The word 'Mesopotamia' is in origin a Greek name (mesos 'middle' and potamos 'river', so 'land between the rivers'). The name is used for the area watered by the Euphrates and Tigris and its tributaries, roughly comprising modern Irak and part of Syria. South of modern Bagdad, the alluvial plains of the rivers were called the land of Sumer and Akkad in the third millennium. Sumer is the most southern part, while the land of Akkad is the area around modern Bagdad, where the Euphrates and Tigris are close to each other. In the second millennium both regions together are called Babylonia, a mostly flat country. 

Neighboring regions. The region roughly containing the Asian part of modern Turkey are referred to as Anatolia. Modern Iran is roughly equivalent to Persia and including in its southwestern part ancient Elam. 

The ruins of many famous ancient cities, like Eridu, Ur, Nippur and Kish are now far from the river, but were in the past situated at the river banks. 

Agriculture. After 8000 BCE Near Eastern environments become substantially more attractive for human settlements. The Atlanticum is the period in which agriculture developed in the Near East, around the Nile in Egypt and in the Indus valley in India. 

If the Sumerians aren't the ones who actually invented writing than they are at least responsible for quickly adopting and expanding the invention to their economic needs (the first tablets are predominantly economic in nature). 

Sumerian has no known relation to any other language. There seems to be a remote relationship with Dravidian languages (like spoken by the Tamils, now in the south of India). There is evidence that the Dravidian languages were spoken in the north of India, being displaced by the arrival of the Indo-European invaders around 1500 BCE. Because of the term 'the black-headed ones',  sag.gi6.ga it is possible (but far from proven) that the Sumerians are an early branch of one of the people now living in southern India. 

Sumerian/Elamite inventions: Cylinder seals (French Sceaux-cylindres, German Zylindersiegel) are small (2-6 cm) cylinder-shaped stones carved with a decorative design in intaglio (engraved). Cylinder seals are a typical Sumerian invention. Such seals were also used in the Sarasvati-Sindhu civilization. The cylinder was roled over wet clay to mark or identify clay tablets, envelopes, ceramics and bricks. It so covers an area as large as desired, an advantage over earlier stamp seals. Its use and spread coincides with the use of clay tablets, starting at the end of the 4th millennium up to the end of the first millennium. After this time stamp seals are used again. 

Purpose. The seals are needed as signature, confirmation of receipt, or to mark clay tablets and building blocks. The invention fits with the needs caused by the general development of city states. 

substrate languages. A language (in particular as it appears in proper names and geographical names) may show signs of so called substrate languages (like the influence of Celtic on ancient Gaul; compare some Indian geographical names in the US attesting the original inhabitants). Some professional names and agricultural implements in Sumerian show that agriculture and the economic use of metals existed before the arrival of the Sumerians. 
Sumerian words with a pre-Sumerian origin are: 

  • professional names such as simug 'blacksmith' and tibira 'copper smith', 'metal-manifacturer' are not in origin Sumerian words.
  • agricultural terms, like engar 'farmer', apin 'plow' and absin 'furrow', are neither of Sumerian origin.
  • craftsman like nangar 'carpenter', a:gab 'leather worker'
  • religious terms like sanga 'priest'
  • some of the most ancient cities, like Kish, have names that are not Sumerian in origin.

These words must have been loan words from a substrate language. The words show how far the division in labor had progressed even before the Sumerians arrived. 

In texts from the 19th century BCE, it appears that trade was performed in a professional, capitalistic way (at least during a period of almost a century in the Old Assyrian period): barter by boat over the Euphrates and the Persian Golf and with regular caravans by donkeys to Anatolia (modern Turkey). 

Merchandise. Apart from cereals the inhabitants of Mesopotamia themselves had little to offer. Cereals were indeed exported but was too bulky for donkey transport over long distances. Imported material from elsewhere were again exported. Like tin, an important metal for bronze, that in those times probably came out of Afghanistan (although there are many Tin-routes). It was exported to Anatolia, a major center of metal industry, where in extensive forests wood was abundantly available to fuel the furnaces. Other merchandise were dates, sesame oil and in particular craft materials. Babylonia had an extensive wool industry. Coupons of 4 by 4.5 meter were in the 19th century BCE transported by the hundreds. From Anatolia silver and gold was imported (see Kültepe and process of commerce). 

Dominique Collon, 'First Impressions, cylinder seals in the Ancient Near East', British Museum Publications, London, 1987, ISBN 0-7141-1121-X 

[Chapter 2 of John Heise's 'Akkadian language' with some geographical and climatological background about the Ancient Near East, including an introduction to the people (Sumerian, Akkadians and neighbors), the divine world, economy, Assyriology and Archeology. ] Mesopotamia index

Cylinder seals on the Web:

ANEP (Ancient Near East Pictures) at the Un. of Pennsylvania

  1. Middle Bronze II
  2. Late Bronze Age
  3. Iron Age

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