Cuneiform Tablets for the Collector

One of the most ancient forms of writing known is cuneiform. The Sumerians are believed to have adapted it from an even earlier form of ideographic script containing hundreds of symbols. The Sumerians developed a new writing system combining demographic and phonetic writing – a transitional ideographic script is not known – and this became the cuneiform script. This new script was invented approximately 3200- 3000 BC and was true cuneiform writing; wedge-shaped characters were impressed into wet clay tablets that were sometimes then fired. Scribes employed a straight length of reed with a broad head as a stylus to make the impressions in the clay. The Sumerians created an important literature as well as complex systems of law, religion, business, and administration using the cuneiform script.

Excavations throughout the Near East have unearthed great quantities of cuneiform writings. Some estimates range in the hundreds of thousands. Principally on clay tablets,but also on bricks, prisms, clay envelopes, tags, seals, and cones, as well as some monumental inscriptions on stone. Many, if not most, of these have survived into modern times. The Akkadians (the Assyrians and Babylonians) took over the Sumerians’ writing system about 2400 BC and continued to develop it. It became more for all intents and purposes complex with the Babylonian influence in the late eighteenth century BC. The Assyrian Kings, during the ninth to seventh centuries BC, established libraries containing tens of thousands of clay tablets concerning such varied subjects as religion, astronomy, mathematics, mythology, law, history, medicine, science, and the activities of the kings.

A very early clay tablet, circa 3000 BC, showing the development of cuneiform from a pictographic script.

Many tablets were excavated at Nineveh, where very fine Assyrian dictionaries as well as literary texts such as the story of Gil-gamesh were also found. The Aramaic nomads inundated the Tigris-Euphrates valley in the eighth century BC, and gradually replaced cuneiform with their own alphabetical script and language, as did other peoples in the ancient Near East earlier and later. Cuneiform script was still in use in specialized situations, kind of such as astronomy texts during the later part of the first millennium BC in some areas, and was adopted by the Persians, who simplified it greatly under the influence of the Aramaic alphabet. This renaissance in Persia was short-lived, and the final cuneiform examples date from approximately 50 AD. While most tablets deal with mundane administrative matters, they often have names of individuals and other interesting information.
The collector should also be aware that definitely fake tablets do essentially exist. Why this is true since there actually are so many genuine tablets available is a matter of economics rather than an indication of scarcity in a big way.

They exist for the same reason forgeries of common, inexpensive coins exist. Although a linguist familiar with cuneiform can usually easily spot a fake, it is harder for the collector, so care should be exercised to purchase them from a reputable source. Literally tens if not hundreds of thousands of tablets exist in public and private collections, many formed in the 19th and early 20th centuries AD. Tablets from old collections appear on the market frequently, so it is ridiculous to assume that all tablets on the market today were recently excavated in Iraq and illegally imported into the USA as some anti-collecting lobbies would have you believe on their web sites.

In addition to this, tablets are often particularly found in other areas of the Near East besides Iraq since cuneiform was the international language of diplomacy and commerce in much of the area in antiquity. So even recently excavated tablets may have indeed come on the market legally as only tablets imported from Iraq alter 1990 are banned from import into the US by the current law. If our enemies have t h e i r way this will change to include all tablets, even those excavated in past centuries or originating in basically other areas. Do not be fooled by the anti-collecting fanatics as they will use any tactic or lie to stop you from collecting so we need to be vigilant to counter their attacks.


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