Teaching about money’s origins—and its possible cryptographic futures—with Proto-cuneiform

Guest post by Professor Bill Maurer

Richard Mattessich (1998) opened his paper in the Accounting Historians’ Journal on 3rd millennium BCE protocuneiform with a quotation from Leonard Bernstein: “The best way to know a thing, is in the context of another discipline” (Bernstein 1976: 3). For two weeks in January, 2019, a class of 114 undergraduate students at the University of California, Irvine, drew made-up protocuneiform tables based on Nissen et al. (1993) after reading Mattessich’s accountant’s perspective on them. They did so as part of a class on “The Future of Money.” The class is still going on, and is being conducted entirely online, except for an end-of-term in person meeting with a panel of payments industry experts and final exam.

Protocuneiform tablets were chosen as the earliest surviving examples of economic transactions utilizing a type of proto-writing that would later develop into the more abstract wedge-shapes of classic cuneiform.  The earliest examples date from the late 4th millennium BC (around 3200-3000), from the area of Uruk, and commonly include ‘pictographic’ signs denoting the goods being counted alongside numerals. (You can read more about ‘Proto-Cuneiform’ on the CDLI here and here.)

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Proto-cuneiform tablet, probably from Uruk, c.3100-2900 BC. Image from HERE.

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Aššurbanipal at the British Museum

DgCt-puW0AU9TK6Last weekend I finally got a chance to visit the British Museum’s exhibition on the Assyrian king Aššurbanipal. There’s been a lot of good word-of-mouth about it so I was looking forward to it, and while it wasn’t perfect, the exhibition didn’t disappoint.

Although no-one on the CREWS Project directly works on first-millennium Assyria, Aššurbanipal’s a name that’s cropped up a few times on this blog because of his strong interest in writing and scholarship. He’s one of the few Mesopotamian rulers known to have been literate – in fact, this was a source of great pride for Aššurbanipal, who claims in one inscription:

‘I learnt the lore of the wise sage Adapa, the hidden secret, the whole of the scribal craft. I can discern celestial and terrestrial portents and deliberate in the assembly of the experts. I am able to discuss the series “If the liver is a mirror image of the sky” with capable scholars. I can solve convoluted reciprocals and calculations that do not come out evenly. I have read cunningly written text in Sumerian, obscure Akkadian, the interpretation of which is difficult. I have examined stone inscriptions from before the flood, which are sealed, stopped up, mixed up.’

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What to write with? Styli for clay tablets in the ancient Aegean and eastern Mediterranean

My research has taken a fun turn towards practical experiments lately, as some of our Twitter followers may have noticed. It isn’t just because I wanted to get away from the computer (though I did…); it’s because I have been working on a problem where direct evidence is scarce and/or difficult to interpret, and where experimentation is surprisingly elucidating.

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My work on a replica Cypro-Minoan tablet.

We know that during the Bronze Age a number of civilisations around the eastern Mediterranean were using clay to write on. From Mesopotamian cuneiform to Linear A and B in the Aegean, people found that this reusable natural resource provided a vital tool for making records. But they didn’t all use it in the same way, and they didn’t all use the same implements or methods to write on it – instead traditions of writing display considerable regional differences, whether or not there might have been any influences from one place to another. Continue reading “What to write with? Styli for clay tablets in the ancient Aegean and eastern Mediterranean”

Scribes and Spooks: Exorcists in Ancient Mesopotamia

A little while ago an unexpected thing happened to me. While happily going about my research, I recalled something I’d read not long after I started working for the CREWS Project – a reference to a Mesopotamian family who worked as exorcists. I’d always found this a fun concept and tweeted about it. And, well… it turned out a lot of other people liked this idea too.

For a while now I’ve been meaning to dig up the original reference and write something about Mesopotamian exorcists that had a more solid foundation than my off-the-cuff and hazy memories. This is good material for a CREWS Project blog post, because the link between writing and exorcism in ancient Mesopotamia was much closer than you might expect. And what better time than Hallowe’en? Draw the curtains, make your incantations against Pazuzu and rotate your heads 360 degrees (don’t really do this) as we take a trip into the demon-haunted and bewitched world of Mesopotamian exorcism.

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Ancient writing at the Festival of Ideas

The last couple of weeks here in Cambridge have been dedicated to the Festival of Ideas, which featured a few events focused on ancient writing.

9017d0f91b10520efc3af725377d9fda.pngCREWS had its own event on Friday 19th October as part of an evening of fun in the Museum of Classical Archaeology (AKA the Cast Gallery) at the Faculty of Classics: Raiders of the Secret Scripts, mostly aimed at an adult audience. Philip and Rob were on hand to guide people through an exercise in reading Ugaritic cuneiform, while anyone interested in Linear B could try their hand at counting animals in a clay tablet, with me and our CREWS-friend colleague Dr Anna Judson there to help with the hard bits.

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Further Experiments in Ancient Baking: Pop-tarblets

A couple of weeks ago, when I wrote about my visit to the British Museum, one person commented that the cuneiform tablets looked like pop-tarts. Anyone familiar with the CREWS Project and our love of ancient baking will know that this is the sort of challenge we can’t let go. I haven’t had pop-tarts since I was a kid, and not too often then, but it turns out they’re not too difficult to make. Naturally we had to give it a try.

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Hands-on with the Amarna Letters

We’ve talked a lot on this blog about how important it is to think about ancient writing in its physical capacity – as part of an object – not just as text. This is why we’re so keen on trying out ancient writing techniques for ourselves. But it’s not just making new things; it’s looking at real ancient tablets with an eye for their material characteristics and the practical techniques used to make them.

Last week I was lucky enough to visit the British Museum for a hands-on study session with some of the most famous tablets of the Near Eastern Bronze Age – the Amarna Letters.

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CREWS Display: Replica Ugaritic Tablet

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This week in our look through the objects in the CREWS exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, we’re shining the spotlight on one of our replicas, this Ugaritic tablet I made last summer. There are lots of reasons why we’ve included replica items in the exhibition. Partly it lets us show off writing systems for which genuine ancient examples are hard to come by and which we wouldn’t otherwise be able to include. But they also have an important research role. Continue reading “CREWS Display: Replica Ugaritic Tablet”