Your Android Tablet Out of Date? Our Tablets are 4,000 Years Old!

Arizona State Museum
Dec. 13, 2013

Some among the younger generations might be surprised to know that tablets existed long before Apple and Microsoft created the high-definition, flat-screened versions so ubiquitous today.

The object shown at left is ASM No. 68, a 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablet from ancient Sumer, and it is the oldest legal text in the state of Arizona.

This type of tablet, in its day, was equally high tech and equally ubiquitous.

People living in ancient Mesopotamia – the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers comprising the empires of Assyria, Babylonia and Sumer, and often referred to as the "Cradle of Western Civilization" – developed one of the world’s earliest writing systems around 3100 BCE.

Mesopotamian scribes recorded daily events, trade, astronomy, literature and even personal correspondence with wedge-shaped symbols known as cuneiform on tablets of soft clay. After being inscribed, the tablets were either sun-dried or kiln baked.

Read today by only a handful of scholars worldwide, cuneiform represents several different ancient Near Eastern languages. In the case of ASM No. 68, the language is ancient Sumerian, decoded, transcribed, and published by Cornell scholar David Owen and Ewa Wasilewska, a University of Utah anthropology professor. The tablet, located at the Arizona State Museum, records a court proceeding concerning the non-delivery of barley to the threshing floor of the ruler’s palace.

All of museum’s 114 cuneiform tablets, from half a dozen sites in southern Iraq, record business transactions similar to ASM No. 68. The artifacts date from 2100–1800 BCE and together comprise, unquestionably, the oldest archive of literary materials in the state.

"ASM was established in 1893 in a period known as the Golden Age of Museums," said Irene Bald Romano, the Arizona State Museum's deputy director and an authority on the history of American museums.

"The end of the 19th century was a time when encyclopedic institutions were being founded in urban centers around the country; a time when there was a keen interest in the lands of the Bible and in the Classical World; a time when educated gentlemen and ladies studied and were able to recite Latin and Greek. No museum in that period would have been considered complete without some sculpture, pottery, or other items from the ancient world."

Read the full article, "Your Android Tablet Out of Date? Our Tablets are 4,000 Years Old!," on the Arizona State Museum website.

Photo credit: Sumerian cuneiform clay tablet, 2056 BCE, from ancient Umma, Mesopotamia. Height 3.6", width 2.0", thickness 0.9" (ASM Cat. No. 68, purchased from Edgar J. Banks, 1914). Photo by Jannelle Weakly.


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