Exhibitions | Online
Written in Stone
Historic Inscriptions from the Ancient Near East, ca. 2500 B.C.–550 B.C.
April 13 through September 5, 2010
Rotate and zoom images, read descriptions:
Sometime during the middle of the fourth millennium B.C.,
the earliest known writing system was developed in southern
Mesopotamia. The need for a system of keeping track of
the distribution of resources, such as produce and livestock,
became an economic necessity. Using what they had at hand,
the Mesopotamians took reeds from the riverbanks and
adapted them as tools to impress into clay wedged-shaped
marks that were then assigned meanings, an intellectual
achievement that amounted to nothing less than the invention
of writing. This syllable-based writing system, now called
cuneiform, from the Latin word cuneus, meaning "wedge,"
proved so efficient that it was used for some 3,000 years.
Impressed clay tablets were the vehicle of diffusion for
Mesopotamian civilization—its laws, literature, religion, and
sciences, including astrology and medicine. It was, however,
deemed that the medium of clay was not sufficiently durable
for some documents. Impressing signs with a reed stylus onto
clay was a simple and relatively quick process. It did, nevertheless,
entail great skill and some difficulty on the part of carvers
who imitated the process in stone. Since Mesopotamia was
almost entirely lacking in stone, the stones themselves were
imported and were highly valued, even as raw materials. These
inscribed stone objects reflect humanity's enduring desire to
leave a permanent record of its existence and accomplishments.
The collapse of the Assyrian and Babylonian civilizations
and collateral loss of their languages, scripts, and innovations in
the arts, sciences, religion, and statecraft was so complete that
these achievements were obliterated for ages. Since the 1800s it
was recognized that cuneiform held important secrets; by the
1860s the script was finally deciphered. The study of these tablets
continues to be the subject of serious scholarly pursuit.
Unless otherwise indicated, all objects are from the Morgan's collection.
This installation is made possible by a generous gift from Jeannette and Jonathan P. Rosen.
Photography by Graham Haber.