Sidney Babcock, Jeannette and Jonathan Rosen Curator of Ancient Western Asian Seals and Tablets
The earliest known writing system was developed in southern Mesopotamia sometime during the middle of the fourth millennium B.C., when a system to keep 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 wedge-shaped marks that were then assigned meanings. This was an intellectual achievement that amounted to nothing less than the invention of writing. Cuneiform, from the Latin word cuneus, meaning “wedge,” evolved into a full-fledged, syllable-based writing system that was used for over three thousand years.
This precious fragment of a tablet is the earliest known version in the Akkadian language of the story of the Great Flood, familiar to many from the Christian Bible. The epic begins when the gods create man, though they soon tire of him and decide to destroy all of mankind. The god Enki (Ea) tells the mortal Atrahasis of the impending flood and instructs him to build an ark. With over 1200 lines, the story filled three tablets. The Morgan fragment, from the second tablet, preserves a unique statement with the work’s title—“When Gods Were Men”—as well as the name of the scribe and the place and date on which he copied it.
Translated into modern English, one passage reads:
The Flood roared like a bull,
Like a wild ass screaming the winds
The darkness was total, there was no sun…
For seven days and seven nights
The torrent, storm, and flood came on…