Look inside a cuneiform tablet

The Netherlands Institute for the Near East (NINO) at the University of Leiden has the largest collection of cuneiform tablets in the Netherlands, upwards of 3,000 tablets ranging in date from 2,500 to 4,000 years ago. Some of the tablets are still enveloped in the original clay covers which served as a means of data protection. The majority of cuneiform tablets document financial transactions, inventory, a wide assortment of business, religious and government records. If the inscription was exposed, figures could be easily be changed by simply dunking the tablet in water to soften it a little. Such records would be under constant threat of fraud and forgery. The outer clay layer made it impossible to alter the document without breaking the envelope and making the interference unmistakably clear.

When the study of cuneiform tablets began in earnest the 19th century, archaeologists had no qualms about breaking the hard candy shell to get to the chocolaty text within. These days destruction in the name of knowledge acquisition is no longer an acceptable approach to archaeological materials. Technology has made non-invasive methods of investigation not only possible, but exponentially superior to the crude bull-in-a-china-shop methods of yore. Synchroton light, lasers and CT scanners can see far better than the human eye.

To that end, NINO researchers have enlisted the aid of the micro-CT-scanner at Delft University of Technology to see into the clay tablets that still retain their envelopes. The micro-CT scan generates a 3D model of the object in sections and in enough detail that the surface of the tablet within the clay cover can be read.

3 thoughts on “Look inside a cuneiform tablet

  1. That’s what over here we refer to as “Commercial letter of credit” (CLC), or in this case Clay Commercial letter of credit” (CCLC), referring to a Bronze Age trade in barley.

    The Seller consigns the barley to a ‘carrier’ (i.e. camel train, caravan, boat) in exchange for a ‘bill of lading’ and provides that bill to his “bank” in exchange for payment. The seller’s “bank” then provides the bill to buyer’s “bank”, who in return for payment (and fee plus clay?) provides the bill to buyer.

    The Buyer then provides the ‘bill of lading’ to the ‘carrier’ and takes the -not at all “virtual”- barley.


  2. Contract exchanges and convention based on integrity and implied morality, still practiced today, protected from fraud, 4,000 years old, represents an unbroken chain of intellect that allows us to connect with ancient humanity in a tangible way. This aspect of archeology is most fascinating to me.

  3. How did they verify which clay-wrapped tablet one had? Fingerprints? Imprinted symbols? I wonder how hard it was to switch one clay-wrapped tablet with another?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.