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First Writers-The Sumerians: They Wrote On Clay

First Writers-The Sumerians: They Wrote On Clay

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I am a professor of History and Humanities and a specialist in Sumer and Akkad. I purchased this book in preparation of a lecture that I was going to deliver to a group of people. I was immediately disappointed in fact returned the book two days later. The book does not offer the reader the information that he or she really needs to cover on this subject, and the writing is very poor. The main problems with the book, besides the above, was the content did not match the title, and the graphics were of very poor quality, the pictures appeared to be taken from a clipart program, and images used throughout the book were highly pixilated. The author spent a couple of chapters covering items wholly unrelated to the theme of the book. All of these problems were too much for me to really enjoy the book. It should be pointed out that the book is through a self-publishing firm and not a reputable publishing house which offers a high level of editorial review and revisions. I would recommend not wasting your time on this one. I sent it back for a refund, and I purchased a couple of other books on the same subject that were much better.

Who Were the Ancient Sumerians?

The ancient Sumerians created one of humanity’s first great civilizations. Their homeland in Mesopotamia, called Sumer, emerged roughly 6,000 years ago along the floodplains between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present-day Iraq and Syria.

The Sumerians learned to farm on a grand scale in the so-called Fertile Crescent, a thin, crescent-shaped sliver of Mesopotamia often tied to the dawn of farming, writing, mathematics and astronomy.

And while the arid, ancient landscapes of the Middle East may not seem like the most likely location for an agricultural breakthrough, Sumer actually had a massive advantage. By settling between two large rivers, the Sumerians benefited from rich floodplain soil and ample water to irrigate crops. Their success was accelerated by Sumerian technological innovations like canals and plows. With time, Sumer got so good at growing food that they started to have enough resources left over to focus on building the cities and temples.

Об авторе

For a quarter of a century, Dr. Gary Arthur Thomson has taught popular courses in Biblical Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern History at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He has used traditio-historical criticism and archaeology to look at the Sumerians, the Hittites, the Phoenicians, the Assyrians, the Egyptians as well as the rise of earliest Israel in Palestine. Based on student evaluations, Dr. Thomson received the Teacher of The Year Award at McGill University from Chancellor David Johnson. His courses at McGill University have been popular with Jewish students, Islamists, French Canadian Catholics, Protestants and quite a few agnostics. Gary Arthur Thomson is a Nebraskan by birth. He was a community organizer in Hastings, Nebraska during the Johnson War on Poverty. Educated in the Humanities at Nebraska Wesleyan University (B.A.), he studied at San Francisco, Dubuque, and Edinburgh to become a teacher and minister in the Presbyterian Church USA. He completed the Economics course of the US College of The Armed Forces. During his graduate studies, he worked as an archaeologist in Israel with Hebrew Union College. His Ph.D. dissertation analyzed cuneiform economic clay tablets from Sumer—the world’s ?rst civilization. He and his wife, Jeanette Kroese Thomson, have taken their McGill students on archaeological study-tours worldwide. The Thomson’s have four daughters: Kim—director of experimental aeronautical engineering with Bombardier, Shannon—music professor at Concordia University, Jill—professional artist in Edmonton, and Dawn—professional musician in Rochester NY. Jeanette and Gary live in an environmentally-designed house on Ile Verte near Montreal.


Generations of archaeologists digging in humanity's earliest settlements ignored the unspectacular little artifacts of clay that turned up in so many Mesopotamian excavations. If they wrote about them at all, they called the thumb-sized balls, cones, disks and other shapes "enigmatic objects" or guessed they were merely children's toys.

Since the 1970s, however, a University of Texas specialist in Middle Eastern studies has been building a strong case that the objects are fundamental clues to nothing less than one of the most important advances in human intellectual evolution.

The hardened bits of clay, she has shown, reveal how the ancient Sumerians developed the world's first writing. They also strongly challenge the longstanding belief that Sumerian cuneiform, as the most advanced form of the writing is called, evolved from "picture writing" -- the use of little drawings, or pictographs, of real objects to stand for words.

More than that, according to the newest discoveries by Denise Schmandt-Besserat, professor of Middle Eastern studies at UT's Austin campus, the clay tokens, as she calls them, also tell how the Sumerians developed the concept of abstract numbers. In fact, her evidence suggests that the need to count led to the ability to write and that literacy and its mathematical equivalent, numeracy, rose in tandem, together transforming the nature of civilization.

The French American scholar's discoveries have won high praise in a field noted for discord.

"Every so often, a field of study is revolutionized by a single discovery or a unique hypothesis," William W. Hallo, a Yale University expert in the ancient Middle East wrote of the new findings in a foreword to Schmandt-Besserat's monograph, "Before Writing," published earlier this year. Her research, Hallo said, "promises to play such a role in our understanding of the emergence of civilization."

The origin of writing had long been a puzzle. The oldest known examples have been found in digs at Uruk (the Biblical Erech), one of the major cities of Sumer, the world's first civilization. The Sumerian culture arose in the fertile Tigris and Euphrates river valleys of what is now Iraq, a region called Mesopotamia, about 5,400 years ago.

Sumerian writing emerged about three centuries later. About the same time, the ancient Egyptians developed their hieroglyphic writing. In later centuries, writing also arose -- probably independently -- in China and among the Maya of Central America.

At one time, some scholars supposed writing was the invention of individual geniuses who simply thought it up. More recently, it has been seen as the result of a gradual process. Until Schmandt-Besserat's research, however, the nature of that process had been elusive.

"My work on the clay tokens suggests that these were the early form of the activity that would become writing," Schmandt-Besserat said. She has discerned the roots of writing twice as far into the past as had been supposed -- to a time about 10,000 years ago when agriculture was just beginning to replace hunting and gathering.

The tokens first came to light in archaeological digs into strata of that antiquity in what is now Iran. The origin of token-making -- bits of clay formed by hand into balls, balls flattened into disks, oblongs, cylinders, cones, cubes and tetrahedrons -- it turned out, predated the manufacture of pottery. Tokens were, in fact, the first clay objects hardened by fire. About 10,000 of the objects have been found in more than 100 archaeological sites.

Schmandt-Besserat said major clues to their meaning came from two scholarly predecessors. In a 1966 paper Pierre Amiet, a specialist in Middle Eastern antiquities at the Louvre in Paris, suggested that the tokens were counters, pieces used to represent specific commodities. He cited an earlier discovery by Leo Oppenheim of the University of Chicago. This was a hollow clay ball found in the 1920s at a site near ancient Babylon that was occupied long after the invention of writing. The outside had a cuneiform inscription that read: "Counters representing small cattle: 21 ewes that lamb, 6 female lambs . . . " and so on until 49 animals were described. When workers broke open the ball, out tumbled 49 bits of fired clay.

Oppenheim speculated that the objects were part of an accounting system by which the local bureaucracy kept records.

On reading Amiet's paper, Schmandt-Besserat said, "two pieces of the puzzle snapped together for me." She immediately saw a link to the many tokens from sites occupied thousands of years before writing began. They too might have been part of a preliterate accounting system.

Schmandt-Besserat's subsequent research has shown that before the advent of writing, hollow clay balls were used as "bills of lading" to accompany shipments of goods. When a shipper delivered a cargo of jars of oil, for example, he would surrender the clay ball to the recipient, who could break it open and confirm that the correct quantities had arrived.

In later years, the Texas scholar said, Sumerian accountants thought of a simple way to verify the contents of a ball without destroying it. They would press each token against the outer surface of the ball before it hardened, then put them through a hole and seal the ball. Soon after, the accountants realized that once they made the impressions, there was no need for the tokens. The shape of the token, showing in the hardened clay, carried the meaning.

Indeed, Schmandt-Besserat has found that the shapes correspond closely to the first kind of Sumerian writing, which has been called pictography but, which she stresses, is not very pictographic. The symbols are incised in wet clay with stylus but only a few of the symbols are pictorial most are abstract shapes and correspond to the shapes left by tokens pressed in wet clay. A New Kind of Symbol

At least as important, she found the switch to "pictographic" writing came at the same time as another key intellectual advance. When tokens were used, each stood for one unit of a commodity. To indicate, say, 10 jars of oil, 10 "jar of oil" tokens would be put inside the clay ball. When writing appeared, the same meaning was conveyed by one "jar of oil" pictograph plus a new kind of symbol that meant "10."

"We knew there was something that had to come before writing," Schmandt-Besserat said. "Nobody in archaeology had asked what came before arithmetic. Mathematicians had predicted that something concrete had to come before abstract numbers. The tokens were the concrete numbers. When writing begins, mathematics begins."

She said it looks as if the same intellectual leap of symbolizing that led to incising the token shapes also led to thinking of numbers as something apart from what is being counted.

A century after "pictographic" writing began, the curving symbols were converted to the more angular form created by square-cornered styluses being pressed into clay. The result was the cuneiform (from the Latin for "wedge-shaped") writing that quickly swept the ancient Middle East.

Sumerian writing

The outline of the development of the Sumerian writing system has been worked out by paleographers. It has long been known that the earliest writing system in the world was Sumerian script, which in its later stages was known as cuneiform. The earliest stages of development are still a matter of much speculation based on fragmentary evidence. The French American archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat, building on a hypothesis advanced by the Assyriologist Pierre Amiet of the Louvre, demonstrated a series of small steps leading from the use of tokens for simple bookkeeping purposes to the development of written tablets on which graphs of the script stand for morphemes of spoken Sumerian. Archaeologists have discovered in lower Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq) large numbers of small, distinctively shaped clay objects. These are thought to date back to as early as 8000 bce , about the time that hunter-gatherer societies were giving way to an agricultural way of life. A greatly elaborated set of these clay shapes—some shaped like jars and some like various animals and occasionally inserted in clay envelopes—dates from 3500 bce , about the time of the rise of cities. Some of the envelopes have markings that correspond to the clay shapes inside. Moreover, these markings are more or less similar to the shapes drawn on clay tablets that date back to about 3100 bce and that are unambiguously related to the Sumerian language. These markings are thought to constitute a logographic form of writing consisting of some 1,200 different characters representing numerals, names, and such material objects as cloth and cow.

The theory advanced by Schmandt-Besserat to explain this transformation is that the clay shapes are tokens representing agricultural goods such as grain, sheep, and cattle and that they were used as a form of bookkeeping. The multiplication of types of tokens could correspond to the increase in the number of kinds of goods that were exchanged with the rise of urbanization in the 4th millennium bce . Tokens placed in an envelope might have constituted a sort of “bill of lading” or a record of indebtedness. To serve as a reminder of the contents of the envelope so that every reader would not need to break open the envelope to read the contents, corresponding shapes were impressed upon the envelope. But if the content was marked on the envelope, there was no need to put the tokens in an envelope at all the envelope could be flattened into a convenient surface and the shapes impressed on it. Now that there was no need for the tokens at all, their message was simply inscribed into the clay. These shapes, drawn in the wet clay with a reed stylus or a pointed stick, constituted the first writing.

The historical record is much more explicit after 3200 bce and reveals clearly the stages involved in the evolution from a limited system of notation suitable for recording particular events into a full general-purpose orthography. Archaic Sumerian used mostly graphs representing numerals, names for objects, and names of persons. Graphs for numerals were geometric shapes, while those for objects were often stylized pictures of the things they represented. Yet the system was a genuine logographic writing system generally adequate to economic and administrative purposes. With the substitution of a blunt writing stylus for a pointed one, the symbols become less picturelike and more conventionalized. The writing system takes the name cuneiform from the shape of the strokes that form the symbols (from Latin cuneus, “wedge”).

The next major stage in the evolution of Sumerian writing was the adoption of the phonographic principle, the use of a sign to represent a common sound rather than a common meaning. For example, the graph representing “water” appears to have been used also to represent the locative suffix “in,” because the latter sounded the same as, or similar to, the word water. It is as if in English a person used the word ball to stand for a person named Bill on the grounds that it is easy to represent the ball with a circular graph while there is no obvious way to represent Bill, and the two words sound similar. The Sumerian script, however, remained primarily logographic and resorted to phonographic signs only when forced to, for representing unpicturable words and for distinguishing ambiguous graphs.

Sumerian script was adopted in the 3rd millennium bce by the Akkadians, who greatly expanded the phonographic properties of the script. The Assyrians and the Babylonians, both speaking dialects of the Akkadian language, were responsible for most of the cuneiform writing in a form known today as Akkadian cuneiform.

An Introduction to Sumerian Art and Culture

About 4000 BCE, Sumeria sprang up seemingly out of nowhere on part of the land known as the Fertile Crescent in the southern part of Mesopotamia, now called Iraq and Kuwait, countries that have been torn asunder by war in the past decades.

Mesopotamia, as the area was called in ancient times, means “land between the rivers” because it was located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Mesopotamia was important to historians and archaeologists, and to the development of human civilization, long before it became known as Iraq and America became involved in the Persian Gulf War, for it is recognized as the Cradle of Civilization due to the many “fundamental firsts” of civilized societies that occurred there, inventions with which we still live.

The society of Sumeria was one of the first known advanced civilizations in the world and the first to thrive in southern Mesopotamia, lasting from about 3500 BCE to 2334 BCE when the Sumerians were conquered by the Akkadians from central Mesopotamia.

The Sumerians were inventive and skilled technologically. Sumer had highly advanced and well-developed arts, sciences, government, religion, social structure, infrastructure, and written language. The Sumerians were the first known civilization to use writing to record their thoughts and literature. Some of the other inventions of Sumeria included the wheel, a cornerstone of human civilization widespread use of technology and infrastructure, including canals and irrigation agriculture and mills shipbuilding for travel into the Persian Gulf and the trade of textiles, leather goods, and jewelry for semi-precious stones and other things astrology and cosmology religion ethics and philosophy library catalogues law codes writing and literature schools medicine beer the measurement of time: 60 minutes in an hour and 60 seconds in a minute brick technology and major developments in art, architecture, city planning, and music.

Because the land of the fertile crescent was agriculturally productive, people did not have to devote themselves full-time to farming in order to survive, so they were able to have a variety of different vocations, including among them artists and craftsmen.

Sumeria was by no means ideal, though. It was the first to create a privileged ruling class, and there was great income disparity, greed and ambition, and enslavement. It was a patrilineal society in which women were second-class citizens.

Sumeria was made up of independent city-states, not all of whom got along all the time. These city-states had canals and walled settlements, varying in size, to provide irrigation and defense from their neighbors if necessary. They were governed as theocracies, each with its own priest and king, and patron god or goddess.

The existence of this ancient Sumerian culture was not known until archaeologists started to discover and unearth some of the treasures from this civilization in the 1800s. Many of the discoveries came from the city of Uruk, which is thought to be the first, and largest city. Others came from the Royal Tombs of Ur, one of the other largest and oldest of the cities.

1c. Historians and Their Time

Consider these two quotes from 19th-century philosopher and poet George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." "History is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten."

"On the 24th of August . between 2 and 3 in the afternoon my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance. I can best describe its shape by likening it to a pine tree. It rose into the sky on a very long "trunk" from which spread some "branches". The sight of it made the scientist in my uncle determined to see it from closer at hand." &ndashPliny the Younger describing his uncle's death in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, 79 C.E.

There wasn't any history before 3000 B.C.E.

In a literal sense that is true. Historians mostly rely on written documents to reconstruct the past. Before 3000 B.C.E. writing did not exist, as far as we know. Accordingly, events earlier than this time are referred to as "pre-history," before written history!

Why C.E. and B.C.E.?

You may be used to seeing dates with B.C. or A.D. (for example, 2750 B.C. or A.D. 476). So why don't you see those abbreviations here?

The abbreviation B.C. stands for "Before Christ," and A.D. stands for the Latin phrase Anno Domini , which means, "the Year of Our Lord." Because history belongs to everyone, and because not everyone is a Christian, many historians have been using the new terms, B.C.E. and C.E

The abbreviation C.E. stands for the "Common Era" and is used in place of A.D. For example, 1492 C.E. is the same as A.D. 1492 (which is sometimes incorrectly written as 1492 A.D.). The abbreviation B.C.E. stands for "Before the Common Era," and is used in place of B.C. The year 1625 B.C.E is the same as 1625 B.C.

Clay and the Sumerians

The Sumerians were among the first people to develop a written language. They recorded events and religious information on wet clay tablets using styluses. Note: This picture goes to the free New York Times website which requires registration. Ask your parent or teacher for help.

The Sumerians invented the first writing system. At first they used pictographs to represent words &mdash little pictures drawn on wet clay. A picture of a bird represents mushen, "bird" a fish, the word ha, "fish." Sumerian scribes quickly discovered how to write new words by joining pictures together: the signs for "woman" and "mountain" produced geme, "slave-girl" &mdash the Sumerians took their slaves from the mountain tribes to the east. Eventually the pictures evolved into abstract patterns made by a wedge-shaped stylus. This is called cuneiform writing, from the Latin word cuneus = "wedge."

What did the Sumerians write? Mostly lists. Inventories of people and possessions, of goods to trade, of food rations for slaves. There are legal documents: marriage records, wills, contracts, deeds of sale &mdash and tax returns by the score (one Sumerian proverb reads "You can have a lord, You can have a king, But the man to fear is the tax collector"). Of the 1500,000 clay tablets recovered so far, 75 percent deal with such matters.

Did they have laptop computers in 480 B.C.? Hardly. The youth in this image is writing on a folded tablet using a stylus (sort of like an ancient fountain pen).

Scattered amongst them, though, are poems and epics &mdash the world's first literature. There is a farmer's almanac, even recipes. This one comes from Akkad around 1700 B.C.E. It is for "Tuhu Beets" &mdash beets boiled in beer (don't knock it until you've tried it), and begins: Tuhu shirum saqum izzaz me tukan lipia tanadi tusammat tabaum. Roughly, you boil beets with onions in beer, add herbs, mush everything into a porridge, then sprinkle with raw shuhutinnu . What's shuhutinnu? &mdash "an unidentified member of the onion family."

The Sumerians never wrote history in the sense of trying to explain how the past happened, by the deed of men and women, economic factors, natural disasters or pestilence. They believed their society had been there since the universe began, planned and decreed by the gods. It never occurred to them that their land had once been scattered villages occupying desolate marshland, its greatness coming from human toil, invention, vision and determination.

Interpreting the Past

Herodotus is widely credited as being the first historian. He traveled widely in the Greek world and wrote down what he saw and the stories he heard. Herodotus coined the word history, which is Greek for "inquiries."

Credit as the First Historian goes to Herodotus, born c. 484 C.E., who lived in Athens while the Parthenon was being built. He seems to have been a trader, a compulsive story-teller, who traveled widely throughout the Greek empire. He must have made an enchanting companion, engaging in conversation everyone he met. "My business is to record what people say," he explains, "but I am no means bound to believe it." Officially he wrote an account of the war between the Persians and Greeks. Along the way he found time to be fascinated by ancient Egyptian religion, the flooding of the Nile &mdash and gnats, on which he offers sound advice:

Everyone provides himself with a net, which during the day he uses for fishing, and at night fixes up around his bed, and creeps in under it before he goes to sleep. For anyone to sleep wrapped in a cloak or linen would be useless, for the gnats would bite through them but they do no even attempt to get through the net.

"What made him the first serious historian," says classical scholar and poet Peter Levi, "is his combination of great scope and precise focus, his imaginative power as a story-teller and his rationalism, his concern with truth."

Vesuvius: A Case Study in History

It might not look like much, but this 316-pound rock was to the ancient Greeks what the Heisman Trophy is to a collegiate football player. The inscription reveals who won the weight lifting competition in one of the first Olympics: "Bybon has lifted me over his head with one hand." Did Bybon know his victory would make for some heavy history over 26 centuries later?

In Roman times, Pliny-the-Younger proved a worthy successor with his brilliant description of the eruption of Vesuvius quoted above. He was just 17 years-old when the volcano exploded, destroying the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. His account has helped modern volcanologists reconstruct the event. It lasted about 18 hours, Pliny tells them. There was a cloud shaped like "a pine tree" &mdash a dense column of hot gas, rock and ash, tossed 20 miles up into the sky. After about 12 hours, the force of the blast slackened. The column collapsed hurtling a gigantic surge cloud of hot ash down Vesuvius' western slope at 100 mph. Within 4 minutes it reached Herculaneum, blasting buildings, burning or suffocating the people. A second surge devastated Pompeii.

During the 1981 eruption of Mt. St. Helens scientists were amazed at the speed and power of these so-called "pyroclastic flows." They overturned forests and engulfed a car speeding away at 80 mph. Pliny reports one of these surges and was fortunate not have perished in it: "I look back: a dense cloud looms behind us, following us like a flood poured across the land. The fire itself actually stopped some distance away, but darkness and ashes came again, a great weight of them. " His uncle was not so lucky and died across the Gulf of Naples at Stabiae.

Vesuvius will erupt again. The only question is when. Millions of people now living in the shadow of the volcano will be at risk.

The philospher George Santayana remarked: "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it." Henry Ford dismissed history as "bunk." Edward Waldo Emerson maintained "There is no history only biography." Percy Bysshe Shelley put it poetically: "History is a cyclic poem written by Time upon the memories of man." Shakespeare is briefest: "The past is prologue." The future begins here.

Herodotus, the first historian, claimed modest goals for his work: "that the doings of men may not be forgotten." On the title page he wrote Historia, Greek for "inquiries" or "researches." Inquiring into the past has been called history ever since.

The Origins Of Computing: The Sumerians, The Abacus & Binary Code

How did computing first began in human history? The origins of computing can be traced all the way back to the dawn of civilisation itself, over 4000 years ago, when writing and mathematics were first invented.

It was during the Bronze Age when one of the world’s first early urban civilisations, Sumer, developed and rose to prominence.

The early ancestors of the Sumerians were s m all communities of herdsmen, farmers and fishermen living along the river banks of Mesopotamia (modern-day southern Iraq). The numbers they kept of their harvests and flocks were not large, so calculations to keep track of their livestock and crops were made with just simple notches on tally sticks.

During the 4th millennium BC, early Sumerians developed irrigation farming methods that led to bountiful harvests and surplus crops for their people. The excess food allowed the Sumer society to feed a class of people who didn’t have to hunt or farm for a living. Folks began to specialise in different niche trades to become potters, blacksmiths, bakers, carpenters, basket makers, sculptors, brewers, weavers, clerics and jewellers.

The Sumer populace flourished as they grew wealthy from the trade and commerce of their crafts up and down the canals and rivers of Mesopotamia. It was the beginning of civilisation as we know it today. Villages grew into towns, and towns expanded to become sprawling city states. One of the largest Sumer cities, at its height, had 50,000 to 80,000 inhabitants. A total of 800,000 to 1.5 million people were estimated to be living in over a dozen Sumer cities altogether.

However, as Sumerian villages morphed into great city states, the first information overload occurred in human history.

It became clear to the Sumerian administrative bureaucracy that, as the size of the Sumer cities increased, the computational needs of the cities were woefully scaled up as well. There was a vast number of crops, herds and trade goods that had to be counted and recorded for taxes, wills and trade contracts. And the numbers add up over time. One 4,400 year-old Sumerian clay inscription states crisply:

“The leader of Umma would exploit 1 guru of the barley of Nanshe and the barley of Ningursu as a loan. It bore interest, and 8.64 million guru accrued.”

In today’s modern quantities, that would be a breath-taking debt of 4.5 trillion litres of barley.

For Sumer’s early accountants, tallying up notches on sticks just wasn’t going to cut it anymore when the numbers are in the hundreds of thousands all the way up to the millions. New mathematical methods had to be invented to keep up with the burgeoning scope of numbers.

Writing had appeared in Mesopotamia more than 5000 years ago, in the form of cuneiforms carved into clay tablets. But it was around 2700–2300 BC, 4000 years ago, that the earliest known computing device was born.

Only, the early abacus looked nothing like the modern version we are familiar with. In Computing: A Historical and Technical Perspective, the author notes:

“The earliest abacus was a wooden or clay board, divided into columns labeled with the orders of magnitude of a base-60 number system. The various shaped calculi were replaced with uniform-sized tokens of clay or short reed sticks. Sumerians performed calculation with these tools, while written numbers were used mainly to record the results.”

The Sumerians had a clay board that was scored with columns. The columns were numbered from right to left in increasing magnitudes of 10s or 60s.

They had shaped clay tokens that were assigned numeric values, in units of 1s, 10s, 60s, 600s, and 3600s.

To represent a number, they place the tokens in the board columns. In this case, to represent 10,366 sheep, the tokens would have to be placed as such within the columns:

To subtract a number, they remove tokens from the columns on the board.

To add a number, they add tokens to the columns on the board.

If the total value of a group of tokens is the equivalent of a higher denomination (Eg, six tokens of 10s is the equivalent of one token of 60s), they can be swapped for a token representing the same number and carried across to the next column.

It was the forbearer of the basic concept of the abacus and how we do arithmetic today. The Sumerians recorded down the final tallied number onto their clay tablets like this:

The Sumerians were the first to come up with the concept of a place value numeral system — the idea that the value of a digit is dependent on its position within the number.

The Babylonians who came after the Sumerians in early 2nd millennium BC inherited their numbering system and developed the positional numeral system, the basis of our decimal system today.

The numeral system that the Babylonians use is base-sixty, called the sexagesimal system. The word “sexagesimal” is derived from the Latin “sexaginta”, which means “sixty”. Our entire system of geometry (eg. 360 degrees in a circle) and our measure of time where we divide days into hours, minutes and seconds (eg. 60 minutes and 60 seconds) is derived from this period of history.

The modern decimal numeral system we use today is base-ten where the value of each digit is ten times greater than the digit to its right.

Unsurprisingly, the word “decimal” comes from the Latin root “decem”, which means “ten”. But why do we use base-ten numerals today? I don’t know… but I am guessing it’s probably because we have ten fingers to count with!

So wait a minute, you say, this is all very interesting history trivia about how the ancients count their numbers … but what does this have to do with modern computers?

Computers use electricity to do their work. Inside each microchip in a computer, there are billions of switches that turn the electricity on or off really rapidly (something like four billion times per second). These two electrical states ON and OFF are represented by the numbers 1 and 0. There are only two symbols for the computer to work with.

That means the internal processes of every modern computer today is based on a binary numeral system.

Every slice of information stored in your computer, smartphone and countless servers around the world — your YouTube videos, Instagram snapshots, Facebook posts, and even this blog post you are reading now — they are all processed and stored using the binary system.

And the binary system uses a base-two system, where the value of each digit is two times greater than the digit to its right.

In a computer binary system, a sequence of “10101011” would indicate a value of 171. The value of 171 could be referring to any information that the computer is storing, from a colour of a pixel of a Pinterest image on your screen to the ASCII character “«” in your email to your friend.

So that’s it for this blog post today. We have covered Sumerian math, numeral base systems, binary numbers, and how all of that relates to modern computing today.

The next time you look at your computer and wonder how it all began, you know that it started at the beginnings of human civilisation, with the Sumerians trying to tally up their barley and sheep herds 4000 years ago.

Auction Bidding War For The First Signed Sumerian Tablet

The tablet was auctioned by Bloomsbury Auctions in London. According to Mr Bolton “One only gets a few chances to work with any item of such importance, marking a milestone in perhaps the most important human invention – writing” reports the Daily Mail . The clay tablet had a reserve of £90,000 ($120,000) but when the auction started several bidders were keen to secure the artifact. A US collector won the bidding war and the final cost of the object, including fees, was £175,000 ($235,000). Diaz Hub reports that Mr Bolton and Bloomsbury were delighted with the auction: “We were delighted with the result, as well as pleased to be part of this piece passing from one important collection to another on its journey through the ages.”

The clay tablet offers a unique insight into the world of ancient Mesopotamia, located mainly in modern Iraq but also extended to parts of Turkey and Syria. The region produced many empires and cultures, and among the most important of these were the Sumerians. Mesopotamia is often regarded as the cradle of civilization and it was here that writing, the wheel, and other important technologies were invented.

Top image: The oldest known signed Sumerian tablet that was recently auctioned for a fortune in England. Source: Bloomsbury Auctions

My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a. Read More

Signed, Kushim

Writing is a method for storing information through material signs. The Sumerian writing system did so by combining two types of signs, which were pressed in clay tablets. One type of signs represented numbers. There were signs for 1, 10, 60, 600, 3,600 and 36,000. (The Sumerians used a combination of base-6 and base-10 numeral systems. Their base-6 system bestowed on us several important legacies, such as the division of the day into twenty-four hours and of the circle into 360 degrees.) The other type of signs represented people, animals, merchandise, territories, dates and so forth. By combining both types of signs the Sumerians were able to preserve far more data than any human brain could remember or any DNA chain could encode.

19. A clay tablet with an administrative text from the city of Uruk, c.3400&ndash3000 BC. &lsquoKushim&rsquo may be the generic title of an officeholder, or the name of a particular individual. If Kushim was indeed a person, he may be the first individual in history whose name is known to us! All the names applied earlier in human history &ndash the Neanderthals, the Natufians, Chauvet Cave, Göbekli Tepe &ndash are modern inventions. We have no idea what the builders of Göbekli Tepe actually called the place. With the appearance of writing, we are beginning to hear history through the ears of its protagonists. When Kushim&rsquos neighbours called out to him, they might really have shouted &lsquoKushim!&rsquo It is telling that the first recorded name in history belongs to an accountant, rather than a prophet, a poet or a great conqueror. 1

At this early stage, writing was limited to facts and figures. The great Sumerian novel, if there ever was one, was never committed to clay tablets. Writing was time-consuming and the reading public tiny, so no one saw any reason to use it for anything other than essential record-keeping. If we look for the first words of wisdom reaching us from our ancestors, 5,000 years ago, we&rsquore in for a big disappointment. The earliest messages our ancestors have left us read, for example, &lsquo29,086 measures barley 37 months Kushim.&rsquo The most probable reading of this sentence is: &lsquoA total of 29,086 measures of barley were received over the course of 37 months. Signed, Kushim.&rsquo Alas, the first texts of history contain no philosophical insights, no poetry, legends, laws, or even royal triumphs. They are humdrum economic documents, recording the payment of taxes, the accumulation of debts and the ownership of property.

Partial script cannot express the entire spectrum of a spoken language, but it can express things that fall outside the scope of spoken language. Partial scripts such as the Sumerian and mathematical scripts cannot be used to write poetry, but they can keep tax accounts very effectively.

Only one other type of text survived from these ancient days, and it is even less exciting: lists of words, copied over and over again by apprentice scribes as training exercises. Even had a bored student wanted to write out some of his poems instead of copy a bill of sale, he could not have done so. The earliest Sumerian writing was a partial rather than a full script. Full script is a system of material signs that can represent spoken language more or less completely. It can therefore express everything people can say, including poetry. Partial script, on the other hand, is a system of material signs that can represent only particular types of information, belonging to a limited field of activity. Latin script, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and Braille are full scripts. You can use them to write tax registers, love poems, history books, food recipes and business law. In contrast, the earliest Sumerian script, like modern mathematical symbols and musical notation, are partial scripts. You can use mathematical script to make calculations, but you cannot use it to write love poems.

20. A man holding a quipu, as depicted in a Spanish manuscript following the fall of the Inca Empire.

It didn&rsquot disturb the Sumerians that their script was ill-suited for writing poetry. They didn&rsquot invent it in order to copy spoken language, but rather to do things that spoken language failed at. There were some cultures, such as those of the pre-Columbian Andes, which used only partial scripts throughout their entire histories, unfazed by their scripts&rsquo limitations and feeling no need for a full version. Andean script was very different from its Sumerian counterpart. In fact, it was so different that many people would argue it wasn&rsquot a script at all. It was not written on clay tablets or pieces of paper. Rather, it was written by tying knots on colourful cords called quipus. Each quipu consisted of many cords of different colours, made of wool or cotton. On each cord, several knots were tied in different places. A single quipu could contain hundreds of cords and thousands of knots. By combining different knots on different cords with different colours, it was possible to record large amounts of mathematical data relating to, for example, tax collection and property ownership. 2

For hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, quipus were essential to the business of cities, kingdoms and empires. 3 They reached their full potential under the Inca Empire, which ruled 10&ndash12 million people and covered today&rsquos Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, as well as chunks of Chile, Argentina and Colombia. Thanks to quipus, the Incas could save and process large amounts of data, without which they would not have been able to maintain the complex administrative machinery that an empire of that size requires.

In fact, quipus were so effective and accurate that in the early years following the Spanish conquest of South America, the Spaniards themselves employed quipus in the work of administering their new empire. The problem was that the Spaniards did not themselves know how to record and read quipus, making them dependent on local professionals. The continent&rsquos new rulers realised that this placed them in a tenuous position &ndash the native quipu experts could easily mislead and cheat their overlords. So once Spain&rsquos dominion was more firmly established, quipus were phased out and the new empire&rsquos records were kept entirely in Latin script and numerals. Very few quipus survived the Spanish occupation, and most of those remaining are undecipherable, since, unfortunately, the art of reading quipus has been lost.


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