In July 1853, Hormuzd Rassam was excavating an area at the ruins of the mound of Kuyunjik (Nineveh, Mesopotamia, modern-day Mosul Governorate, Iraq), one of the most important cities in the heartland of the Assyrian Empire. The area was an open space between the outer court of the palace of the Assyrian King Sennacherib and the Ishtar Temple. About 200 feet northeast of the palace, Rassam dug a trench that went down about 15 feet from the surface of the mound. At this point, his workmen found a large, 4-sided, monolith pillar; it was an obelisk, somewhat whitish in colour. The obelisk was lying on it sides. An artist, C. D. Hodder, who accompanied Rassam on his expedition, made drawings of the 4 sides of the obelisk in situ. It is now known as the White Obelisk of Ashurnasirpal I and housed in the British Museum.
Cuneiform is considered the single most significant legacy of the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia. It was developed c. 3500-3000 BCE, is considered the first written language created, and was used for well over 1000 years. The oldest-dated cuneiform tablets mostly contain records of business transactions. However, over the centuries, cuneiform tables covered various different topics such as affairs of state, religion, magic, history, contracts, and were used for personal and professional communication (letters).
The gods were responsible for teaching humans how to write. Without their divine involvement, it would have been impossible for us, imperfect mortals, to develop such a valuable and powerful skill. This, and other similar explanations, was the way that most ancient societies accounted for the existence of writing.
Itzamná, the Mayan god and ruler of heaven, was the inventor of writing in Mesoamerica, just like Odin in Norse mythology was the god who invented the runes. Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom and scribe of the gods, was responsible for the invention of Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Greek god Hermes (the Roman Mercury), related to the Egyptian Thoth by some Greeks, was the creator of the Greek alphabet. Even those Greeks who had a more rational explanation for the origin of the alphabet relied on a legendary figure who although was no god, was still mythical: Cadmus, the founder and first king of Thebes according to Greek folklore (Herodotus, 5.58).
Sixth graders typically have some background knowledge of Egypt, Greece, Rome and the Maya when we begin studying those civilizations. Right now, we are near the end of the Mesopotamia unit, about which they typically know little coming in. It has been nice to spend three weeks with every day being a brand new topic for my students. I introduced the concept of a civilization and talked about the seven characteristics according to our textbook–social structure, government, stable food supply, religion, the arts, technology, and writing – before we delved into a project that combined these characteristics: making cuneiform tablets.
The most challenging concept for sixth graders to wrap their minds around is the importance of farming, many aspects of which were kept track of on cuneiform tablets. Coming from an urban environment, where most food comes from a store, the stages of food production prior to store arrival are lost and rarely contemplated. We ran a couple scenarios showing the extreme difficulty of hunter/gatherer tribes, and they truly appreciated the hardships and daily struggle for survival of prehistoric peoples. The archaeological discoveries at Jarmo indicating the early stages of a farming culture? No big deal. If there was one takeaway I hope they grasp from this unit, it would be the importance of farming; but even on year five of teaching, I can’t quite connect the dots for them.