The clay tablet was in use for three millennia (although in different chronological distributions), the carrier par excellence for cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia, Elam and southeastern Iran, Syria, Asia Minor, and Armenia. More tablets by far have been recovered than other incised or stamped clay objects such as cones, cylinders, prisms, terra cottas, sealings on vessels, or bricks; or inscribed objects in other materials, such as stone or metal. Tablet is a catch-all term used to refer to quite divergent forms: in longitudinal section, the tablet may be dislike, plano-convex, or lenticular. Viewed from above, it may be rectangular or square, with more or less rounded corners or, more rarely, oval or circular. Formats vary diachronically, but sometimes complement the type of text. School “exercise” tablets from the first half of the second millennium BCE frequently are round, as is a special kind of field survey tablet dating to the third dynasty at Ur (twenty-first century BCE). Tablets stored on shelves, like modern books, as is attested in the Ebla archives in northern Syria (twenty-fourth century BCE), of course required flat edges.
From earliest times, both sides of a tablet could be inscribed. When switching from the obverse to the reverse, the tablet was turned longitudinally—not like the pages of a book. From the Akkad period (twenty-fourth–twenty-third centuries BCE) onward, scribes, after filling the obverse, sometimes, to save space, used its lower edge and then continued onto its back. After filling the reverse, they sometimes inscribed the upper edge and, finally, the space still available on the tablet's left edge. The right edge received the ends of lines (either of the obverse or of the reverse) the scribe had been unable to include for lack of space. Indenting a line was common practice, but the enjambment (hyphenation) of part of a word or of a phrase was quite unusual.
Clay tablets come in a great variety of sizes. Tiny “memoranda” measure only 1.6 × 1.6 cm; the largest administrative tablet found at Ebla measures 36 × 33 cm. The height of the individual signs, too, varied. The average height for Old Babylonian letters is 4–5 mm, but there are specimens of microscopic tablets: the “library on a postcard” from Old Babylonian Isin is a postcard-sized tablet containing five columns on its obverse and six on its reverse and about 770 lines of literary text; the average height of a sign is only 1.7 mm. [See Ebla; Isin.]
In the earliest examples, the surface of a clay tablet was divided into rectangular “cases” (rectangles marked off in the clay with a stylus). From the end of the third millennium onward, the use of cases was gradually abandoned and texts became linear, often set off by ruled lines. Normally, a case or line contained a text sense unit (a phrase or a whole sentence). Larger tablets were divided into as many columns as were necessary to adapt the text to the format of the tablet. The “classical” version of the Gilgamesh epic, for example, consists of tablets with three columns each on the obverse and reverse.
Apart from the usual clay tablet, wood or ivory boards covered with a layer of wax are attested from the second half of the second millennium BCE onward. Original wax tablets have been recovered at Nimrud (ancient Calah), dating to the Neo-Assyrian period. Wax, as a receiver of incised cuneiform script, being similar to wet clay, may have been used far more frequently than can be proven. Because wax is so perishable, few traces can be expected to have survived, whereas clay tablets, even unbaked tablets, are nearly indestructable as long as they are not exposed to humidity leading to salinity.
Toward the end of the third millennium BCE tablets—usually of legal content, but also of letters—were provided with a “case,” or an “envelope,” also of clay, on which the text of the “inner” tablet was repeated or resumed. This device prevented falsification of the wording and, especially, of number signs involving amounts of silver or other commodities relative to a transaction. A document could then only be opened by breaking the case in the presence of judges and/or witnesses.
Apart from receiving cuneiform writing, clay tablets were also a suitable surface on which to apply stamp seals or to roll cylinder seals in developing testimony in a legal or an administrative transaction. Many specimens of Mesopotamian glyptic art are in fact known not from the original sealing instruments, but from their “first impressions” on clay.
The long use of cuneiform tablets was certainly the result of the interdependence of the type of writing and the material, in addition to the fact that clay was both inexpensive and ubiquitous. There are rare and very late examples of clay tablets used for Greek script (the so-called Greco-Babyloniaca) during the first century BCE and/or CE. When in Mesopotamia the Akkadian language was gradually replaced by Aramaic, which was normally written on ostraca and papyrus, the practice of writing on clay tablets fell into disuse. The last dated cuneiform tablet is from the year 78 CE.
In the context of the Near East, writing on tablets is best known for the primary Mesopotamian languages and those of neighboring areas: Sumerian, Akkadian, Elamite, Hurrian, and Hittite. However, the medium was also used for other languages of Asia Minor and for Urartian as well as, in different script, for languages farther removed (e.g., Ugaritic, Linear A and B)—some still essentially undeciphered (e.g., Linear A, Cypro-Minoan). Whereas Ugaritic and Old Persian each created a cuneiform script imitating Sumero-Akkadian syllabograms, the Aegean scripts were linear, as was Aramaic, which occasionally appears as glosses to Akkadian (Neo-Assyrian) cuneiform.[
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Dietz O. Edzard