Step 3 of 5

Do I look old?

Related Images

  • Fig. 2 - Third-millennium BC statue of Sumerian ruler Gudea – The Metropolitan Museum of Art – [59.2](
  • Fig. 3 - First-millennium BC stela of Assyrian king Ashurbanipal – The British Museum – [90864](

Something strange is going on with our cylinder. To understand what, I want you to meet two people. In Fig. 2 you can see someone called Gudea, and in Fig. 3, Ashurbanipal. Gudea lived about 1500 years earlier than Ashurbanipal and the two men spoke completely different languages, yet their inscriptions are both written in the same script. By comparing the two, you can see how cuneiform changed over the course of its long life.Gudea spoke Sumerian, the other great Mesopotamian language beside Akkadian. It is unrelated to any other language we know, and it was the Sumerians who invented cuneiform, which was later adapted for writing Akkadian. Both Ashurbanipal and Nebuchadnezzar spoke Akkadian, but different dialects: Ashurbanipal spoke Assyrian, Nebuchadnezzar Babylonian.

If we now look at our cylinder, we see that the script fits the time of Gudea. The signs are quite complex, and as the object is meant to stand upright, the writing direction is vertical, which is the old way. But looks deceive—this cylinder is younger than Ashurbanipal! The scribe has written its text in a style of script which in Nebuchadnezzar’s time was already ancient.

What you see here is something we still do today. When we make a Roman-style inscription on one of our buildings or monuments, we’re essentially doing the same thing this scribe did over 2500 years ago. Just like us, the Mesopotamians were aware of their culture’s history, and they kept their ancestors’ traditions alive.