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Nobody’s perfect

Over 2500 years ago, someone used a sharp piece of reed to cover the surface of this cylindrical piece of clay with small, wedge-shaped dents. That’s how writing worked in ancient Mesopotamia, the land around the two great rivers Tigris and Euphrates, in present-day Iraq. Today we call their script cuneiform, from the Latin cuneus, meaning ‘wedge’.

The language is Akkadian, which is from the same family as Arabic and Hebrew. A scribe wrote this text in the name of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II. This king, who reigned from 604 to 562 BC, tells us via this piece of clay that he rebuilt a temple for Shamash, the sun god.The name Nebuchadnezzar does not come from Akkadian, but from Hebrew. This is because while no one could speak Akkadian or read cuneiform anymore, the king’s name lived forth in the Hebrew Bible. The Akkadian name is Nabu-kudurri-usur, which means ‘Nabu, protect my eldest son’. Mesopotamian names were often little phrases such as this one, containing the name of a god or goddess. Nabu was the god of writing.

As this text is written by a human hand, it is not without imperfections. Very unkindly, we’ve zoomed right in on one. Do you see a few tiny wedges at the top of the blank space? Here it seems the scribe started to write a sign, realized there would be too much space left at the end of the line, erased it with a finger and started again lower down the line.

Even the most experienced of us make mistakes, it’s part of being human. Just be sure to correct them before the clay hardens.