As a teacher of history, I am always struck by the role of chance and circumstance in history. Consider Jared Diamond’s conversation with a Papuan mate of his that led him to write Guns, Germs and Steel – a great treatise on the role of chance and geography in the development of human history.

It is chance that leads us to know so much about the world’s early civilisations in the 'Land Between the Rivers' – Mesopotamia to the Greeks, The Ancient Near East, or perhaps more accurately Ancient South-West Asia. This region, although blessed by fertile soil, lacked metals, timber and stone. But it had one commodity in abundance: clay.

So when writing develops there – the first place in the world to develop it, they recorded their transactions, their laws, and heck, even their erotic poetry, onto clay tablets.

Clay has the ability to last for the few thousand years between them and us. If they had written on papyrus or other early writing materials, they would have decomposed (it’s only Egypt’s arid sands that preserved much of their papyri).

The writing system they used is called cuneiform – it consists of making wedge-shaped impressions into a clay surface. This system of writing lasted throughout much of Ancient South-West Asian history – being used to record a number of languages: Sumerian, Akkadian, Hurrian etc.

For the linguists among you, it is a logo-syllabic script – each character represents a syllable.

Our Year 10 History students in their study of the so-called, 'Cradle of Civilisation' were learning about cuneiform by writing it. They transcribed their names (as long as their names had no 'f's or 'j's) onto their own clay tablet.

One can’t help but feel the distance between those of the bronze age and us narrowing…

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