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It was in Egypt and Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) that civilization arose, and it is there that we find the earliest examples of that key feature of civilization, writing. These examples, in the form of inscribed clay tablets that date to shortly before 3000 B.C.E., have been discovered among the archaeological remains of the Sumerians, a gifted people settled in southern Mesopotamia.
The Egyptians were not far behind in developing writing, but we cannot follow the history of their writing in detail because they used a perishable writing material. In ancient times the banks of the Nile were lined with papyrus plants, and from the papyrus reeds the Egyptians made a form of paper; it was excellent in quality but, like any paper, fragile. Mesopotamia's rivers boasted no such useful reeds, but its land did provide good clay, and as a consequence the clay tablet became the standard material. Though clumsy and bulky it has a virtue dear to archaeologists: it is durable. Fire, for example, which is death to papyrus paper or other writing materials such as leather and wood, simply bakes it hard, thereby making it even more durable. So when a conqueror set a Mesopotamian palace ablaze, he helped ensure the survival of any clay tablets in it. Clay, moreover, is cheap, and forming it into tablets is easy, factors that helped the clay tablet become the preferred writing material not only throughout Mesopotamia but far outside it as well, in Syria, Asia Minor, Persia, and even for a while in Crete and Greece. Excavators have unearthed clay tablets in all these lands. In the Near East they remained in use for more than two and a half millennia, and in certain areas they lasted down to the beginning of the common era until finally yielding, once and for all, to more convenient alternatives.
The Sumerians perfected a style of writing suited to clay. This script consists of simple shapes, basically just wedge shapes and lines that could easily be incised in soft clay with a reed or wooden stylus; scholars have dubbed it cuneiform from the wedge-shaped marks (cunei in Latin) that are its hallmark. Although the ingredients are merely wedges and lines, there are hundreds of combinations of these basic forms that stand for different sounds or words. Learning these complex signs required long training and much practice; inevitably, literacy was largely limited to a small professional class, the scribes.
The Akkadians conquered the Sumerians around the middle of the third millennium B.C.E.,and they took over the various cuneiform signs used for writing Sumerian and gave them sound and word values that fit their own language. The Babylonians and Assyrians did the same, and so did peoples in Syria and Asia Minor. The literature of the Sumerians was treasured throughout the Near East, and long after Sumerian ceased to be spoken, the Babylonians and Assyrians and others kept it alive as a literary language, the way Europeans kept Latin alive after the fall of Rome. For the scribes of these non-Sumerian languages, training was doubly demanding since they had to know the values of the various cuneiform signs for Sumerian as well as for their own language.
The contents of the earliest clay tablets are simple notations of numbers of commodities-animals, jars, baskets, etc. Writing, it would appear, started as a primitive form of bookkeeping. Its use soon widened to document the multitudinous things and acts that are involved in daily life, from simple inventories of commodities to complicated governmental rules and regulations.
Archaeologists frequently find clay tablets in batches. The batches, some of which contain thousands of tablets, consist for the most part of documents of the types just mentioned: bills, deliveries, receipts, inventories, loans, marriage contracts, divorce settlements, court judgments, and so on. These records of factual matters were kept in storage to be available for reference-they were, in effect, files, or, to use the term preferred by specialists in the ancient Near East, archives. Now and then these files include pieces of writing that are of a distinctly different order, writings that do not merely record some matter of fact but involve creative intellectual activity. They range from simple textbook material to literature-and they make an appearance very early, even from the third millennium B.C.E.