Cuneiform, the world’s first script, was born in southern Iraq, and carbon dating indicates it originated between 3400 and 3300 B.C., writes Robert Biggs in one of the book’s finest essays. There must have been quite a burst of innovation, because within a century or two the wheel appeared as well. It was quickly put to use in war, on chariots pulled by recently domesticated donkeys. Cuneiform found its first use in record keeping: receipts for barley bales, notices of gold shipments, more the work of accountants than poets. But before long, people went wild for cuneiform. Clay tablets with its spindly arrangements of flicks and crosses started to appear by the thousands, recording paeans, epics and incantations.
Cuneiform tablets became so common in ancient Iraq that they were used as packing material in building foundations and tossed into trash pits with animal and fish bones. In the 1980s archaeologists found a library of 800 tablets arranged on their shelves at a site called Sippar and sent them to the Iraq Museum, where they were widely and mistakenly reported to have been lost in the 2003 looting. The museum currently holds more than 100,000 tablets, and thousands more circulate elsewhere. Biggs recounts how the Chicago department store Marshall Field’s was selling cuneiform tablets from Ur for $10 each as late as the 1960s. —Roger Atwood —The Story of the Iraq Museum (