By preserving objects created by human thoughts and actions, history documents humanity’s inspiring accomplishments and tragic failures. Thought is often recorded with writing, and the action of making a written document also tells a story. In fact, the development of writing illustrates the significance of history itself to modern everyday life.

The world’s oldest writing system developed in Mesopotamia, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Known today as the Middle East, it includes parts of Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Syria and Turkey. Initially devised as a means of sealing and labelling containers of merchandise, this writing system used symbols impressed on clay.

Originally, the symbols were simple pictures of things (pictographs), but evolved to represent the words and sounds for those items, using the oral language of the time: Sumerian. The people of Sumer created the world’s first civilization, and they developed writing by 3000 BCE (Before the Common Era — the culturally neutral term for BC).

This writing system, known as cuneiform, used a sharpened reed (a stylus) to make linear and angled impressions in the clay. The combinations of marks of different lengths, depths and directions came to designate sounds and words. Over thousands of years, several oral languages used this writing system.

The British Museum has more than 130,000 cuneiform inscriptions about all sorts of topics (from practical business accounts to literary expositions), written by all levels of society (from royal functionaries to common merchants), and meant for various readers (from public proclamations to personal letters). 

Cuneiform chronicles momentous cultural developments, like the first known written laws (Hammurabi’s Code) which standardized societal rules, ensuring justice for all. On the other hand, cuneiform also records more frivolous things, such as the rules of “The Royal Game of Ur,” a very popular board game.

The Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, has wittily (and accurately) described cuneiform tablets as looking like “scratched dog biscuits,” and he acknowledged that it takes people with a “special kind of personality disorder” (such as his colleague and friend, curator Irving Finkel) to devote their lives to the study of cuneiform inscriptions.

There are several YouTube videos of the fascinating Finkel, such as “Irving Finkel Teaches Us Cuneiform” by Matt and Tom (two young YouTubers) and “Tom Scott vs Irving Finkel: The Royal Game of Ur” by the British Museum.

Cuneiform’s continuing cultural relevance is shown by an important artifact: the Cyrus Cylinder. Cyrus the Great ruled Persia (modern Iran) from 559-530 BCE and was founder of an empire that stretched from Turkey to India. The Cylinder records his conquest of neighbouring Babylonia (today’s Iraq) and his release of captives who had been held by the Babylonians. This incident is retold in the Bible’s Old Testament. 

Cyrus came to represent the ideal of liberal leadership, because he exhibited charity to conquered peoples and tolerance to all religions. A Greek biography of Cyrus became a classic text studied by educated men, such as Thomas Jefferson, showing history’s impact on the formation of our modern world.

The recent symbolic use of the Cyrus Cylinder illustrates history’s power. In 1971, during the 2500th anniversary celebrations of the Persian monarchy, the Shah of Iran used the cylinder to link his reign with esteemed Persian kings and traditions. Within a decade, the Islamic Revolution replaced the Shah with Ayatollah Khomeini, and soon Iran and Iraq were at war. The Cylinder then became a symbol of Iranian unity and military superiority. Today, the Cyrus Cylinder is celebrated by many people world-wide as an inspiring relic of the first multicultural, multi-language, multi-faith empire.

The study of history is often justified by stating the importance of learning from the past. Although each era projects new meaning onto historic objects like the Cyrus Cylinder, such ancient written records provide evidence for cultural development, and show that history can inspire modern morals and values.

This article was originally printed in THE BERGEN NEWS and is being reprinted with permission.

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