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Making It Out Of Clay

Bank Systems & Technology readers should not be surprised to learn that such an important legacy as cuneiform writing has prominent roots in financial technology.

In the aftermath of the toppling of the Hussein regime, genuine sorrow over the looting of Iraq's antiquities knows no national boundaries. The ancient Sumerians' use of cuneiform symbols inscribed on clay tablets at approximately 3,500 B.C. represents the earliest-known form of writing and consequently the earliest recorded history. Truly, the theft and destruction of even a small portion of Iraq's archaeological heritage represents an incalculable loss to global culture and scholarship.

Bank Systems & Technology readers should not be surprised to learn that such an important legacy as cuneiform writing has prominent roots in financial technology.

The mother of all inventions was founded in commercial necessity, in that the Sumerian economy needed to provide legal standing to the non-simultaneous exchanges of goods. Suppose a Sumerian farmer wanted to exchange today's crops for tomorrow's livestock. Simply handing over valuable crops on nothing more than a verbal promise must have been as troublesome in ancient Sumer as it would be in modern Somerville.

The answer was clay storage technology. For any given commodity trade, abstract symbols representing the items to be exchanged were inscribed identically onto two separate clay tablets. Once hardened in a kiln, the tablets became documentary evidence of the agreed-upon trade. The farmer in the above example would exchange his crops not for livestock, but for a baked clay tablet redeemable for livestock at a later date.

Just to make sure that neither party to the trade yielded to the temptation to alter the terms of the agreement ex post with a few well-placed hatch marks, the "bill of exchange" tablets were further enclosed in clay envelopes and then baked once more. Doing so forestalled forgery by making modifications far easier to detect.

Cuneiform writing was taught in Sumerian schools, making basic literacy a common educational attainment. Still, the process of creating, inscribing and baking clay tablets and clay envelopes was the task of a technical specialist, who became a trusted financial intermediary. As such, he was the forerunner to the modern banker, not to mention a pioneer in the world of writing.

The noted Sumerologist S.N. Kramer, in History Begins At Sumer, describes several other "firsts" attributed to the Sumerian people, including the first bicameral congress, the first legal precedent, and the first case of tax reduction.

In the last instance, the inhabitants of Lagash had been highly taxed in order to fund ongoing wars with the neighboring city-state of Umma. Kramer writes: "In order to raise armies and supply them with arms and equipment, the rulers found it necessary to infringe on the personal rights of the individual citizen, to tax his wealth and property to the limit, and to appropriate property belonging to the temple."

The Lagashites "felt so victimized and oppressed that they threw off the old Ur-Nanshe dynasty and selected a ruler from another family altogether," writes Kramer. The new ruler, Urukagina, removed the oppressive taxes, prevented exploitation of the poor, and cracked down on rampant crime.

The grateful Lagash people celebrated Urukagina's benevolent reign. But as it turned out, Lagash had needed its military after all. Less than ten years later, Urukagina and Lagash were defeated by Umma, led by the ambitious Lugalzaggisi.

It's stories like these that make the theft and destruction of the artifacts and records from Sumerian civilization a crime that will be felt for the rest of humanity's recorded history. At the same time, the positive aspects of Iraq's ancient heritage are no longer confined to a museum exhibit. With any luck, its people will yet again amaze the world with innovations that contribute to the betterment of knowledge, wisdom and humanity.


Amiraqa the Beautiful
"Man's social and spiritual development is often slow, devious, and hard to trace. The full-grown tree may well be separated from its original seed by thousands of miles and years. Take, for example, the way of life known as democracy and its fundamental institution, the political assembly. On the surface it seems to be practically a monopoly of our Western civilization and an outgrowth of recent centuries. Who could imagine that there were political congresses thousands and thousands of years ago, and in parts of the world rarely associated with democratic institutions?"

S.N. Kramer from History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine "Firsts" in Recorded History (University of Pennsylvania Press, 3rd ed., 1989)

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