World's oldest writing not poetry but a shopping receipt

An expert in cuneiform visits Manarat al Saadiyat's Splendours of Mesopotamia exhibit to talk about the ancient script.

Dr Irving Finkel, the curator of the Middle East Department - the British Museum, with some of the artefacts featuring cuneiform: the oldest form of writing yet discovered.
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

SAADIYAT ISLAND // The neatly drawn lines are marked by impressions and imprints on a clay tablet.

The 5,000-year-old receipt for clothing, sent by boat from Ancient Mesopotamia to Dilmun - what is now Bahrain - represents the oldest writing in the world.

"The origin of writing is not very romantic, I am afraid," said Dr Irving Finkel, curator of the Middle East Department at the British Museum. "Writing was not invented for poetry and storytelling."

Dr Finkel was in Abu Dhabi last night at the Manarat al Saadiyat to present his work on the "world's oldest writing" as part of the ongoing Splendours of Mesopotamia exhibition.

For more than 42 years Dr Finkel has studied ancient languages and writings, specialising in the world's oldest known written variety. Cuneiform, which in Latin translates to "wedge-shaped", was done by pressing a reed stylus on to damp clay. The writing is believed to be even older than Egyptian hieroglyphics, arising out of the administrative and practical needs of the time.

"Mesopotamia was the site of the world's first international cities, and so its people needed a way of managing their lands and trade," said Dr Finkel.

Developed for book-keeping purposes, at first the clay tablets were most commonly used to jot down shopping lists, wages and the allocation of rations for temple workers. The writing expanded to include letters, art, official announcements and even historic records, which were then often buried with kings or kept in temples.

"The best part was that they wrote down massive dictionaries divided into lists, like lists of gods and lists of woods," said Dr Finkel. "The ancient people of Mesopotamia were quite organised."

Reading over the clay and stone tablets comes as naturally to the curator as English. He scans over and deciphers artefacts on exhibition within seconds. One hand-sized black stone tablet, dating back more than 4,000 years, was simply identified as an "identification tablet" - yet the translation reveals more.

"It says, 'for Dimtabba, his lady, Shulgi'," read Dr Finkel. "'Powerful male, king of Ur, King of Sumer and Akkad, built her temple for her'."

Cuneiform works in syllabary - where each sign is a syllable. Demonstrating with his own name, Irving, Dr Finkel explained it would have to be broken down to 'er, wi, in and gu'. "It was just a different way to express yourself," he said.

Although the written form did not survive, petering out about 1,800 years ago, some verbal aspects can be found in the languages spoken in the region.

Pointing to dots in a piece of clay, Dr Finkel said: "If we sound out the numbers for instance, it sounds a bit like Arabic."

As they were developing the script, the ancient writers built a dictionary of the symbols that allowed researchers and archaeologists to start breaking the code as early as the 19th century - when parts of Iraq started being excavated.

Often the script was accompanied by elaborate carving and drawings of figures. Another of Mesopotamia's treasures, on display at the exhibition, is being dubbed the world's first "comic strip" - although not a very funny one.

The stone relief runs the length of one wall, more than 182cm tall and 199cm wide, depicting the battle of Til Tuba in 660-650BC, between the Assyrians of Mesopotamia and the Elamites of southern Iran.

"You have the action demonstrated, like the arrows piercing the necks of the enemy and piling of chopped heads, and then the script over the drawing explaining what is happening and why," said Dr Finkel. "It is quite graphic, to act as both a historic document and a propaganda piece to warn anyone against disobeying the king."

The script reflects the Assyrians' victory, and the relevance of its long-ago existence.

"History, and the sometimes boastful accounts by rulers of their accomplishments, and legendary tales like that of Gilgamesh's search for eternal youth, would not have survived to modern times without cuneiform," said Dr Finkel.

Members of the public can try their hand at writing cuneiform into wet clay during two free workshops, one on May 4 for adults and another on May 9 for children. For details go to

Presented by the Tourism Development and Investment Company, there are more than 200 pieces in the Splendours of Mesopotamia exhibition, which is also free and runs until June 27. The pieces are from the British Museum's renowned Middle East collection, as well as a selection from the Al Ain National Museum.

The headline of this article has been changed since initial publication as First scroll: thank you for shopping. The world's oldest writing is on stones, not scrolls.