We are independent & ad-supported. We may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
Advertiser Disclosure
Our website is an independent, advertising-supported platform. We provide our content free of charge to our readers, and to keep it that way, we rely on revenue generated through advertisements and affiliate partnerships. This means that when you click on certain links on our site and make a purchase, we may earn a commission. Learn more.
How We Make Money
We sustain our operations through affiliate commissions and advertising. If you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, we may receive a commission from the merchant at no additional cost to you. We also display advertisements on our website, which help generate revenue to support our work and keep our content free for readers. Our editorial team operates independently of our advertising and affiliate partnerships to ensure that our content remains unbiased and focused on providing you with the best information and recommendations based on thorough research and honest evaluations. To remain transparent, we’ve provided a list of our current affiliate partners here.

What are the Clay Tablets of Mesopotamia?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 23, 2024
Our promise to you
Historical Index is dedicated to creating trustworthy, high-quality content that always prioritizes transparency, integrity, and inclusivity above all else. Our ensure that our content creation and review process includes rigorous fact-checking, evidence-based, and continual updates to ensure accuracy and reliability.

Our Promise to you

Founded in 2002, our company has been a trusted resource for readers seeking informative and engaging content. Our dedication to quality remains unwavering—and will never change. We follow a strict editorial policy, ensuring that our content is authored by highly qualified professionals and edited by subject matter experts. This guarantees that everything we publish is objective, accurate, and trustworthy.

Over the years, we've refined our approach to cover a wide range of topics, providing readers with reliable and practical advice to enhance their knowledge and skills. That's why millions of readers turn to us each year. Join us in celebrating the joy of learning, guided by standards you can trust.

Editorial Standards

At Historical Index, we are committed to creating content that you can trust. Our editorial process is designed to ensure that every piece of content we publish is accurate, reliable, and informative.

Our team of experienced writers and editors follows a strict set of guidelines to ensure the highest quality content. We conduct thorough research, fact-check all information, and rely on credible sources to back up our claims. Our content is reviewed by subject-matter experts to ensure accuracy and clarity.

We believe in transparency and maintain editorial independence from our advertisers. Our team does not receive direct compensation from advertisers, allowing us to create unbiased content that prioritizes your interests.

The clay tablets of Mesopotamia, dating back as far as 3,500 B.C., were used to record the earliest writings of mankind. Mesopotamia is believed to be the birthplace of modern civilization, with the great city of Ur founded around 4,000 B.C. by the people of Sumer, a "providence" of Mesopotamia. Ur was a cultural and commercial center millennia before the rise of the Greek and Roman civilizations, and is thought to be the home of the biblical Abraham. These areas today lay in modern Iraq along the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers.

Clay tablets were made from earth and water, inscribed while wet with a stick-like stylus, then sun-baked to preserve the cuneiform markings. The clay tablets of Mesopotamia extend over a 3,000-year period, are written in several languages, and provide a fascinating window into early civilization. From administrative records to sales receipts, schoolbooks to private letters, dictionaries to astronomy, the clay tablets of Mesopotamia allow modern scholars invaluable insight into our past. The tablets even include humor, such as a discourse between a plow and hoe debating the morality of humility verses pride.

One of the most renowned and repeated stories found in the clay tablets of Mesopotamia is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which first appears sometime before 2,000 B.C. Later versions have also been recovered, the best preserved written on a series of 12 tablets from the 7th century B.C. The epic tells of the adventures of the King of Uruk, involving many mythic tales including Gilgamesh being told a story about a great flood, thought to have inspired the Biblical writers who followed.

Around 2,100 B.C. Ur was invaded and much of it destroyed. The tablets faithfully recorded many poems and laments for the once-great city, including the following:

On that day did the storm leave the city
that city was a ruin. . .
The people mourn.
Dead men, not potsherds littered the approaches,
The walls were gaping;
the high gates, the road, were piled with dead.
In the side streets, where feasting crowds
would gather,
Scattered, they lay.

In all the streets and roadways, bodies lay.
In open fields that used to fill with dancers,
they lay in heaps.
The country's blood now filled its holes,
like metal in a mold;
Bodies dissolved - like fat left in the sun.

Source: Oates J. Babylon. London: Thames and Hudson, 1986

An estimated 500,000 clay tablets survived to modern day, held in museums and private collections. However, with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 many priceless artifacts were destroyed or looted from unprotected Iraqi museums. Among the lost treasures was a collection of some 170,000 clay tablets of Mesopotamia.

As a result of this devastating loss the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI) was founded. A joint venture of UCLA and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, the CDLI, working with Assyriologists, curators and historians from around the world, intends to digitally archive pictures and translations of tablets dating from 3,350 BC forward. This digital library-in-progress is available on the Internet at the CDLI website, where one can also find a list of museums with clay tablets on public display.

Though clay tablets served as the notepads of their day, the ancient Egyptians had discovered the forerunner to paper as early as 4,000 B.C. Papyrus was made from a plant that grew along the Nile River, however, the Egyptians valued their papyrus-making secret so much, it was the one thing they never wrote down.

GPT loading...

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon975816 — On Oct 29, 2014

Was Babylonia one of the first empires to get the clay tablets?

By anon288385 — On Aug 30, 2012

What size was an average tablet?

By pinkandred — On May 05, 2011

What does cuneiform writing look like? I have always read about how it appears, but have never seen a true example.

Does anyone know of any real examples to look at?

By Sara84 — On May 03, 2011

I remember studying the mesopotamian clay tablets in school. I found it fascinating to think about something so old that a civilization left behind. It is also amazing to think that the first written word by man has survived after all these years.

I have often wondered what it would be like to live back then. I think the school records and sales records would be very interesting and offer a good look into the lives of the Mesopotamians. I would love to see the tablets on display somewhere. If only they had a traveling museum--but I realize the tablets are so old and priceless that it would be impossible.

Historical Index, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.

Historical Index, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.