In about 1780 B.C., a Babylonian ruler named Hammurabi codified hundreds of laws and had them written on an eight-foot stele made of black basalt. Now in the Louvre, the stele's inscriptions were unintelligible for thousands of years.
Who was Hammurabi? What language did he speak? Since people at that time did not have paper, how did they write?
Using a stylus, writers inscribed words on wet clay. Since their writing looks like wedges to us, we call it cuneiform (based on cuneus, the Latin word for wedge).
Babylonian scribes wrote in columns, beginning on the left side of a clay tablet. When the entire side of the tablet was filled (moving from left to right), the scribe would turn it over from the bottom (not from the side, like we turn a page). On the turned-over side, the scribe would again write in columns, this time moving from right to left.
When these clay tablets were found during modern times, no one initially understood their meaning. Although Egyptian hieroglyphics had been deciphered (because Jean Francois Champollion understood two of the three languages inscribed on the Rosetta Stone), nothing similar had been located to help decode cuneiform writing. Not, that is, until Henry Creswicke Rawlinson scaled the face of a cliff in the Zagros Mountains of Western Iran (where an inscription was written over the tomb of Darius I).
After a long process, the words above Darius’ tomb - referred to as the Behistun Inscription - were deciphered. Once that happened, modern scholars were able to translate the cuneiform writing on Hammurabi’s stele.
In this story about the ancient law code, step back in time to the Bronze Age. Meet Hammurabi and examine pictures of his famous stele. Read his laws (which were class-based and gender-biased), including definitions of obscure words. Observe artist renderings, based on archeological evidence, to see how Babylon may have appeared at the time.
Discover how to write names in cuneiform and hieroglyphics. Listen to how an ancient Egyptian may have sounded. And ... see what scholars believe is the world’s oldest surviving map.
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