Tiny History

What can you learn from really old notes? A lot, at least when SCU students study an ancient clay tablet.

Imagine the world thousands of years ago. No smartphones, no laptops. No TikTok or Instagram. The way humans received and passed along information was drastically different. Most of it was written on really old rocks.

Santa Clara University has one of those old rocks—a cuneiform tablet that’s an estimated 4,000 years old. It’s tiny—smaller than a human palm.

Despite its size, the tablet connects students to a tangible form of history. The oldest item in the University Archives and Special Collections proves the durability of the written word and how we disseminate information across the world, across generations, and across cultures.

In this case: At some point in the last Sumerian dynasty, the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2100-2000 B.C.), an official named Innatea, from Abba-shaga needed a receipt for the four lambs and one goat he sent to another official. Someone pressed a reed or stylus into wet clay, forming impressions, a kind of writing called cuneiform used in more than 15 languages, and SCU’s tablet was born.

In the hands of modern students and faculty, though, the research opportunities go beyond the content of that one exchange.

In undergraduate and graduate classes, students journey across the transformation of technology using the tablet as a launching point—from cuneiform to the printing press to laser printing. They pore over connections to the Epic of Gilgamesh (the oldest piece of written literature—also using cuneiform). SCU graduate students use the tablet to teach their students in social studies and history classes, illustrating how one piece of history can impact students across a multitude of generations.

In one class, English Lecturer Melissa Donegan leads students as they interact with a variety of items from archives, including the tablet. The class’s theme: Writing Home—Stuff and the Stories It Helps Us Tell. The bigger picture focuses on the true treasures of the world—what makes something meaningful and vital to humanity as a whole? “Here we have something that is 4,000 years old,” Donegan says. “We emphasize these treasures. We come back to them, engage with them—they are made to last.”

Students in Donegan’s class each wrote postcards to someone they know, describing one of the pieces in Santa Clara University’s Archives and why it is important. When asked about the tablet, Hannah Yeh ’25 recalled why it caught her eye: “The tablet really makes you think about what we value and why we value it.”

The University values it too.

To keep it safe, it is stored in an archival box, about the size of a business card holder, and stashed in the Archive’s vault, where the HVAC system keeps the temperature at 65 degrees to ensure the longevity of artifacts.

“We received the tablet in 2018 from an antiquities dealer based in the United Kingdom. But the tablet wasn’t cataloged in our system until 2021 because it is so unique,” says Kelci Baughman McDowell, Santa Clara University’s Research and Instruction Services Coordinator for Archives and Special Collections. “We purchased the tablet for $750 and made sure it was not unethically looted from Palestine.”

In many ways, the cuneiform tablet symbolizes how much technology and writing have changed, but perhaps how humanity, at its core, remained the same.

Most of us are handed a receipt any time we go to a grocery store, only we are given a piece of paper rather than clay. Just imagine those notoriously lengthy CVS receipts transcribed onto rocks. Even over thousands of years, tenets of the human experience remain relatable. Between lists, invoices, and even the handy refrigerator note, we continue to track what we have and where it comes from.

Although not much is known about Innatea and Abba-shaga, we know they existed—we get a glimpse into the ways they communicated, into their day-to-day lives, into their story so much like ours and so different.

post-image The Babylonian tablet is an example of cuneiform writing. SCU students use an ancient tablet to learn about technology, communication, and more. / Image courtesy Wikicommons.
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