Comparing ancient texts

Lab 2

Comparing the Cuneiform tablet and the Egyptian “Coins for the Ferryman

The Cuneiform: (Found here) Cuneiform tablets were one of the earliest records of writing, and were used for economic purposes. Dating back to over 2000 BCE, the tablets functioned as receipts, marking who got a commodity, and how much was given. At the time, the idea of goods having an economic value wasn’t even considered, and the cuneiform didn’t mark any currency or “value” in the exchange.

Small and made of clay, cuneiform tablets likely weren’t reserved for the wealthy as clay was relatively easy to come by and carve for any civilization near water (as most were), and its portability made it easy to store and share for record-keeping. However, the sealing of the cuneiform by a scribe places it out of reach for the average peasant. Instead it was likely used most often by wealthier merchants and for larger, more important trades.

There are some notable details in the carving of the cuneiform:

  1. Line markings intentionally carved between the “lines” of characters
    • This highlights the cuneiform’s purpose, as this could easily be used to separate details of a trade, or even to list of the items exchanged as we see on modern receipts
  2. Non-uniform carving (depth of the cuneiform letters varies, lines aren’t straight, and letters run up and slightly around the edge of the tablet)
    • Not as formal as ledgers or records today
    • Used more for information than a contract of sorts
      • It’s more notes than “agreements”
    • Likely not intended for historical records
  3. Age is obvious by the worn down, smoothed edges
    • Likely more rectangular / had sharper edges when made

The Coins for the Ferryman: (Found here with description here) These Egyptian coins, despite being introduced to the culture as potential economic tools by the Greeks, were adopted solely for their religious purpose. Upon burial, the coins were given to a mummy in order for the deceased to pay the ferryman in the afterlife to take them to the Netherworld.

Coins were and are a form of communicating and exchanging value, a middle-man in the barter system that made it possible to trade for items you need without being able to directly supply those needed by the other party. However, the Egyptians were yet to use them primarily for such a purpose in the Ptolemaic Period (332-31 BCE) (which the coins shown are from).

Being given to mummies, these coins were a sign of wealth and high-class, as mummification was reserved for such people. They were made of metal, making them inherently more rare / valuable, and the carvings on them were more intricate than needed to show value (drawings, designs, and symbols as opposed to just numbers).

Even though the coins were originally spiritually focused, they likely slowly shifted to more economic purposes, even potentially acting as the predecessor for later currencies, since many of them started with a few coins of various values, often made of silver and gold.

It is entirely possible that they also functioned in a sort of inverse way as the cuneiform tablet, “recording” exchange of value instead of goods. In a situation such as that, the seller has less need to record the recipient of the goods, as the value itself has shifted ownership to the former; they don’t need to reference the specific exchange to “cash in” since the societal record of economic power can easily be carried and shown, “stored” in the coins.

Comparative Analysis: Although both the cuneiform tablet and the coins for the ferryman appear to be economic tools, they have major differences that shows the contrast between the cultures and customs surrounding them. As mentioned earlier, the cuneiform represented a record of the exchange of goods, and the coins, whence modernized for more pragmatic economic purposes, represented an exchange of value. The priorities were clear, back when the cuneiform was used, the circulation of goods had to be tracked. Merchants didn’t want to be falsely accused for failing to give goods promised. On the other hand, the coins represented a shift, where merchants were more focused on receiving the benefits of their trade, and cashing out on them later.

The tablet and coins also showed entirely different reactions to economic tools. The former was adopted solely for the secular abilities (record keeping), whereas the ladder was utilized symbolically, a way to exchange one’s worldly wealth with that of the “ferryman” that takes the dead to the Netherworld. Despite appearing to share similar functions (economic records), the two ancient texts couldn’t have been used in more different realms.

The materials themselves also revealed the distinct class-based uses of the technologies. The cuneiform tablet was made with common, easy to access materials and it simply showed letters and symbols, whereas the coins where metal and intricately decorated. Anyone with resources to trade could craft their own tablet as a receipt, making it a much more common tool. The coins, on the other hand, were expensive, reserved for those deserving of mummification and a comforting afterlife.