Birds in Clay: Guest Post with Judith Starkson

starksonJudith Starkson is a regular Word Nerds reader and commenter and now she’s a guest author as her novel “Hand of Fire” is now available. She writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire. Ms. Starkston is a classicist (B.A. University of California, Santa Cruz, M.A. Cornell University) who taught high school English, Latin and humanities. She and her husband have two grown children and live in Arizona with their golden retriever Socrates. Hand of Fire is her debut novel.

I made two especially delightful discoveries early on as I researched Hand of Fire, my novel set within the Trojan War. One was how much latitude the Trojans, and their nearby cultural/political relatives the Hittites, gave women. The other discovery was that we now so very much more about the Hittites than I would ever have dreamed, thanks to the last few decades of digging up and translating their extensive cuneiform libraries. Troy’s written records, alas, haven’t survived the vagaries of time, so the Hittites served as my default source.

Both of these revelations—women’s roles and Hittite records—combined as I developed an historically accurate life story for Briseis, the woman who, while sparking the bitter conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon in Homer’s Iliad, is given only a few, brief mentions in the epic. In the Hittite libraries of clay tablets, I found the records of many women who worked as healing priestesses, called hasawa in Hittite. These women were held in highest regard, entrusted with the health and well being of their people through the performance of a variety of cures, rites and divinations. These literate women kept precise instructions for all these duties and passed them on from one generation to another, also borrowing from surrounding peoples as they sought the best ways to ensure the gods’ blessings.

So Hittite and Trojan writing and record keeping became a very important issue. But what peculiar writing! You have to erase all your modern assumptions to picture it.

Truly ancient writing—Sumerian and Egyptian—developed on two entirely different lines. The Hittites came along later and adapted the Sumerian style. The Egyptians had an abundance of papyrus plants kicking around and they were accustomed to painting or carving tales via pictures on walls. These two features, to grossly oversimplify, led them to use a brush or pen with ink and to develop a hieroglyphic writing system. This is not far from what you and I do today when we are not banging away on a keyboard—pen and paper. We’ve given up on the arduous features of pictographs, but you can see why you would need a refined tool like a brush if you had to draw your “words.”

The Sumerians, however, lived in a place with no papyrus but lots of mud and clay. Their early doodles were thus made on a much less forgiving surface than papyrus and led to a different writing system called cuneiform. I can imagine some Sumerian pre-scribe messing around with the riverbank clay and grabbing a reed to make marks.

A reed jabbed lightly in clay leaves a trail of what looks like bird tracks. The scribe carved the reed stylus into a triangular cross-section and pressed it into the clay either up and down, horizontally or at an angle, depending on the sign being created. The stylus was held across a flat palm and braced by the thumb. The length of “tail” the reed left in the clay was also manipulated. If you want to communicate with these bird tracks—that is, represent human language in writing with them—you have to combine them into little groups with a different pattern to each group and use the groups to represent syllables or whole concepts/words. Once this system was codified, there were a lot of groupings for a scribe to memorize, much more than the later invention of alphabets involves, but the system works, and it was used for several millennia by a number of languages.

Most extant tablets are fairly small, about the size of your palm, although there are larger ones for public display purposes such as treaties or long records. This clay-based system developed by the Sumerians was what the Hittites borrowed, even though their language is not at all the same as Sumerian. So while a Hittite scribe would use the same groupings of little triangles to represent “pomegranate” as a Sumerian would have, the way this word was sounded out loud would differ in each culture. Sometimes, where the original Sumerian meaning of a symbol doesn’t appear to us to have a direct parallel in Hittite life, we can’t be sure precisely what underlying meaning the Hittite scribes intended. This makes for some interesting interpretative problems.

Despite being developed for clay, this writing system was also occasionally used on metal for immensely important international treaties. If a king displayed his new agreement with an old enemy on a silver tablet, he made a statement about permanency and power. No waffling for these guys.

On a day-to-day basis, the other materials that were frequently used with cuneiform were wooden tablets with a layer of wax poured onto them. The wax was scraped away to reveal a contrasting color of wood beneath, usually black wax with white wood. The harder pressing required a bronze stylus, not a reed one. These wooden tablets were portable; probably scribes or healing priestesses like Briseis would have used them when they needed to prompt their memory for a particular rite or recital.

The wax on the wooden tablets could be resmoothed and used again. Important writing wasn’t kept for long on these because, of course, a hot day could cause some serious problems in readability. They seem to have been used mostly for rough drafts. On clay the closely placed triangles are surprisingly hard to erase and rewrite without the underlying mistake leaving a mark, so scribes tried to get their work down correctly the first time on clay.

I am glad I am using neither clay nor wax to record my thoughts in writing, but I’m grateful that clay can harden with fire and leave behind vast archives of civilizations that would otherwise be lost to us. One reason so many archaeological sites do not reveal tablets: most tablets weren’t fired and their preservation over the millennia depends on whether the place where they were stored suffered a devastating fire, hot enough to mimic the effects of a kiln.

By that criteria, you would have thought a doomed city like Troy would be rich with tablets, but not so far, although we know from correspondence about Troy found in other places that scribes plied their honored trade in Troy just as elsewhere.

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