A Class in Cuneiform

  • cuneiform


    in Clay



    Apprentices gathered around the master scribe who pounded lumps of clay into pillow-shaped tablets. Closely following all the instructions, each student then used a wooden stylus to impress a series of horizontal and vertical wedges into the pliant material—rendering a cuneiform writing system that predates the birth of the modern alphabet.


    This scene, imitative of the Middle Eastern region of ancient Mesopotamia —known as the cradle of civilization—recently took place in the Sayville Middle School among the Sixth-graders in Mrs. Lesley Davis’ Social Studies classes. Local pottery artist and glazedOver clayground teacher Jill Apelbaum (mother of Mrs. Davis’ student Sheva), whose graduate coursework in languages of the ancient Near East made her an authority on the subject, was invited to help the class finish their unit of study of the early River Valley Civilizations with an exciting hands-on demonstration.


    The Sixth-graders were well-prepared and eager to share what they had already learned. After correctly fielding introductory questions from their guest speaker, they watched the Powerpoint presentation in which Mrs. Apelbaum gave a brief overview of the Sumerian, Akkadian, Ugaritic, and Phoenecian writing systems and showed, through the assorted photos, how the styles of the ancient tablets compared and developed.


    “Only the small and elite group of scribes” in these ancient times could use or read these complex writing systems, Mrs. Apelbaum explained, while “stone and clay shards” were the most common medium on which they wrote. Hundreds of years later, papyrus and animal skins would be used as writing surfaces with the Phonecian innovation of ink.


    During the second part of the lesson, the students tried their hands at this ancient form of stylistic lettering. Under Mrs. Apelbaum’s guidance, the students impressed the styli into the clay to spell their names in their personal tablets—which they would later be allowed to keep—by copying the alphabetically arranged markings from an Ugaritic chart. 


    “The students did such a great job making their own clay tablets, and Mrs. Apelbaum was so informative,” Mrs. Davis noted gratefully. “She supplemented our study perfectly. As this Sixth-grade Social Studies unit explores ancient writings, some of which are the foundation of the Greek and Roman alphabets (and ultimately our own), we will also be studying another River Valley Civilization—ancient Egypt and their writing system of hieroglyphics. After, to culminate our studies,” Mrs. Davis continued, “we will be taking a field trip to NYC in November to view the King Tut exhibit.”

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