What People Wrote Thousands of Years Ago
ITTLE. has been heard in this country of the find, 14 not long ago, of a cache of more than a thousand 4,000-year old manuscripts, in an excavation under a modern city in Asia Minor, Kultepe. It was made by an eminent Czech archaeologist, ProfeSsor Hrozny, of the University of Prague, in the country of the Biblical Hittites. Some time must elapse before the letters and accounts, Which apparently compose most of them, can be deciphered ; they will reveal, by heterogeneous details, what manner of men dwelt and traded in that important Commercial mart in those long distant days.
BusineSs men in old Kanesh, as in modern Mincing Lane,: faund fit indispensable to keep written records of their affaiis. They stored the hieroglyphed clay tablets in clay envelopes which had to be broken before the contents could be revealed.
FiVe thousand years ago, in Central Babylonia, trades- men sent in their bills just as they do now ; and they were not always paid, as is shown by an unreceipted butcher's bill, presented to a customer at Umma about years ago, and now in the library of the University of Pennsylvania. The Smithsonian Institution has un- paid Babylonian bills for goats.
Quite a number of what appear to have been school- boys' exercises or impositions have been excavated here and there in Babylon and Assyria, dating to as far back as some 4,000 years ago. Professor Leonard Woolley says that impositions were harder then owing to their having so laboriously to be incised on clay, and that the writing grew worse as the boy approached the end.
It is noteworthy that complaints compose the subject- matter of many of the letters that men and women wrote thousands of years ago. High potentates of ancient Egypt used to write complaining of the way in which streams and canals had become almost unnavigable for their barges on account of becoming choked with weed, because the riparian residents neglected their duty. Two poignant letters of Dahainunpatun, Queen of Egypt and Widow of the famous Tutankhamen, written in Ilittite, have been spared by the ravages of time. Their recipient was the King of the Hittites, one of whose sons Dahamunpatun wished to marry. As translated by Dr. Ephraim Speiser, one reads : " My husband is dead. There is no son unto me. To thee arc many sons. They say that if unto me thou wouldst give one of thy sons he could become my husband. I cannot take a slave of !mine and make him my husband." The second is a plaintive remonstrance, blended with an upbraiding of the Xing- for not having regarded her letter as strictly confidential. Its despatch followed the visit to Egypt of an emissary of the Hittitc monarch, who had been sent to investigate the position. The Queen's amour propre was hurt.
" Why,' she demanded. bast thou spoken, saying : " They are trying, to deceive me ? " If only I had a son, would I have written about my own troubles, and those of my country, to another land ? Now thou bast straightway discredited me and has even spoken thus unto me. He who was my. husband died. A son I have not. As for a slave of mine, shall I take him and make him my husband ? To another country I have never written ; only to thee have I written. Thou, they say, hast many sons, therefore give ono to me and he shall be my husband ; but in the land of Egypt he shall be king.' " Another very old complaint of a sort that is as familiar to-day as it was in ancient Egypt, was written in a papyrus letter that was dropped on the floor of a room in a recently excavated building of the Third Dynasty, near Sakkara, about 15 miles from Cairo. There it had lain for 45 centuries. It is a protest to the W'azir's Department, from the officer in charge of troops at Tura, that some of his men had been sent for to have new uniforms served out to them but, through War Office ineptitude, had been kept waiting six days before the garments arrived.
The earliest letter on paper to have been found in Asia appears to have been written by an angry woman about her husband's behaviour, some 1,500 years ago. It was found at Lop Nor, on the fringe of Chinese Turkestan. It is not a complete letter, but the decipher- able sentences on the fragment run : " Ho does not behave as a man should, and has wrecked his official career . . . . ho yields to passion and commits nets of violence . . . . with blind eyes and deaf oars, his clothes torn, he forgets his duty and gives himself up to debauchery . . . . ho is ruining his family and wasting his substance ; he rushes off in the middle of the night . . . . "
An even earlier couple of fragments of Central Asian letters, like the one I have just quoted, are preserved at the British Museum. Sir Aurel Stein found them in the ruins of forts along the wall that formed the western frontier of China. On one can be read " . . . as soon as the foot-soldiers arrived he sent . . " ; and on the other " . . making a profound salutation, says . . . hoping that Mr. Hsieh Yung-ssu may under the circumstances enjoy good health . . . "
How long arc our own writings going to last ?
It is pretty safe to predict that almost all our books, and practically all our bound files of newspapers and magazines, will have crumbled to dust long before the lapse of another thousand years, for wood pulp paper is short-lived. Even by going to the trouble of interleaving all its newspaper files with sheets of tissue paper the New York Public Library has no expectation that they will be handleable for more than about a hundred years. In pursuit of immortality, the New York Times now prints a limited number of copies every day on absolutely pure rag papers, for preservation in libraries. Our own Times has been doing the same thing for years.
Odd though it seems, it is certain that the student of a century or two hence will be able to consult plenty of legible newspapers dating up to about 1850, for they are on rag paper. The papers, however, chronicling man's subsequent conquest of time and space, the dawn of the eras of flight, wireless, electrification and television, will crumble like ashes at his touch. Already the file of a weekly London journal of only 50 years ago, preserved in the British Museum Library, has met with that fate.
B. D. •