The History Of Retail In 100 Objects – The Cuneiform Tablet


It’s Tuesday so it’s The History Of Retail In 100 Objects post –  This weeks objects is- The Cuneiform Tablet.

Civilisation ’s need to write things down , make a list, keep a record, categorise data and thereby pay taxes, goes back to the earliest times. The first system of writing used to record this information (that is known to us) is called ‘Cuneiform script ’. Cuneiform used pictorial symbols set out in columns on clay tablets, using a blunt reed for a stylus. The blunt reeds left a ‘wedge shaped’ impression , and this is where the name cuneiform comes from, the Latin for ‘wedge’. This writing system began in Sumer, in Mesopotamia, as long ago as 8000 BC. The early tablets were in their simplest form principally used for record keeping – agrarian inventories for grain, animals and equipment. But as the ancient world increasingly urbanised, these writings took on a more commercial form and were employed to record bargains sealed, ships’ cargoes, and lists of manufactured goods. Early Sumerians used cuneiform to list the clay tokens they used to exchange and store their agricultural and manufactured goods. The clay tokens were put in clay containers and they impressed onto the sealed containers, one picture for each token inside the container. As time passed, it became a standard practice for the major cities to date documents by year, names, and their respective kings. It also became a way of calculating how much people should pay in taxes. These early writings in turn led to their use for everyday purposes, not least in shopping. Dr Irvine Finkel, of the British Museum and noted Cuneiform scholar, has established that some of the earliest tablets he has examined are shopping lists!

 Contribution to Retail History

Cuneiform tablets highlight our shopping journey from the ancient world to modern times. The shopping bag and the shopping list have survived the journey of time and civilisations. Both have been in use for millennia and whilst we have little evidence of an ancient bag, it is interesting to see from the many clay tablets that have survived, that the ancients wrote out their lists just as we do today.

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