The blog Modern Mechanix recently posted a fascinating article from September 1939 which describes how a combined effort between a chemist, a bookkeeper and a scholar saw them able to translate a love letter written 4 thousand years ago and many other secrets that had previously been trapped in the clay.
Their achievement meant that now the numerous clay tablets that carried the secrets of Babylonian society upon them could be easily decoded and deciphered.
The article, which was written by By R. DeWITT Miller describes how the first challenge was the chemist’s. He was called into work out how to get the clay out of the ground in such a way that it was not ruined and its marks could be interpreted. Because the tablets had been in the ground for a few thousand years, they had begun to soften and faced the dangers of being irrevocably damaged during excavation. Even when archeologists managed to dry them out successfully, they would still be covered in mineral salts.
The chemist experimented with homemade tablets and worked out a way in which the Babylonian tablets could be extracted, sun dried and then baked in a modern electric furnace. The chemist also tested a number of different acids and found that certain types of acid would remove the mineral salts without damaging the tablet.
So once the chemist had worked his magic, there came the problem of translation. The Babylonians had such a complex language with so many different signs that translating their clay tablets was a painstaking task that resulted in scholars spending an incredible amount of time sifting through reference books. The University of Southern California’s Dr. Carl S. Knopf knew there must be a better way than the current tiresome method being used and that’s when the bookkeeper was called in for his input.
The bookkeeper worked with Knopf to create a visual index system which meant that the meaning of any sign could be discovered almost immediately and they set to work decoded the unearthed tablets.
So that’s how a chemist, a bookkeeper and a scholar managed worked together to get into the secrets of Babylonian society. One of the tiny pieces of clay that they deciphered using their new system was a love letter from a Babylonian called Gimil, who wrote; “To Bibea: May the gods for my sake preserve your health. Tell me how you are. I went to Babylon but I did not see you. I was greatly disappointed. Write me the reason for your leaving, and let me be cheered. For my sake keep well always. Gimil.”
It is a fascinating article about how modern science managed to help us understand this great ancient civilization.