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Written in Stone

Some years ago, an art appraiser friend gave me a cuneiform tablet for my birthday. What a gift! It’s a round stone, about four-inches in diameter and two inches thick, irregular in shape, and light-reddish brown in color. The inscription on it is not literature but calculation; it's a market transaction.

At first, I didn’t want to touch the stone much less hold it. I considered it precious and kept it in the straw box in which it had been delivered to me from the ancient Middle East. It had been a long, arduous journey. This clay tablet, wet when written on with a stylus, had survived countless upheavals. I think of this, and more, when I touch this stone. I wish Iraq peace and prosperity in the coming years.

When I told my friend I was afraid to handle the stone, he insisted that I take it out of the box. It needed to breathe, to live. And so I did. Its presence in my writing room is a reminder that written communication is universal and has been for millennium.

The expression, “It’s not written in stone,” originates in the discovery of these tablets. It implies that our ancestors in antiquity considered the stone tablets permanent records. But that was most likely not the case; they were ephemera to be stored or tossed away once the transaction was complete. And though all of it is important to us now as artifact, at the time the clay tablets were not precious; they were tools.

There will be more tomorrow and the day after that, into the future, beyond our lifetimes, beyond the wars we are fighting in the cradle of civilization where all artifacts are endangered. I suppose there is some solace in this, at least: The museum in Baghdad is open again, its collection partially restored and on view, most of it stored safely outside the country.


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