Treasure is not always measured in gold, jewels or magic. For the priest and sage, wise man and wizard, knowledge often has more value than the largest of gems. Ancient writings and lost repositories of knowledge serve as launching pads for adventure, both in and out of game. From the historical - the Library of Alexandria or the Voynich Manuscript, to the fictional – The Book of Skelos, The Necronomicon, and The Book of Infinite Spells, there is something about cryptic writings and ancients texts that fire the imagination.
Like many DMs, I find that reality is often the best place to root the fantastic. From this fertile soil, one can elaborate, mutate, and exaggerate the everyday into creations suitable for any fantasy game. As an archivist and special collections librarian, I have a fondness for old writings, maps, and artifacts. Because of this predilection and the experience I’ve accumulated during my career, I thought that I might provide a primer of sorts on the history of writing and printing with an eye turned towards how this rich history can be in utilized a role-playing campaign. What follows is not an exhaustive treatise on the topic by any means. It is meant more to give the average DM some background and to provide ideas to fire the imagination and use as seeds for adventures of one’s own devising. I’ll provide some links and suggestions for those interested in pursuing the topic in more depth, but they are not required reading to use the information presented here. It is my hope that these articles will stand on their own as a reference source for referees looking for add a bit more depth to their games.
The Beginning of Writing
As far as we can tell from the archeological record, writing originated with the Sumerians in southern Mesopotamia sometime shortly before 3000 B.C.E. It is possible that earlier societies had developed a form of writing prior to this age, but if so, their records were most likely kept in a format that has not survived to the common era.
The lands of Mesopotamia were gifted with good clay and reeds that grew in abundance in the marshes, providing the Sumerians with the tools needed to preserve their records for posterity. Reeds were cut into styli, which when pressed into wet clay, left wedge-shaped markings. We know this language as “cuneiform,” from the Latin for wedge. The clay was shaped into rough rectangular tablets or conical shapes, then either baked in kilns or left to dry in the sun. Because clay only hardens when exposed to heat, the bane of so many later forms of writing, fire, served to actually help preserve these ancient documents rather than destroy them.
We know from some of the surviving accession records that clay tablets and cones were not the sole materials used in writing. Wooden boards have been mentioned, but none survive to this day. It is quite possible that wax tablets, much like the ones which would see later use by the Greeks and Romans, may have been employed as well.
Cuneiform began as a pictographic form of writing, meaning that initially symbols were used to refer to concrete objects or action. Cuneiform would evolve into an ideographic writing over time, which allowed the recording of abstract concepts related to the subject of the symbol, then finally become a phonographic form of writing, where symbols represented syllables rather than objects themselves. This style of writing was a complicated arrangement than required extensive study to learn. As such, literacy in the Fertile Crescent was limited to professional scribes, priest, and in some cases, rulers.
Although complex, cuneiform was proficient at what it did and would be assimilated by the Akkadians when they conquered the Sumerians in the middle of the third millennium B.C.E. and later adapted by the Babylonians and Assyrians.
The Sumerians established the first archives and proto-libraries. Initially, cuneiform was used to record the day-to-day operations of the state. It was a form of primitive bookkeeping; the archeological finds from this era are listings of commodities – animals, jars, baskets, crops, etc. Over time, the records become more complex, being the first known example of governmental “red tape.” Court judgments, marriage contracts, loans, divorce settlements, inventories, bills and the like have all been found preserved for posterity on these clay tablets. Since the temples managed the economic matters of ancient Sumer and the health of the cities and their rulers where firmly intertwined with the will of the gods, it wasn’t long before religious matters were recorded as well. Records of hymns, prayers and incantations have been discovered at archeological digs in Mesopotamia.
The Sumerians recorded information so that it could be referenced again by later generations, thus ensuring the continued welfare of the civilization. It was because of this forethought that we know as much as we do about their culture. To protect these records, the tablets were placed in secure storerooms, often chambers without door and accessible only by ladders inserted through the ceiling. The tablets were stored on wooden shelves, in reed baskets, or in brick receptacles. Each container was labeled with a clay tablet that listed the contents of that receptacle.
In addition, the tablets themselves often sported some form of cataloguing information. In ancient Mesopotamia, books did not have titles. Instead an incipit (the first few words of text) was used to identify individual tablets, much like untitled poems are identified in modern anthologies. When writings occupied more than a single tablet, each carried an incipit or catchword at its end to indicate the successive tablet in the series. Colophons were used as well to identify a specific work. A colophon is one or more lines of text written on the back of a tablet following the end of the writing. It serves the purpose that a title page does in modern publication. Examples of some of these found colophons are:
Eighth tablet of the Dupaduparsa Festival, words of Silalluhi and Kuwatalla, the temple-priestess. Written by the hand of Lu, son of Nugissar, in the presence of Anuwanza, the overseer.Colophons and incipits were vital to keeping writings that spanned multiple tablets together. Since tablets could not be bound like books, at best they could only be shelved together, either one atop the other or side-by-side. As such, it wasn’t uncommon for individual tablets to become lost or misplaced.
Third tablet of Kuwastalla, temple-priestess. Not the end. “When I treat a man according to the great ritual.” [this is an example of an incipit]
By the thirteenth century B.C.E., catalogues of these repository collections had become more advanced. Listings that provided more bibliographic information have been discovered dating from this time. Rather than simply listing the works found in individual receptacles, whole collections have been detailed and described with information pertaining to subject matter, number of volumes and status of the collection. Examples from these early catalogues are:
Three tablets on the spring festival of the city of Hurma. How the presiding official celebrates the festival. First and second tablets missing.In addition to noting missing tablets, catalogue entries also sometimes provide shelving information, such as “they do not stand upright,” indicating that the tablets in question were to be found lying horizontally on the shelves.
,em>One tablet. Words of Annana, the old woman. When one supplicates the Storm-God. Not the end.
One tablet, the end, on the purification of a murder. When the exorcist-priest treats a city for murder. Words of Erija.
Two tablets. When the king, queen, and princes give substitute-figures to the Sun-Goddess of the Earth. The end. However we have not found the first tablet belonging to it.
Protecting the Collections
Like modern librarians, the priests of Mesopotamia had to protect their collections against loss, damage, and theft. We find evidence of these ills included in the colophons of tablets. Unlike the modern system of fines, the cost of misusing the works of a Mesopotamian collection was often paid to a higher power. These warnings run the gamut from the vague - as in the case of this tablet: “He who fears Anu, Enlil, and Ea will return it [the tablet] to the owner’s house the same day,” or in another case, “He who fears Marduk and Sarpanitum will not entrust it to [others’] hands. He who entrusts it to [others’] hands, may all the gods who are found in Babylon curse him!” - to the very descriptive: “He who breaks this tablet or puts it in water or rubs it until you cannot recognize it [and] cannot make it be understood, may Ashur, Sin, Shamash, Adad and Ishtar, Bel, Nergal, Ishtar of Nineveh, Ishtar of Arbela, Ishtar of Bit Kidmurri, the gods of heaven and earth and the gods of Assyria, may all these curse him with a curse which cannot be relieved, terrible and merciless, as long as he lives, may they let his name, his seed, be carried off from the land, may they put his flesh in a dog’s mouth!”
More mundane efforts were used to protect these works, of course. A text in the collection of Ashurbanipal indicates that the person consulting this work, “a tablet of the king,” do so in the presence of a royal official.
If there was a forefather to the Library of Alexandria, the archive created by the last important ruler of Assyria, Ashurbanipal (685 – ca. 627 B.C.E) is probably it. Noted as having achieved “the highest level in the scribal art,” Ashurbanipal assembled the largest known collection of written works during this era. From this collection, located in the city of Nineveh, archeologists have unearthed more than one hundred examples of various types of professional writings. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Epic of Creation, and most other noted works from the ancient Near East world that we possess today were found in this collection.
The collection consists of the usual archival documents regarding the daily running of the state mixed in with library material. Out of the library material, the largest portion of it is comprised of text regarding omens and the interpretations of such. The next largest were technical religious works – rituals, incantations, prayers, means of warding off evil spirits or invoking divine aid. The third largest portion was scholarly texts, being glossaries of cuneiform symbols, lists of words and names, gazetteers, and dictionaries for translating Sumerian into Akkadian. The literary works of this era that we’re familiar with comprised only a small portion of the library’s texts, being less than 5% of the total collection.
It has been estimated that the collection of Ashurbanipal’s library totaled some 1,500 titles. Since many of the titles existed as multiple copies, the number of tablets contained within this collection would have been far greater.
Putting This to Use
Now that we’ve explored the history of the origins of writing, let’s look at how we could use this information in our games. I’m sure that by now a few ideas might be brewing in the reader’s mind, but let’s lay out some ideas built on the proceeding information.
1 - It’d be quite reasonable to assume that any civilization in one’s home campaign might have invented writing in a similar manner to the Sumerians. Perhaps an ancient human civilization also used clay tablets and pictographic writing to record the knowledge of their grand era. Like cuneiform, these records would be durable, easily surviving more than five millennium to fall into the hands of adventurers, sages, mages, and priests. Any sort of information from the dim past could be provided to the players by having their characters discover a cache of these tablets. While carvings in stone would also have an equally prolonged durability, provided that the stone was shielded from the elements in some manner, clay tablets are portable and could be found almost anywhere.
Speaking of stone, the developers of such a form of writing need not be human. Dwarves might have produced a similar method of record keeping, utilizing the rich clay found in their ancient delves imprinted with a rigid stylus crafted from a subterranean fungus. Or perhaps you’d prefer for them to stay true to their traditional role as master stoneworkers, allowing them to have developed a method of fashioning slim tablets from living stone that are still durable enough to be carved on. Thin metal sheets that are etched with acid could be another stand-in for cuneiform in your campaign.
2 – The presence of colophons on tablets and the bibliographic information found in Mesopotamian catalogues can be used to as a method to get the party involved in tracking down whatever MacGuffin the DM wants to use as basis for an adventure. If the party discovers a tablet whose colophon indicates that it is just one of three tablets and the information that the party needs is not recorded on that tablet, the next logical step would be to track down the remaining two. Depending on the DM, the information might be found on just one of those tablets or require all three to decipher properly. In a similar manner, having the party discover the catalogue of some ancient archive gives them a chance to see if any of the titles listed might be of interest to them. By using this as an adventure hook, the DM can gauge the interest of the party before undertaking the task of fleshing out an entire adventure surrounding a lost collection of ancient texts. While an undiscovered collection of text might seem more tailored to the magic-users in the party, adding to the catalogue an entry about a title that details the successful military campaign against an ancient foe might pique the fighter’s mind, and the memoirs of the Grand Thief of Axhabil might lure those of a more avaricious nature.
3 – Suppose the party has been hired by a sage or wizard to recover a certain text from an ancient library. After overcoming great peril and adversity, the party finally reaches their goal and unearths the tablets that they’ve been charged to recover. As they prepare to return with the texts, they discover that whomever removes the tablets from their proper location faces the wrath of the gods and a horrific fate. Is this just mere superstition used by the library’s ancient curators to protect their collection or is there truth behind these words? The party faces an interesting dilemma, especially if the wizard who hired them promises a dire reward for failure…
4 – The lure of ancient library or archive is almost too much for some classes to resist. If that repository is known to have a sizable collection of tablets that contain rituals, incantations, and prayers, all forgotten by modern spell casters, both the party’s cleric and magic-user will most likely drive the rest of the party straight for wherever such a storehouse is rumored to lie.
Hopefully this will serve as an interesting reference source for the reader. While time and the need for brevity have forced me to abbreviate the subject matter, I hope that there is enough useful tidbits of history enclosed within to allow the DM to run with what is provided and craft his own material for his campaign. When interest and time allows, I intend to examine other periods of history and the evolution of writing and books in a similar manner.
Casson, Lionel. Libraries in the Ancient World. Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 2001
The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative
Lerner, Fred. The Story of Libraries. The Continuum Publishing Company: New York, NY, 1999