An incision on the face of nature

A Sumerian tablet on display at the Centre Pompidou-Metz as part of the Écrire, c’est dessiner exhibition

Some things never change. Thousands of years may pass and some things feel recent and familiar. Others may change within a few generations and feel as though from another world. Such is the mystery of history and culture.

What have you done at school? I read my tablet, I ate, and then I prepared my new tablet. I covered it with writing and I completed it. Then I was shown my reading, and in the afternoon I was shown my writing exercise. May you reach the heights of the art of the scribe, you will be the guide among your brethren, the leader of your friends… You’ve completed your education well, you are now a knowledgeable man.

Words inscribed more than 3,700 years ago. Thoughts resonating through the millennia.

Despite the obscurity of its cuneiform letters, this Sumerian tablet from around 1740 BC could’ve been written last year. Little seems to have changed in the course of a child’s literate education: reading, writing, homework, even the school lunch. The Mesopotamian pupils would’ve had much to discuss with their modern counterparts. Similar challenges, similar ordeals: how to incise on the face of nature – be it a clay tablet or a piece of paper – the imperatives of human culture, the hopes and fears of a species’ puzzling destiny scribbled with a fine nib, seized with the edge of a quill.

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