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A photograph of a cuneiform tablet against the backdrop of 1 mm graph-paper

Tablet HS 643 in Jena.

When I was visiting the tablet collection in Jena (as one does) my mind naturally turned to fact-checking GURPS books. Back in 2007, some of the thoughtful writers at Steve Jackson Games put together an article “How Heavy is Dense Reading?” on the density of information from medieval manuscripts to modern printed books in words per square metre, words per kg, and words per cartload. They included some guesses about Greek papyri and cuneiform tablets, but did not seem to have as much data for those. Their house style discourages mentioning sources, but I am pretty sure that their medieval data comes from a survey of all surviving medieval European manuscripts which a professor mentioned in my undergraduate days. Today, I would like to put together some evidence on the size and capacity of small cuneiform tablets to help them fill in the gaps.

Cuneiform texts were written on lumps of clay with a wide variety of sizes and shapes, from ‘nails’ or ‘cones’ suitable for staking a vampire, to round lens-shaped tablets which fit on your outstretched fingers. The largest tablets, used for ‘literary’ and ‘scholarly’ texts like omen-lists and stories about Gilgamesh, could approach the size of ordinary A4 or US letter paper with several columns of writing. These two tablets are brief records in the handwriting of the Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid periods; one is dated by an illegible King of Babylon, King of the Lands.

HS 643 (decree of the burghers not to deliver more than a certain amount of ?dates?)

Legibility: Incompletely-formed signs written on top of one another
Area (Top): 50 x 42 mm = 21 cm^2
Text: 17 lines on recto, verso, and one edge, of which the first two are “mār banê ša ina pāni-šunu / Ah-šunu mār-šu ša Kidin-Marduk” (13 words if we count the pronominal suffixes) so about 110 words. I can’t read every line, nor believe the transcriptions I have seen, so can’t count the whole text.
Volume: Thickness is not more than 1 cm, so 21 cm3
Density: I have not weighed any tablets, but 2 g/cm3 is at the high end of estimates of the density of fired bricks or adobe.
Mass (estimate): Given above assumptions about volume and density, about 42 g.

Words per cm2: 2.619
Words per m2: 26,190 (round to 30,000 since the dimensions and density are known to only one significant figure)
Word per kg: 2,619 (round to 3,000)

HS 667 (invoice for 2,210 bricks)

Legibility: Good
Area (Obverse): 48 x 41 mm = 19.7 cm^2
Text: 19 words on recto, 5 words on edges, no words on verso.
Volume: Thickness is not more than 1 cm, so 19.7 cm3
Density: See above
Mass (guess): Given the above assumptions, about 40 g

Words per cm2: 1.091370558 (verso empty)
Words per m2: 10,914 (round to 10,000 since the dimensions and density are known to only one significant figure)
Words per kg: 985 (round to a thousand)

For comparison, manuscripts in “How Heavy is Dense Reading?” tend to contain 2k to 4k words per square meter, and 8k to 25k words per kg. These tablets have five to ten times as many words in the same area, and eight times fewer words per kilogram. They get part of this extra density by using the whole surface (unlike the half-empty medieval page) and partially by using a cramped form of a logographic script.

Someone who wanted dimensions for large tablets could check out A.R. George’s edition of the epic of Gilgamesh, which has sketches of the principle tablets with a scale attached, or photos with measurements in the caption, and is available for free as a PDF. Almost all of these big tablets are broken, but the sketches and descriptions give enough information to estimate the original size.

The original impetus for “How Heavy is Dense Reading?” was a question about spellbooks. Like the mysterious authors of the article, I have to report that I can’t help answer that question. Someone could count words in historical ritual and magical texts, but as the authors say “their brevity may be explained by the fact that they don’t work.” Still, if someone wants to know how heavy is really dense reading, I hope that this post helps them find an answer.

Further Reading: Your local university reference librarian can help you find that survey of medieval manuscripts, and similar books on Greek papyri and handwriting. Steve Jackson Games no longer sells the previous version of Pyramid magazine, so I can’t give a link to a place to buy it. “How Heavy is Dense Reading?” is file 2007/0615.6.html in the un-sorted archive which they provided to subscribers when that version was closed down.

Edit 2016/11/03: Closed a badly-formed tag on the line with 2.619 and then s/square meter/m2;