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Shown here is a reproduction of a Sumerian medical tablet, one of the oldest found, dated 2400 BCE, excavated at the site of the ancient city of Nippur in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). The writing is cuneiform, an ancient style of writing used by five distinctive languages over a period of 3000 years. Cuneiform was written by scribes using a stylus, a sharp ended reed, they made wedge shapes in clay. This tablet is unlike other later medical tablets, no ailment or treatment is listed. This tablet lists prescriptions perhaps used by an early pharmacist. The front of the tablet is damaged. The reverse side is relatively undamaged and lists 15 prescriptions.
- Sumerian Medical Tablet Reproduction is made from resin, with a terracotta finish. (PN T41490)
- Tablet Measures 5 7/8 in H x 3.5 in W x 1 in D. Including the stand, it measures 7 5/8 in H x 4 in W x 2 in D. Weighs 1.35 lbs.
- Statue is mounted on the black stand with a post. It cannot be removed from the stand.
This reproduction of a medical tablet is one of the oldest found, dated 2400 B.C.E. This Sumerian tablet was excavated at the side of the ancient city of Nippur in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). The writing is cuneiform, an ancient style of writing used by five distinctive languages over a period of 3000 years. Cuneiform was written by scribes using a stylus, a sharp ended reed, they made wedge shapes in clay. These clay tablets were used for everyday communication and as teaching tools.
In Mesopotamia the ability to collect and store knowledge came with the invention of writing (ca.3400 B.C.E). Medical knowledge which had been collected over generations by those who practiced cures and learned through trial and error was then recorded. From these records we know that the Goddess of healing and patron of doctors was Gula (a.k.a nintinuga, Bau and Meme). Her temples were centers of medical learning, diagnosis and libraries of medical information.
Cuneiform texts, such as this tablet, provide information on Mesopotamian medical practices. There were two types of medical practices, each with their own medical texts. There was the asu who relied on a "practical" approach and their texts on plant, animal and mineral substances. The second practitioner was the ashipu who sought the cause of the illness in the spiritual realm and the "magical" remedies that applied. On some occasions either practitioner might use the other's methods or both practitioners might collaborate.
This tablet is unlike other later medical tablets, no ailment of treatment is listed. This tablet lists prescriptions perhaps used by an early pharmacist. Amounts of the substances are not specified. The front of the tablet is damaged. The reverse side is relatively undamaged and lists 15 prescriptions. Prescriptions found on tablets are divided into three groups: poultice, potion and complex group that includes poultices. Following are a few from this tablet.
THE POULTICE PRESCRIPTIONS
Stated simply, a poultice is a warm medicated dressing. The tablet first provides a list of ingredients to be utilized with each prescription. These are then pulverized and mixed with a liquid in order to from a paste. This is then fastened as a poultice to the 'sick' part of the body after it has been rubbed with oil. The rubbing with oil is done either for its intrinsic value or to keep the paste from clinging to the skin.
Here is an example:
prescription 4: Pulverize the branches of the thorn plant and seeds of the duashbur; pour diluted beer over it, rub with vegetable oil and fasten the paste over the sick spot as a poultice.
This group of prescriptions was intended to be taken internally. Here is one of the prescriptions listed.
Prescription 9: Pour strong beer over the resin of the (?) plant; heat over a fire; put this liquid in river bitumen (oil), and let the sick person drink.
THE COMPLEX THIRD GROUP
These prescriptions seem to be introduced by a difficult and enigmatic passage which reads, "arrange (?) the rushes over the hands and feet of the sick person. Following this, the operations consist primarily of washing the ailing organ with a specially prepared solution. This is followed immediately by the covering of the ailing organ with some substance that seems to include burnt ashes. For example:
Prescription 12: Sift and knead together, all in one, turtle-shell, the sprouting naga plant and mustard; wash the sick spot with quality beer and hot water; scrub the sick spot with all of the kneaded mixture; after scrubbing, rub with vegetable oil and cover with pulverized fir.
The Sumerian Physician went to botanical, zoological an mineralogical sources for his materia medica. His favorite mineral were sodium chloride (table salt), river bitumen, and vegetable oil. Animal sources were wool, mild, turtle shell, and water snake. like their modern counterparts, most of the medicinal ingredients came from the botanical world. The plant sources included thyme, mustard, plum tree, pears, figs, willow, fir pine and products such as beer, wine, and vegetable oil.