If you spend your days amid ancient clay tablets with one of the earliest forms of written language, the thought might occur to you: Wouldn’t it be fun to bake your own tablets out of gingerbread for the office holiday party?
It did to Katy Blanchard, 38, who is in charge of the Near Eastern collections at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The museum has one of the world’s largest collections of cuneiform tablets from early Mesopotamia, many of them written by ancient scribes who used a reed stylus to etch pictograms into clay.
Ms. Blanchard, whose passions are archaeology and baking, used chopsticks, a fish knife and a gingerbread recipe that came packaged with a Coliseum-shaped cookie-cutter she once bought. Not only did her cuneiform cookies beguile her colleagues at the office party, they also gained some measure of internet renown after a Penn Museum publicist posted an article about how she made them. (Sample comment from the public: “Mine will probably taste more like the Dead Sea Scrolls.”)
From there, cuneiform cookies started to become — as the newspaper The Forward put it — “a thing.” Bloggers were enthralled, including one who said she was taking a class in Hittite and opted to practice on shortbread. (“The writing took a surprisingly long time,” she observed.)
The archaeo-culinary trend also exposed an odd subculture of people who are consumed with ancient languages, like the guy who uses the Twitter handle @DumbCuneiform and runs a business that will translate your tweets and texts into cuneiform characters and etch them in a hand-held tablet. (No, you cannot make this stuff up.)
“It really struck the world in just the right nerdy place,” said Ms. Blanchard, noting that a number of people, including home schooling parents, classroom teachers and scholars of ancient languages, had taken the idea and run with it.
“People have made some amazing tablets, much more complete and creative than mine,” Ms. Blanchard said. “Some people made full sentences. Mine just say, ‘God,’ ‘build,’ ‘bird’ and ‘sun.’”
Cuneiform, which is pronounced “cune-AY-uh-form” and means wedge-shaped writing, was devised by the Sumerians more than 5,000 years ago and survived until about 79 or 80 A.D. It emerged at roughly the same time as early Egyptian writing, and served as the written form of ancient tongues like Akkadian and Sumerian, which thrived in what is now southern Iraq. Because cuneiform was written in clay (rather than, say, on papyrus) and important texts were baked for posterity, a good amount of it survives today.
Schoolchildren who visit the Penn Museum get to try their hand. “The deepest part of every symbol is the upper left, because that’s where you start with your reed, and then you just swirl it around,” Ms. Blanchard said.
Ancient schoolchildren did the same thing, and some of their efforts are on view at the museum, written on hand-held practice tablets. “There’s like a first-day tablet, where you can see someone practice the first wedge over and over and over again, like I practiced an ‘A’ in school,” Ms. Blanchard said.
In a Babylonian classroom, she said, “there would be a bucket in the middle of the room” where students would toss their practice tablets for recycling. Those reusable tablets, she said, were “like the original Etch A Sketch.”
Ms. Blanchard’s title at the museum is “keeper,” which involves caring for the artifacts in the Near Eastern collections and helping visiting researchers and scholars find the right items to advance their work. “It’s a combination of putting small things in boxes and knowing where jars of dirt came from,” as she put it once in an interview. The cuneiform tablets are in the Babylonian collection, which is not in her purview, but they inspired her nonetheless.
It was a holiday party several years ago that prompted Ms. Blanchard to contemplate the similarities between clay tablets and cookie dough. She has been making cuneiform cookies annually ever since, usually for the same holiday party. “Last year, I tried to make a brownie ziggurat,” modeled on an ancient temple, “but it did not go over as well,” she said.
Although Ms. Blanchard surmises that shortbread might also be a good medium for cuneiform, it was the gingerbread that went viral, inspiring copycats online.
Inspired by Ms. Blanchard’s cuneiform cookies, Esther Brownsmith, a Ph.D. student in the Bible and Near East program at Brandeis University who has been studying Akkadian for years, went all out: For a New Year’s party, she baked four tablets of gingerbread, each on a 13-by-18-inch pan, and copied part of the Enuma Elish, a seven-tablet Babylonian creation myth, onto them. A stunning step-by-step description of this feat has drawn thousands of “likes” on her Tumblr blog.
Ms. Brownsmith said a friend emailed her a link to the Penn publicist’s article about Ms. Blanchard’s cookies. “My first thought upon seeing her how-to was, ‘Oh my God, this is completely brilliant and completely my thing,’” Ms. Brownsmith said in an email interview.
“I’m a semiprofessional baker in my spare time, and I’ve read everything out there about ancient Mesopotamian cooking,” she said. “I even baked historically accurate flatbread for my Akkadian classmates once.”
At the time, she was studying the Enuma Elish for an Akkadian exam, so the tablets she baked — each of which took her about half an hour to inscribe — counted as homework.
At the party, “nobody wanted to be the first person to break the tablet,” Ms. Brownsmith said. “Eventually, I had to break them up myself to get people eating.”
Now that she is teaching freshmen, Ms. Brownsmith has assigned (in English) one of the two best-known texts written in cuneiform: the Epic of Gilgamesh. (The other is the Code of Hammurabi.) Gilgamesh was a mighty king from the Mesopotamian city of Uruk, the name of which is thought to have morphed into Iraq. And Ms. Brownsmith has translated part of the epic into snacks.
“I like baking for my students, mostly to bribe them in to office hours,” Ms. Brownsmith said. “So cuneiform cookies seemed like a great way to feed them while also giving a tangible link to the subject of Gilgamesh.”