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Kids get fired up about history

A class of seventh-graders learning about an ancient communications technology got a little help from MIT's modern facilities.

Students from the Maimonides School in Brookline taught by Yale M. Zussman (SB '74) were studying the history and use of cuneiform tablets in the ancient Near/Middle East as part of a geography program. Cuneiform (from the Latin cuneus, meaning "wedge") writing was used initially to record business activities and was later used for other purposes such as recording epics, narratives, laws and dedications.

Cuneiform, which was used from about 3000 BC to the late fourth century BC, evolved from earlier pictographs drawn onto damp clay with a pointed tool. Scribes found it easier to produce a stylized representation of a product by making a few wedge-shaped marks with the blunt end of a wooden stylus or reed; in time these representations became standardized so all scribes could understand them. The clay was fired to harden it, thus greatly increasing its durability so the tablets could be used as permanent records.

The students made their own tablets with writing that represented their names and other information in cuneiform script, but Mr. Zussman (who is also an advisor to MIT's Educational Studies program) didn't have the equipment or facilities to fire the 50 tablets and approximately 150 smaller accompanying pieces such as counters or markers. He contacted Professor Heather Lechtman, director of the Center for Materials Research in Archaeology and Ethnology (CMRAE), for help.

Doug Blom, a graduate student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (of which CMRAE is a part), fired the objects at 1,000���������C in the DMSE laboratories in Building 13, giving them a hard finish to make them last -- perhaps for another 5,000 years.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 25, 1998.

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