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Published On: Fri, Nov 10th, 2017

4,000-Year-Old Assyrian Tablet Makes First Known Infertility Diagnosis and Recommends Slave Surrogate

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A 4,000-year-old Assyrian tablet discovered in central Kayseri province, Turkey, is an ancient marriage contract with the first known diagnosis of infertility. The clay record says that the wife should allow her husband to hire a female slave to act as a surrogate if the couple does not conceive within two years after the date of marriage.

The discovery, which was recently announced in the journal Gynecological Endocrinology , was made by archaeologists who were carrying out excavations in Turkey’s Kültepe district, which was home to a settlement and trade colony of the Old Assyrian Empire from 2,100 BC and 1,800 BC. It is also the site where over 1,000 Old Assyrian tablets, known as the Cappadocian tablets, were found in 1925.

A cuneiform letter, copied on two pieces of clay, and its envelope, which were found at Kültepe. They record a complaint between two brothers about the family’s lack of food or clothes in Assur while the other brother was trading textiles and tin for silver and gold at Karum Kanesh. Photo: British Museum.

A cuneiform letter, copied on two pieces of clay, and its envelope, which were found at Kültepe. They record a complaint between two brothers about the family’s lack of food or clothes in Assur while the other brother was trading textiles and tin for silver and gold at Karum Kanesh. Photo: British Museum.

An Ancient Solution to Infertility

The recently discovered tablet is an ancient prenuptial agreement written on clay tablet in the Old Assyrian dialect of the Akkadian language using the cuneiform (wedge-shaped) script, the knowledge of which came into Anatolia with Assyrian merchants. It sets out what should occur in the event of infertility, defined as the inability to produce a child within two years of marriage.

“The female slave would be freed after giving birth to the first male baby, ensuring that the family is not left without a child,” lead researcher Professor Ahmet Berkız Turp, from Turkey’s Harran University, said [via Daily Sabah ].

The tablet is on display at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum and is recognized as the earliest known mention of human infertility.

The Old Assyrian Tablet Collection

The prenuptial agreement adds to an enormous trove of Old Assyrian records already found in the area in 1925 by F. Hrozny.

“Unlike royal or temple archives discovered in other ancient centres, the cuneiform archives of Kültepe-Kanesh represent the single largest body of private texts in the ancient Near East,” reports UNESCO. “They were kept in archive rooms, neatly arranged inside clay vessels, wooden chests, wicker baskets or sacks.”

A fire eventually destroyed the settlement where the tablets had been found. It must have started suddenly as the excavations revealed that many of the tablets were still in their clay envelopes, indicating that the merchants hadn’t had time to dispatch their recently written letters or open those newly received.

The cuneiform tablets provide a foundation for the fascinating study of the pre-Hittite (circa 1940 BC to 1740 BC) network of Assyrian merchant colonies in Bronze Age Anatolia.

Top image: Cuneiform tablet containing details about infertility. Credit: Istanbul Archaeology Museum

By April Holloway

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