The whip flew in a flurry of blood. The man’s back quivered. Lurching forward, his thumb jabbed deep into the still wet mud.
“Ignorant slave!” roared the overseer. “How many times must I tell you to take care? What’s the point of teaching scribes if the best you can do is this pathetic work? I’d be better off getting a sparrow to scratch its way along the clay.”
The slave could feel blood slide down his spine. He did not look up.
“Professor Thakral? Have a look at this one.”
Wincing as she got up, Professor Patel wondered what was creaking more: the chair or her back. Probably her back, she decided, as she leaned over the young student’s work. He had long red hair, and one had fallen on the small grey brick that he held in his hand. With a light flick of his brush, he wafted the hair to the floor.
“Yes, Charles?” she asked. The light wasn’t good was bad so she couldn’t immediately make out anything special in this tablet, apart from its obvious great age. Not that great age was anything to get excited about, she thought wryly.
“There’s a fingerprint in this one, pressed right down into the clay,” Charles said. “A direct link to the ancient writer who engraved these very words.”
“How wonderful,” said Thakral, her eye filling the magnifying glass like a giant fried egg. “I wonder who it was, whether it was a man or a woman, a boy or a girl?”
“Pathetic,” hissed the overseer. A piece of spittle shot from his mouth and landed on the clay, a clear little bubble on the brown. “You make the same mistake every time. Is this hide supposed to be from a sheep or a goat? It’s impossible to say!”
The slave dared not reply. The hot sun beat down. The edges of the tablet were already starting to dry.
“It’s like a direct link to ancient Babylon,” said Charles. “Almost like we could reach over and shake this chap’s hand.”
“221-A35H. Yes. And what’s more,” said the professor, “it is more than likely that this particular tablet is the oldest one that has ever been found. It may be the most authentic example of writing in the language that we have.”
“The ‘Ur Text’ if you will,” said Charles. His prominent front teeth stuck out as he savoured his joke.
“Indeed,” said the professor. “So what do we have here? Yes, classic symbols. That one is clearly an animal skin, that of an ox, wouldn’t you say?”
“Undoubtedly,” Charles replied.
“And this is some sort of cereal crop. Emmer wheat, presumably “
“That would match our other tiles,” agreed Charles.
“What a find!” Professor Thakral clapped her hands. “What gift from our earliest ancestors! Just imagine being there at the desk while this noble scribe was at work.”
“And look at the state of this bushel? Are you telling me that that’s wheat? You’re writing about barley, numbskull. The kind of mistakes you’re making will cost your master more in lost revenue than we ever paid for your wretched hide.”
It was too much for the poor slave. He started to shake. The overseer merely sneered and, taking a wooden spatula in his hand, he made as if erase the erroneous symbols.
Just then, there was a cry from within the building behind. Not wasting another word on the slave, the overseer hurried towards the open double doorway that led into the cool dark house.
The mistress! So her time had come at last. Wailing echoed through the thick walls of the palace.
Meanwhile, the slave allowed himself a little smile, and slipped the tablet, unchanged and uncorrected, into the remotest place among all the many others that had been left out to dry.