Sumerian Civilisation And Spying

The activities of spying and covert surveillance have surely been a fact of life since the dawn of civilisation, and probably even before that.

The use of the cuneiform pictographic/writing system, created by the Sumerians in the 4th millenium BC, involved the recording of information on clay tablets using a stylus. This was not a sophisticated method of noting information (although it was certainly that at the time) and must have been relatively time-consuming in comparison with later methods of preserving data such as pen and paper.

If a one Sumerian city-state wished to spy on another, how did the espionage agent get the required details back to his sponsor? Would he have merely remembered what he could, stolen the clay tablet he had read (which would have had its own disadvantages), or was there another way of so doing?

I can’t imagine the spy painstakingly copying information from one tablet to another and even if he had the time and opportunity to do this, the tablet would have been difficult to smuggle out because of its weight and the increased risk of discovery.

From my ancient history class, I remember a wacky story about shaving a slave’s head, tattooing the information onto the scalp, then letting the hair grow and sending the slave back to the kingdom.

I have no citations for this, just a dim memory of a professor who really, really liked to tell stories.

Yes, I know that one. I remember too that it’s from Herodotus, but I couldn’t sy whereabouts.

I believe the slave was a Greek, sent into Persia. Nothing to do with the Sumerians.

This was obviously a culture that had very little sense of urgency.

Herodaus’ story involved Histaiaeus sending a message to Aristagoras of Miletus encouraging him to revolt against the Persian King.

Well, here’s my two cents. Cuneiform writing, much like hieroglyphic writing, necessitated the exstence of a class of scribes. The reason being that it was so damn hard to read and write, only very specialized people could do it.

So a) the spy probably couldn’t read anyway; b) people wrote down tax lists, rarely things of any political importance; c) people in completely or mostly pre-literate societies seem tohave much better rote memories - the hypothetical spy probably would have recieved a message from an insider and repeated it verbatim to his contact at home.

That would be my WAG. The culture still would have relied heavily on oral tradition given most people’s illiteracy.

A few more details on the story from Herodotus:

“Herodotus also recounted another incident in which concealment was sufficient to secure the safe passage of a message. He chronicled the story of Histaiaeus, who wanted to encourage Aristagoras of Miletus to revolt against the Persian king. To convey his instructions securely, Histaiaeus shaved the head of his messenger, wrote the message on his scalp, and then waited for the hair to regrow. This was clearly a period of history that tolerated a certain lack of urgency. The messenger, apparently carrying nothing contentious, could travel without being harassed. Upon arriving at his destination he then shaved his head and pointed it at the intended recipient.”

If the spying city-state knew who might be in possession of relevant information in the target city-state, they could take the opportunity to seize him, probably if he ventured outside but not necessarily.

All the spy, or the insider, would need to do is identify the mark. The seizure could be executed by a raiding party.

The disadvantage would lie in the fact that the target city-state would know their secrets would be compromised.

If you wanted to copy a cuneiform tablet, just press it into fresh clay.

But I doubt that a spy would bother doing that. Memory would be better.

IANASPE (not Sumerian spy expert)

I’m actually not sure about that. Brilliant in theory, but tablets used for writing were very rarely baked in a kiln to solidify them. They were usually just left to dry, so wetting them (for example, by applying fresh clay) could still make them re-moldable and able to be messed up.

This University of Pennsylvania site states that tablets holding permanent records were baked in a kiln and those containing temporary information were often re-used.

I didn’t mean to imply that they never were. But I don’t think that was the usual practice, unless it was a document meant to last for a long time, like a literary piece or something for the archives, which would be less useful stuff for a spy than, say, military records.

Sure, you did say rarely baked. :slight_smile:

Yeah I think the point is that very early literate societies would not have view writing as means of communication the way we do.

Its a bit like asking how early mainframe computers were used for word processing, they weren’t, people used typewriters. The Sumerians would have passed information like that the same way their ancestors did, by word of mouth.

how much information would acutally be involved in ancient spying?

Your enemy would want to know pretty simple things about your city-state:
how many silos of grain were stored (to enable surviving a seige),
how many soldiers were available to fight
how many pieces of “heavy armor” (chariots, catapults)
what local customs would be useful for catching your defenses unready (i.e. holiday celebrations, or harvest times)
these are things that could be told just as easily by memory as by cutting the details into a heavy clay tablet, or even written on papyrus. And if it was written down, so you still need a courier to physically smuggle it out. Why not just keep all the info in his head?