In terms of written history, this is the very remote past. But there is also something very direct and almost intimate about it too. You can see fingernail marks in the clay. These neat little symbols and drawings are clearly the work of an intelligent mind. These were among the first attempts by our human ancestors to try to make a permanent record of their surroundings. What we're doing now - my writing and your reading - is a direct continuation. But there are glimpses of their lives to suggest that these were tough times. It wasn't so much a land of milk and honey, but porridge and weak beer.Breakthrough in world's oldest undeciphered writing (BBC)
Even without knowing all the symbols, Dr Dahl says it's possible to work out the context of many of the messages on these tablets. The numbering system is also understood, making it possible to see that much of this information is about accounts of the ownership and yields from land and people. They are about property and status, not poetry.
This was a simple agricultural society, with a ruling household. Below them was a tier of powerful middle-ranking figures and further below were the majority of workers, who were treated like "cattle with names". Their rulers have titles or names which reflect this status - the equivalent of being called "Mr One Hundred", he says - to show the number of people below him.
It's possible to work out the rations given to these farm labourers. Dr Dahl says they had a diet of barley, which might have been crushed into a form of porridge, and they drank weak beer. The amount of food received by these farm workers hovered barely above the starvation level. However the higher status people might have enjoyed yoghurt, cheese and honey. They also kept goats, sheep and cattle.
For the "upper echelons, life expectancy for some might have been as long as now", he says. For the poor, he says it might have been as low as in today's poorest countries.
Again, how did we go from hunter-gathers to this? Why did those workers put up with it? Religion? something else?