Storing books for 4000 years

When you store papers (hopefully with Admiral, but even if not, the point still applies) you are probably storing documents that you would like to be around for maybe seven or ten years.  Of course if you are storing a will, or a long term lease that may be different, but even so most of the time you will be storing items that might have a lifetime of at most 50 years.

Longer term, we look to the British Library and the like to keep records of published documents.

But what, I wondered, were the oldest books that we still have in existence.  Come to that, how old is the oldest book?

It seems that there is not complete agreement on the answer to this question – largely because archaeologists keep finding new artefacts, and because their dating techniques keep improving.

However some very old books have survived, largely because they were not written on paper, but on stone.  Now at Admiral we don’t store stone, but I thought you might like to know about the earliest books anyway.

One candidate for the oldest book still in at least partial existence is the Instructions of Shuruppak which is around 5000 years old.  One of the problems is that there is no agreement as to who Shuruppak was, or whether he was real.  But whoever he was, or wasn’t, the book is a book as we would understand it.

The Instructions are a set of morals that kings should uphold.  By following them Shuruppak become loved by the gods, and so was given the chance to rule Mesopotamia after a great flood.  The king then gives some handy hints on the righteous way for lesser beings, such as not going out at night, and not giving opinions after a night with the beer.

Slightly younger, clocking in at around 4500 years old is the Epic of Etana

This is a poem concerning King Etana’s life, his love of the goddess Ishtar, and his desperation to have a son as heir to his throne.


He gets his heir by going to heaven and finding a herb that will grant his wishes, meeting en route various beings (giant eagles, great serpent and the like), but coming out victorious his son is born.  The son becomes king, and the old king goes off with the giant eagle for adventures new.

Next up is the world’s first political treatise, the Code of Urukagina. The problem with this text however is that we don’t have it.  All we have are a number of references to the work on various clay tablets which date from around 4300 years ago.  It seems that a lot of the Code relates to keeping the peace, being nice to orphans, widows and the poor, and moral rules and punishments.

It also seems from the tablets that refer to the code that it was quite a forward looking document, in that it got rid of stoning and other such punishments for various offences.

The Palmero Stone comes from around the same time.  In one sense it looks rather dull, for it starts out with the names of various members of the royal family back to the 1st Dynasty.

But the text also records the height of the annual Nile inundation, which is of course the key element in the life of those who live along the river.  The ability of priests at around this time to predict the level of the inundation (which they managed to do with some clever historical records showing the flow just before the flood proper) ensured their longevity, and the ability of the God Kings to pass the information on, ensured the continuity of their line.  So it was rather an important piece of work in its day.

Fortunately storage of paper is somewhat easier than the storage of stone from 4000 years ago, which is why Admiral exists.

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