Spreadsheets and Mesopotamia

I was talking with my friend Geoff via instant chat this morning, and he recommended that I teach my students how to use Excel or some other spreadsheet program.  “Kids really need to understand how to work with numbers, and how to understand the bureaucracy underlying a modern government,” he said.  We brainstormed a few ways to do that in a history class, and he recommended that I find a block of Egyptian or Mesopotamian economic data — pyramid-builder payrolls or property records from Babylon — and ask my kids to build a database or spreadsheet around that data.

I think it’s a great idea.

My difficulty is, I’m used to working on ancient literature, not ancient data-sets.  Does anyone know of some online sources of such information?  I’m hoping to find it before March 4, so that I can play with it myself before I assign it in the spring.  Preference would be for Egypt or Mesopotamia, followed by Phoenicia or Israel (I suppose I could take some of the number-sets from the Bible… but not my first choice) but I would take China, India, Greece or Rome if that’s what was available.

Any ideas?


  1. Here is a simple data set. Look in the Eyewitness Book on Mesopotamia (DK Publishing). The page about writing shows a cuneiform tablet and it translates some of the markings, which is a record of animals and grain. You could have students create an data sheet such as:
    Item | Quantity
    Goats skins | 5

    You might find similar tablets with more detail at http://cdli.ucla.edu/

    • I think that’s a good place to start, actually. A lot of the cuneiform tablets I see on the site appear to be photographs rather than translations, which means a lot of digging through for me, to create the data in the first place.

      My stidents will likely need help understanding what cuneiform is, though, before they’ll get these tablets. So it may be that I’ll ask them to create a data set in the form of an inventory of their room, on paper, but without writing or number signs — and then transfer that info to sculpey tablets with a stylus. Over time I’ll gradually build a library of such tablets in a basket, and then kids can make an effort at translating the messages from “ancient times”.

      But I still want to work with real, ancient data. Thanks for the website; it’s a great place to start!

    • I certainly will. My friend Geoff was deeply dismayed by the lack of the study of programming and data analysis in (my) school as I described it to him. He was learning programming in 7th grade and now has a couple of iPhone apps to his name and income stream. If we build a Mesopotamian data set together, we can generate a lot of data for a wide variety of types of analysis, and make ancient history relevant in new ways.

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