G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress
At the time the tablet was written, more than 3,500 years ago, Babylon (shown here as seen in 1932) Babylon was one of the most important cities in southern Mesopotamia, controlling an empire in the region. It's possible the writer of the tablet's riddles lived within this kingdom. The tablet's current location is unknown.
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updated 1/27/2012 11:47:37 AM ET 2012-01-27T16:47:37

Millennia before modern-day Americans made fun of their politicians or cracked crude jokes over a cold one, people in ancient Mesopotamia were doing much the same thing.

The evidence of sex, politics and beer-drinking comes from a newly translated tablet, dating back more than 3,500 years, which reveals a series of riddles.

The text is fragmentary in parts and appears to have been written by an inexperienced hand, possibly a student. The researchers aren't sure where the tablet originates, though they suspect its scribe lived in the southern part of Mesopotamia, near the Persian Gulf.

The translation, by Nathan Wasserman, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Institute of Archaeology, and Michael Streck, a professor with the Altorientalisches Institut at Universitat Leipzig, is detailed in the most recent edition of the journal Iraq.

Rare riddles
The text was written in Akkadian, using cuneiform script. It was a language commonly used by the Babylonians, along with other ancient kingdoms in the Middle East.

"This is a relatively rare genre — we don't have many riddles," Wasserman told LiveScience in an interview, referring to riddles written in the Akkadian language.

Unfortunately, researchers are not certain where the tablet is presently located. In 1976, it was housed in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. At that time, a scholar named J.J. van Dijk published a copy of the Akkadian inscription, which the researchers used for their translation.

Since 1976, Iraq has been through three wars and, during the 2003 invasion, the museum was pillaged. "We tried to figure out where the tablet is now, (but) I don't know," Wasserman said. He added that the tablet is small and not very impressive-looking, something that a looter may take a pass on, "I very much hope that it is still there," Wasserman said.

Political humor
Some of the decoded riddles are crude and sexual, while others are complex and metaphorical. One of them reveals what appears to be a bit of political humor, albeit with a dark, violent twist.

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He gouged out the eye:

It is not the fate of a dead man.

He cut the throat: A dead man (-Who is it?)

The answer is a governor.

"This riddle describes the power of a governor namely to act as a judge who punishes or sentences to death," write Streck and Wasserman in the journal article.

Wasserman has seen examples in other Akkadian texts of people criticizing their leaders. "We have some interesting traces of political criticism, and (I) might say even say political anger," he said. "It could be a kind of political humor expressed in this governor riddle."

While the governor riddle reflects a sort of gallows humor, others are much lighter.

In(?) your mouth and your teeth (or: your urine)

constantly stared at you

the measuring vessel of your lord (-What is it?)

The answer, it appears, is beer.

Crude and lewd
Politics and beer were not the only things the scribe commented on. Two of the riddles, now in a fragmentary state, are sexual, crude and difficult to understand.

One of them, whose translation is uncertain, reads:

The deflowered (girl) did not become pregnant

The undeflowered (girl) became pregnant (-What is it?)

The answer, strangely enough, appears to be "auxiliary forces," a group of soldiers that tend not to be reliable.

Wasserman said that the meaning of this riddle eludes him. "I don't understand what is really going on," he said, adding that auxiliary forces are often below-average soldiers, "and they are not really trustworthy, sometimes they run away in the middle of the battle."

Another riddle, this one even more fragmentary and whose translation is uncertain, is also very crude.

... of your mother

is by the one who has intercourse (with her) (-What/who is it?)

The researchers aren't sure of the riddle's solution since the answer has been lost.

Ancient metaphor
One of the riddles appears to rely on metaphor to get its point across.

The tower is high

it is high, but nonetheless has no shade (- What is it?)

The answer is sunlight.

"You have to think about the riddle like the ' Lord of the Rings ' or 'The Hobbit'; it is metaphor," Wasserman said. Imagine you are outside and see a beam of light going from sky to Earth.

"It looks like a tower, but it gives no shade, of course, because it's light itself,” Wasserman said. "The answer is the proof for its own validity."

The last riddle relies on logic:

(Note the translation of the first line is uncertain)

Like a fish in a fish pond

Like troops before the king (-What is it?)

The answer is a broken bow.

Here's why that solution makes sense: Soldiers in front of their king are soldiers that are not out fighting or guarding the kingdom. Also "a fish in a fish pond is not really helpful if you are hungry," Wasserman said. A broken bow is useless as well, "a broken bow is not really helpful if you need to go to war or to hunt a deer."

The researchers emphasized in their paper that the number of surviving Akkadian riddles from this time period is "very small" and, overall, this tablet provides a rare opportunity to explore this genre of ancient writing.

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© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Explainer: Good times in ancient times

  • Courtesy Betsy Bryan  /  JHU

    Summertime fun isn't a modern invention: Ancient cultures liked to let the good times roll as well. Some celebrated with a few drinks. Others partied hard through the night. There were days at the spa, nights at the theater and time to play a little ball. The evidence for the good times in past eras comes from archaeologists who painstakingly dig through ancient remains. The fruits of their efforts help piece together tales showing how today's leisurely shenanigans are just the latest incarnation of cultural customs quite old.

    Take the ancient Egyptians, for example. Not only did they drink beer to excess, they had an annual "festival of drunkenness" dedicated to the cause. Participants got wasted, had gratuitous sex and woke the next day to blaring music, according to an Egyptologist excavating a temple in Luxor where the festivities occurred. The debauchery even had a point: re-enactment of a myth about an evil goddess who became a savior after being tricked into drinking mass quantities of beer. This drawing is based on a wall painting that depicts the festivities. Click the "Next" button above to learn about six more good times in ancient times.

    - John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Wari brewskis

    The Wari, an Andean culture that pre-dated the Incas, made and drank their beer in style. Archaeologists working on a mountaintop in Peru discovered a 1,000-year-old brewery that churned out 475-gallon batches of spicy beerlike chicha. Elegant shawl pins found on the brewery floor indicate that elite women staffed the facility. The brewery was burned to the ground in a final festival that ended with ritualistic smashing of beer mugs in the embers. One of the mugs pieced back together is pictured here.

  • Roman hot-tub party

    Andrew Medichini  /  AP

    For a wealthy, 2nd-century Roman said to be friends with the Emperor Hadrian, nothing, apparently, beat a good hot-tub party. His two-story villa, spread out over 5 acres, included a lavish bath complex with mosaic floors and marble latrines. Archaeologist Darius Arya, who is leading the dig, told The Associated Press that such baths were popular places for Romans to pass their days: "You could eat well, you could get a massage, you could have sex, you could gossip, you could play your games, you could talk about politics - you could spend your whole day here." In this image, archaeologists work on the ruins.

  • Wine-tasting in China

    PNAS

    Oenophiles may lack the vocabulary to describe it, but an archaeological chemist is confident residues he found on 9,000-year-old pottery shards from the ancient Chinese village of Jiahu are from the world's first fermented beverage. The winelike liquid was made with rice, honey and fruit of the hawthorn tree or wild grape. About 6,000 years later, the wine makers had become a bit more sophisticated: The rice and millet wines found in sealed bronze vessels from the Shang Dynasty, including the one pictured here, were flavored with herbs such as chrysanthemum and pine resins.

  • Greek theater

    Georgia Tech

    Theater as we know it today has its roots in ancient Greece, where tragedy and drama played to swelling crowds. These productions trace their roots to songs sung at festivals related to the cult of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and the madness it inspires. Pictured here is the great theater at Epidaurus, which dates to the 4th century B.C. Scientists recently discovered that the limestone seats serve as an acoustic filter, hushing background noises from the unruly crowd and reflecting the voices of the actors on stage.

  • Play ball, Maya-style

    Image: Mars Polar Lander
    Andrew L. Demerest

    The Maya, like many ancient Mesoamerican cultures, gathered to cheer at ball games long before the dawn of soccer. Known as "pitz" among the Maya, participants in the ancient ballgame used their hips, knees and elbows to send a rubber ball through stone hoops attached to the sides of the court. Pictured here is a 1,300-year-old stone altar recovered from looters who took it from the royal ball court at Cancuen. It depicts King Taj Chan Ahk Ah Kalomte playing ball with another king. The game was often more ceremony than sport, used to seal alliances with neighboring kings.

  • Cana's miraculous wine?

    Ariel Schalit  /  AP

    According to the Bible, Jesus once turned water to wine. The miracle, said to be his first, happened at a Jewish wedding in the Galilee village of Cana where the celebratory drink had run dry. In 2004, archaeologists working in modern-day Cana found pieces of stone jars, including the one pictured here, that are thought to have contained wine. The site could well represent the biblical Cana. However, other researchers have found pieces of stone jars at a site several miles to the north that could also date back to the time of Jesus and is thus also a candidate for the biblical Cana.

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