A 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablet describes an Assyrian couple’s contingency plan for what to do if their marriage didn’t prove to be a fertile one—use a slave surrogate. To the best of the researchers' knowledge, this tablet is recorded history’s very first mention of infertility.
According to the Daily Sabah, a collaboration of Turkish archaeologists from different universities, led by Şanlıurfa's Harran University, discovered the ancient clay tablet in Kültepe, a district within the central Kayseri province. It stated that in the event of failure to conceive within the first two years of marriage, the husband would “hire” a hierodule, or female slave surrogate. The wife, it explained, would “allow” this. A paper detailing the discovery was published in the medical journal Gynecological Endocrinology.
Hierodule, depending on the situation, is variously translated as surrogate, slave, prostitute or some combination thereof. Likewise, they may be described as being ‘married’ to the husband, but the implications—sexual slavery—are nonetheless the same. Their ‘function,’ in terms of how they were used by other human beings, specific to situations like the one described in the tablet, made for an odd catch-and-release kind of slavery.
"The female slave would be freed after giving birth to the first male baby and ensuring that the family is not be left without a child," professor Ahmet Berkız Turp from Harran University's Gynecology and Obstetrics Department told Turkish news channel NTV, according to the Daily Sabah.
Cuneiform, referring to 'wedge-shaped' inscriptions on clay tablets, is one of the oldest-known systems of writing. The Assyrian Empire dates back to the 25th century B.C., making it one of the first civilizations to form anywhere in the world. It’s inhabitants spanned the Mesopotamian region along with those of other early civilizations like ancient Babylonians and Sumerians, the latter of which are credited with inventing cuneiform some time between 3500 and 3000 B.C.
Kültepe itself was the site of an Old Assyrian Empire settlement from around the 21st to 18th centuries B.C. More than 1,000 cuneiform tablets have been discovered at the site to date. This particular one is now on display at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.