How Would USPS Handle Mailing The World's Oldest Letters?

While the U.N.'s Universal Postal Union credits the oldest known postal document to Egypt in 255 B.C., postal services date back to at least 500 B.C. and the establishment of the Persian Angarium, which the ancient Greek historian Herodotus described using still familiar words: "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

Today, the U.S. Postal Service estimates that they handle approximately 48 percent of the world's mail, which is now primarily transmitted on paper, rather than the cuneiform tablets and papyri of letters from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. But how would the USPS handle the world's oldest letters?

A U.S. Postal Service worker makes deliveries during the 1993 flooding of the Mississippi River. Photo credit should read RANDY JOHNSON/AFP via Getty Images

One of the most famous ancient letters, which predates known postal systems, is known as the complaint tablet to Ea-nasir. Written around 1750 B.C., the cuneiform tablet is a complaint letter from a customer named Nanni to the copper merchant Ea-nasir, who is speculated to have been the owner of a house in the ruins of the Sumerian city-state of Ur (now modern-day Iraq), where the letter was found.

"You put ingots which were not good before my messenger and said 'If you want to take them, take them, if you do not want to take them, go away!'" Nanni writes. "What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt?"

Currently held in the British Museum, the clay tablet letter from Nanni to Ea-nasir measures 4.6 inches high, two inches wide and an inch thick. Based on prices calculated using the USPS postage calculator, mailing Nanni's complaint tablet from the Newsweek office in New York back to Ea-nasir's house in Iraq should cost $101, using a Global Express envelope. Though anyone could send their own cuneiform tablet complaint within the United States for considerably less.

Asked about mailing papyrus scrolls, cuneiform tablets and other ancient letters unlike the typical utility bill or postcard, a representative for the USPS recommended Registered Mail, which can be electronically verified and insured up to $50,000. Registered Mail is also available internationally.

"It's important to note that Registered Mail is kept highly secured and is processed manually, which naturally slows the speed at which it travels," the U.S. Postal Service representative told Newsweek. "Registered Mail is not recommended if speed of delivery is important."

The USPS is also accustomed to handling fragile cargo, with additional Special Handling and insurance options available for the antiquarian or Babylonian merchant. Seemingly unfazed by the prospect of shipping clay letters more than 3,000 years old, the postal service also provided a link to instructional videos describing how to handle other less-common scenarios, like mailing cremated remains.

Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, many curators don't have direct access to archaeological collections, though a representative for the Metropolitan Museum of Art was able to confirm for Newsweek details regarding what's known as an Amarna letter, this one addressed to the king of Egypt by Abi-milku of Tyre, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, located in modern-day Lebanon.

An Amarna letter held in the Collection of Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The letter was written around 1350 B.C., when Tyre—called "Surru" at the time—was a vassal state to Egypt. Abi-milku, the city's ruler, wrote to remind the Egyptian king that he held strategically valuable ships in Tyre's port on behalf of Egypt, before gently reaffirming that the king owed military protection in return.

The letter itself was written using a reed stylus to impress cuneiform script into a clay tablet. The tablet itself is small, at just over two inches wide by three inches high. Weighing just three and a half ounces, the clay tablet was one of ten letters from Abi-milku to the Egyptian king discovered in the ruins of Amarna, on the east bank of the Nile approximately 200 miles south of Cairo. Amarna was briefly the Egyptian capital under Pharaoh Akhenaten in the 1300s B.C., so the Amarna letters are believed to be the remnants of an administrative office—records of diplomatic correspondences stored on the palace grounds. The several hundred Amarna letters discovered on the site in 1887 can now be seen in museum collections around the world.

The packaging and stamps used to ship the Hope Diamond via USPS, now part of the collection of the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.. Smithsonian Institution / public domain

Likely priceless, anyone shipping an Amarna letter today would want to send the tablet via Registered Mail with a high declared value (though they'd have to insure over $50,000 themselves). USPS handles startlingly high-value tiers via Registered Mail, with items valued up to $15 million—the approximate value of Kris Jenner's California mansion—shipping for $23.75. Should you want to mail something worth more than $15 million, it will set you back north of $25,515.25.

The same USPS representative provided Newsweek with several other examples of the postal service handling precious cargo. In 1958, jeweler Harry Winston donated the Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian Institution. He used the post office to mail the famous gemstone from New York to Washington D.C., describing it as "the safest way to mail gems." Winston paid $2.44 in postage, with additional $142.85 paid for a million dollars of insurance on the delivery. The envelope is now part of the collection of the National Postal Museum.