Ancient Yo Mama Jokes on the Colbert Report

March 5, 2012

Last Friday, my Facebook feed was flooded with comments about our cuneiform tablet that made it onto the Colbert Report in a spot about ancient yo mama jokes.

Our tablet fragment, featured in the original scholarly article in Iraq, originates from Sippar (modern-day Abu Habbah, Iraq just southwest of Baghdad) during the Old Babylonian Period (1900-1600 BCE). The script is in Akkadian, a semitic language used in Mesopotamia between 2,800 BCE and 500 CE.

Cuneiform tablet fragment from Sippar. Penn Museum object CBS 01399.

This lovely “fat cross” scan was digitized by the Babylonian Section of the Penn Museum as part of  co-operation with the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative  funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Most of the tablets were used as writing exercises for young scribes-in-training, so it’s no wonder some of the students got a bit punchy and trailed off on their own bawdy riddles. Our scribe, however, was a bit more restrained. On our tablet, “various persons are addressed and told to give up evilness.”

The writers at Huffington Post and Discover Magazine admit the jokes don’t really stand the test of time or translation. If comedy is tragedy plus time, maybe these tablets need to sit around in storage a bit longer.

By the way, if you want to impress your Facebook friends, you can write your name in cuneiform and post it on your wall. Or you can try to fit in a punchline to your favorite yo mama joke.