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Updated on August 29, 2010

Cuneiform is the earliest fully developed system of writing known. The name "cuneiform" - derived from Latin cuneus (wedge) and forma (shape) - is applied to ancient scripts in which each character is formed by a stroke in the shape of a wedge, cone, or nail. The 17th century English scholar Thomas Hyde was the first to use the term "cuneiform." The German name for the script is Keilschrift (wedge script), and the Arabic mismari (nail-writing).

Beginnings of Cuneiform

No exact date can be ascribed for the invention of cuneiform writing, but it was already in existence in the last centuries of the 4th millennium B.C. Credit for this great invention probably belongs to the Sumerians, a Mesopotamian people who spoke neither an Indo-European nor a Semitic language, but an agglutinative form of speech, and whose ethnic and linguistic affiliations defy classification. However, some scholars doubt that the Sumerians were responsible for this achievement, and it is uncertain where the system was invented.

The earliest extant written documents, discovered at the Sumerian settlements of Uruk (the Biblical Erech), Kish, Lagash, Nippur, Ur, Shuruppak, and others, are in a crude pictographic script and probably in the Sumerian language. Thus, paradoxically, at the beginning, "cuneiform" writing was not cuneiform at all; the characters were pictograms, and the picture symbols represented both animate and inanimate objects. But, according to the American scholar Ephraim Speiser, the property marks (the primitive prototypes of those that appear on the Mesopotamian cylinder seals) were the true beginnings of the script out of which the cuneiform system arose.

Development of the Signs

The chief writing material of Mesopotamia was clay, exposed to the sun or baked in kilns to make it durable. Because it is difficult to draw pictures on clay, early in the course of the development of cuneiform the pictographic element started to disappear. The pictures first began to be simplified and conventionalized, and ultimately became linear (that is, consisting of simply drawn lines). In the following period some scribes found it convenient to turn the tablet so that the symbols appear to be lying on their backs, although in inscriptions on stone or metal the old position of the signs persisted for a few centuries more. In the course of time the practice followed on clay tablets predominated, and all the signs eventually were turned at an angle of 90 degrees.

After clay had been used as a writing material for some centuries, the Sumerians discovered that characters could be drawn much better and more quickly by impressing them rather than by scratching them in the damp clay. Because curves, circles, and fine and long lines could not be impressed satisfactorily, they were replaced by combinations of short, straight, vertical, horizontal, or oblique strokes, or by angles. These were impressed with the slanted edge of a rectangular broad-headed stylus.

The standard direction of writing was from left to right (thus the writer, using his right hand, would not smudge his last, still pliable impression); therefore, the strokes impressed were thick on the top and on the left and gave rise to a series of wedge-shaped ("cuneiform") characters, which the users called "fingers." This peculiarity became more pronounced as time went on, and when, after clay script had become well established, inscriptions were chiseled on such hard materials as stone, metal, glass, or gems, and wedge form was scrupulously observed.

Development of the System. Although at first the symbols represented only objects, at a second stage the signs also denoted abstract ideas. These signs were borrowed from others denoting words related in meaning, so that the representation of the sun, for example, came to indicate also the ideas of "day," "light," or "brightness." Symbols used in this way are called, though not quite correctly, "ideographs"; a more precise term for them is "word-signs." When the need to set down continuous discourse arose, it became evident that it was impossible to represent a number of the vital elements of speech (inflections, pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, personal names) and the picture symbols came to be used to represent not only objects or related abstract ideas but also other values of words without regard to their meaning as pictures.

The development of cuneiform writing was parallel in some respects with the development of the Egyptian, Chinese, and other analytic scripts. As in these, the range of expression of cuneiform signs was very wide: some of the signs were polyphones (having more than one phonetic value), others were homophones (having similar phonetic values but representing entirely different objects). To remove ambiguities, it was necessary to introduce determinatives, unpronounced signs placed before or after a word to define its meaning by denoting its classification (deities, countries, mountains, male proper names, birds, fish, plural, and the like). Thus a single cuneiform sign could represent an object, an abstract idea, or a simple syllable or vowel, or indicate the classification of a word.

The defects of this system are obvious: the huge number of signs required render it unwieldy, and the many different uses of the same sign make it too complex. The resourceful scribes overcame the first difficulty by reducing the number of signs, and the second by resorting to such helpful devices as substituting phonetic for pictographic or ideographic values. The earliest epigraphic remains (about 3300 B.C.) employ as many as 900 signs, and apparently this is only about half the total then in use. By about 2500 B.C., in the 3d dynasty of Ur (or slightly before) the total number was about 600. And finally, the Assyrians reduced the number of signs in regular use to about 300.

The difficulty of writing and reading cuneiform symbols led the ancient scribes to draw up "syllabaries"- lists of signs showing their values. Many of these syllabaries survive, including the Akkadian, which contain (1) Sumer-ian cuneiform signs, (2) their Akkadian equivalents, and (3) translations of whole Sumerian sentences. The Assyrian "syllabaries" are larger and more complete than the Babylonian, contain fine examples of lexicography, and have proved to be of great value to modern scholars, especially in the study of Sumerian.

Conservative influences kept cuneiform writing alive into the Christian era. Private and business letters in cuneiform script, numerous before the Persian conquest of Babylonia in 539 B.C., ceased at the beginning of the 5th century B.C. as the spoken Babylonian fell into disuse. At the end of the 5th century, legal and other documents were no longer written in cuneiform characters. The Aramaic alphabet took their place (see alphabet). There was a short period of renaissance for cuneiform between the 3rd century B.C. and the 1st century B.C., but the latest record extant is a tablet of 75 A.D. After that, cuneiform was ignored for nearly 16 centuries.

Spread and Importance of Cuneiform

The Sumerians represented the dominant cultural group of the Middle East for more than 1,300 years (from the late 4th millennium B.C. to the first centuries of the 2nd millennium B.C.), during which they produced a vast and highly developed literature (myths, hymns, epics) written in cuneiform. Moreover, tens of thousands of other written documents (legal materials, economic memoranda, private correspondence) survive.

About the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C. the Sumerian cuneiform writing was taken over by the Akkadians, and it became their national script. In the 2nd millennium B.C. cuneiform writing and the Akkadian language became the standard language and script of the ancient civilized world. This was proved for the 15th and 14th centuries B.C. by the Amarna Tablets (found in 1887) and the tablets discovered at Bogazkoy and, indeed, throughout western Asia. The interesting Mesopotamian cylinder seals employed for sealing documents enjoyed a vogue of more than 3,000 years.

In addition to the Sumerians and Akkadians, many other peoples belonging to different ethnic groups and speaking different languages (the Elamites, the Kassites, the Hittites, the Mitanni and Hurri, the Luwi, the Balai, the Urartu, the Persians) took over cuneiform writing. Some adapted it more or less successfully to their own languages, introducing the necessary changes; others took it over without great modifications; and some preferred to adopt it together with the Akkadian language. The Cappadocian Tablets (3rd millennium B.C.), written in Assyrian, indicate that at that period the population of Cappadocia employed cuneiform writing, just as the Amarna Tablets show that the Canaanites of the 15th to 14th centuries B.C. also used it.

Most interesting is the Early Persian cuneiform script, the official script of the Achasmenid dynasty (middle of the 6th century B.C. to the victories of Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C.), a semialphabet, whose creation probably was suggested by the Aramaic alphabet already in wide use.

Rediscovery and Decipherment

The first man in modern times to observe and publish cuneiform signs was the Italian traveler Pietro della Valle, who in October 1621 saw some Persian cuneiform symbols and wrote about them in a letter from Shiras, Persia, to a friend in Naples. In 1674 the French traveler Jean Chardin published a copy of an Early Persian inscription, and in 1765 the German explorer Carsten Niebuhr took from Persepolis copies of trilingual inscriptions and published them in 1788.

However, the decipherment of cuneiform writing was the achievement of the 19th century. The youngest of the cuneiform writings, the semialphabet Early Persian script, was the first to be deciphered; the Babylonian, much older and more complicated, was the second; neo-Elamite was the third; and Sumerian, the oldest cuneiform script, was the last to be deciphered.

In 1802, Georg F. Grotefend, a German high school teacher, laid the basis for decipherment, but the real father of cuneiform decipherment was the Englishman Sir Henry C. Rawlinson. Rawlinson copied, deciphered, and, in 1846, published a complete translation of the Early Persian text of the famous trilingual inscription of Behistun and a few years later tackled successfully the problem of Babylonian writing. The decipherment of the Babylonian and Assyrian writings led eventually to the decipherment of other cuneiform scripts and their languages.


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    • italianizeyoursel profile image

      italianizeyoursel 6 years ago

      It's amazing that people are able to decipher writing systems that haven't been used for thousands of years. This is a great article on cuneiform.

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      katelyn 6 years ago

      i'm looking for some names that were used in the tablets and maybe some sumerian names. this would help me a lot.

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      Multiman 6 years ago

      Great Article!!!

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      zionmyhome 5 years ago from Jersusalem


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      neji 5 years ago

      It's really good that person could have added a lot more and it still would have been good.If you have a chance type the answer for how it change the world.

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