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The Groundbreaking Invention of Writing

Updated on October 27, 2014

A Written Language Thousands of Years Old

Suppose you were asked to make a list of the names of all your friends, their ages, their height and shoe sizes. You would be able to write this fairly quickly once you had the facts to make that list. These days we write using the Roman alphabet and the Arabic numerals, whether this is in block print, cursive script or typed on a keyboard.

Five thousand years ago, in Ancient Mesopotamia, people kept lists using the first fully developed written script, known as Cuneiform Script and they made lists too. Plenty of lists. Lists of numbers - sheep flocks, head of cattle, bushels of wheat or barley and jars of oil.

All of those lists were written on clay tablets and we can still see many of them today.

The Code of Hammurabi

On a grey stone slab, 2.25-metres high (7.4 ft) is the oldest set of laws known to exist. This is the Code of Hammurabi, inscribed in the Akkadian language, using cuneiform script.

The Babylonian king, Hammurabi, enacted the code which allowed everyone, men, women and slaves, to read and understand the laws that governed their lives in Babylon.

For its time, 1772 BCE, it’s particularly just. It outlines the idea of presumption of innocence, and suggests that both the accused and accuser have the opportunity to provide evidence

Cuneiform Script on Clay


Where was Mesopotamia?


Cuneiform originated in Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia was located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers which flow into the Persian Gulf. Some people call this the ‘Middle East’, the ‘Near East’ and some people call it ‘West Asia’. It just depends on where you live. (For me, it’s the North West!)

The word Mesopotamia means “The land between the rivers” and most of it, today, is in Iraq. It’s where our civilisation was born.

The people who lived in this fertile place learned how to irrigate their land and then invented the wheel so that carts could carry their surplus goods for trade. Carts and boatloads of wheat, barley, flax, wool, timber and jars of oil were carried up and down the river valleys and, with all this commerce, some form of keeping accounts had to be invented. Their answer was the cuneiform writing system.

Ancient Beer
Ancient Beer

Quick Poll

Could you write in Cuneiform Script?

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Quick Facts

1. The word "cuneiform" is from the Latin "cuneus", which means "wedge".

2. The earliest literary work in history, 'Epic of Gilgamesh', is written on clay tablets

3. The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal is a collection of thousands of clay tablets and fragments with texts from the 7th century BCE.

© 2014 Susanna Duffy


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