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Ancient Sumer: Origins of Cuneiform Writing

Updated on August 15, 2011

The worlds first form of writing, its origins and the reasons why it came about!

Writing: An achievement that we take for granted, as a modern-day society. But why and how did it start? Modern-Day Iraq is home to some of the most ancient of civilisations with Sumer and the Ubaid tribe being the oldest. This pragmatic and gifted culture must be explored further in order to understand why this happened. In this article we will also be exploring the Sumerian educational system; as this gives us a glimpse into the mind-set of this ancient race.

In a modern 'middle' school we are taught the basics of the origins of writing, however from that time we are given no other information in order to pursue this avenue. But even this basic information lacks the reason and the ideas of why the Sumerians developed writing in the first instance! This article will attempt to explain how writing was developed and the reasons behind it; from the viewpoint of an amateur Sumerologist.

An artists impression of the city of Urim (Ur)
An artists impression of the city of Urim (Ur)

The Sumerians, Who, What and Where?

In the first instance what we call the 'Sumerians and the land of Sumer' is not the original name of the people and of the region of southern Iraq. Spanning from the most northern city that of Urim to the most southern point that of Eridu. Of course we simply know the former most city as Ur (pronounced as oo-a-ur) however this is a Semitic name of this city; with the original Sumerian name being 'Urim.

The actual word 'Sumer' was an Assyrian name given to the peoples of southern Iraq; with the true name for this land referred by the inhabitants of 'Sumer' as Ki-Ga-Gir (place of the black heads) In addition the Sumer's referred to themselves as 'The Black Heads'- possibly for the reason that they were dark haired much like Iraqis are today; however the reason for this is still yet to be proven.

For the sake of clarity we shall henceforth refer to the inhabitants of this region as 'Sumerian'

Rought Area showing the Ubaid tribe Origins
Rought Area showing the Ubaid tribe Origins

The Ubaid Period

At around 8000 to 4500BCE the original inhabitants of the region of southern Iraq were the Ubaid Tribe' Of which are named after a local mound Tel-Ubaid, where their culture was first discovered. This society had basic pottery and developed the 'Potters Wheel'-even though this is often incorrectly attributed to the Sumerians. This tribe lived in crude villages (in comparison to Sumerian standards) and where often subject to the flooding of the marshes and of the Tigris rivers during winter; with a drought during the summer. Arable farmland was scarce at this time and population growth was very limited in addition to the development of pottery for this reason.

An artists Impression of the City and the main temple of Eridu
An artists Impression of the City and the main temple of Eridu

The first Sumerian Cities

IN 4500BCE everything changed with the entrance of the Sumerian tribe. Their original origins have been postulated, but in truth their true beginnings are currently unknown. However what is known that the forerunners of the Indus tribe (now known as Pakistan aka Southern India) and the Sumers were originally one and this tribe split in half, with one side to eventually form the Indus and the other the Sumerian societies (Kramer S.N, History Begins At Sumer)

When we refer to the year 4000BCE we know that at this time the Ubaid tribe was eventually supplanted and pushed to a more northerly region; with the descendants of the Ubaid civilisation now known as the 'Marsh-Arabs' today. At this time we see the formation of the first cities, with Eridu being the first. However in truth the beginnings of the first city that being of the aforementioned Eridu (meaning good city) being of Ubaid in origin, as even the Sumers themselves were of the opinion that this cities origins began at around 8000BCE. With necessity being 'the mother of invention' an explosion of ideas occurred at this time and the first cities began by one simple idea and that was to protect arable farm land from rival villages or townships. To protect the aforementioned farmland crude walls were built around these proto-cities.

A sumerian Clay Sickle
A sumerian Clay Sickle

The Time of Irrigation Farming

Moving onto the Year 3800 BCE Irrigation farming was discovered by the use of canals dug (from the Indigna and the Burannu rivers) and maintained by the inhabitants. Maintaining these was such a central part of their culture that the king or even the En-Si (lord priest) of the city often worked as a part of the community in order to clear the 'black' silt and moss from the canals. At this time not only barley and dates were cultivated, but most shocking of all Poppies and their seeds were first used. Most people today are under the impression that these originally came from China, however this is false as they were first cultivated in ancient Sumer and much later sent on the sea-born trade route to China. The forerunner to opium was also used in the land of Sumer and was referred as Hul-Gil in other words 'Joy-Plant' for many of their religious ceremonies with the most notable being the 'bit akitu' festival.

At the same time as the formation of irrigation farming, alcohol was first fermented and the use of barley bread known as Bappir was first used. The first crude form of alcohol was made by crumbling pieces of Bappir into water to form the first form of alcohol. For the common man of Sumer this was the mainstay of their diet and was so much an important part of their lives that they had a 'goddess' of brewing called 'Nin-Ka-Si' literally translated as 'Lady Dark Beer' However later the Sumers would develop a much more potent version of alcohol by the use of Bappir mixed with the juice of dates.

Sumerian Token
Sumerian Token

Clay Tokens and Accounting

With all these new developments, one needed a system of accounting of whom owned what and of that product and how many? Clay tokens were used (though there is some evidence that the first use of these were much earlier) with the impression of the product (essentially an image) for each item owned. As previously mentioned an impression of a sheep was used on a clay token to signify that this person owned 'one' sheep and this 'token' was kept in a clay 'wallet' called a Bullae (pronounced as Boo-La)

This was a great way of keeping track of who owned what, however it was not very good at 'how many? The reason for this is if one had five hundred sheep, fifty pots of beer and thirty cows then it stands to reason that one could not walk around with all these tokens, specially if you loose some of them, with the added addition of the sheer weight of all that clay.

Later a system of showing whom owned what and how many was used, essentially a way of impressing the same image but in 'short hand' so to speak by the use of a wedge.However, instead of making the same sign of a sheep three times to represent three items, the scribes used the sign for a sheep, which eventually became just a wedge, to denote quantity. A wedge came to represent "one", and a circle denote "ten". So to write five sheep, the scribe impress a wedge five times, and then make the sign for sheep.

However these were only the basic beginnings of the Sumerian form of writing and at around 3500BCE things started to change for the better. To understand the Sumerian language and its writing system then one MUST understand the mind of the Sumerian and how they saw the world

The Sumerian Mindset and their Views on Life.

Most people today are under the impression that Sumerian Cuneiform is compromised of sounds much like our language. This would be indeed incorrect, as we have previously discussed the Sumerians saw things as 'literal' in many ways due to the past and first forms of 'writing' with symbols such as an image of a sheep,cow, bird etc. on tokens. The first forms of Sumerian cuneiform writing (after the clay token period) literally stood for concepts and ideas, rather than sounds. It was not until the Ur III period where Cuneiform added sounds as well as concepts that Sumerian became a proper conversational language were stories could be told in written form. This was in the period of 2500BCE

To understand early cuneiform one had (as I previously explained) to think like a Sumerian. For example the Sumerian sign for the concept 'kur' was originally an image of a mountain, however it also meant 'whole land' with the addition that it was the same sign for the 'netherworld' the afterlife or as a modern individual would see it as the 'underworld' At first glance one would not be able to fathom why the same sign could mean so many differing concepts? However if one understands the Sumerian mind then the connection becomes apparent. Between Modern Day Iraq (Sumer) and Iran (Elam) are the Zaragos mountains. The Elamites (from Iran) used to attack the plain of Sumer through these mountains, so much so that the mountains became associated with death, danger and the afterlife as well as the concept land, and mountain. To emphasise this viewpoint the Sumerians had a goddess called Ninkursag (Nin-Kur-Sag) literally meaning Lady-Mountain-Head.

Later the name was changed slightly to Ninhursag (Nin-Hur-Sag)

Another few examples on this trail of thought would be the sign for 'Munus' or 'Woman was literally a loose drawing of the female genitalia area; that is a triangle with its apex pointing down and a line drawn to the centre from the triangle from the apex. Another would be the concept of god, gods, heaven, the god of the heavens Anu this concept is easy to understand and its connections. The sign for this is the asterix or eight rayed star in Sumerian the concept is 'Dingir'.

Later in Sumer two dialects would evolve in regards to the female and male dialects. This is the time around 2500BCE when the influence of the Akkadians in the north became apparent. The former being Emesal and the latter Emugal. For example if a Sumerian male scholar wrote about a goddess then he would change from the male into the female dialect even though the writer was male.

Upon ending this article one like to point out that Sumerian writing was heavily enforced in 'Sumerians schools' each 'student' had to labour in their work from sunrise to sunset and mistakes were not tolerated in the least. Whilst good work was actively praised, poor work was punished severely. A Sumerian scribe had to prepare the clay tablet to the correct consistency before hand and to exactly copy the text that was prepared for them by the teacher called the school-father. Failure to do so merited a beating by the class monitor then by the teacher and then finally by the principal of the Sumerian school. A Sumerian school life was a hard one, however this was justified by the fact that these scribes were entrusted with high offices later in life.

Putting it all together

In order to further demonstrate how the lanugage fits together, here is a genuine Sumerian religious ritual or rather an incantation.

This was performed when a person would enter from the profane (unclean) area (the outside) to the scared and clean area of the temple.

The Su-Luh Ceremony


En (meaning lord) su-luh-ha-me-en su-luh-ha-me-an

su-lu-ha-me-an ku-ga-me-en su-luh-ha-me-an sikil-la-me-en

suh-luh-ha-me-en sen-sen-na-me-en su-luh-ha-me-an dadag-ga-me-en

su-luh-ha-dadag-ga-am su-luh-hasikil-la-am

su-luh-ha sen-sen-na-am su-luh-ha dadag-ga-am

lu-ul dumu-dingir (remember what i said about the dingir concept?)-ra-na an-gim he-en-ku-ga

ki-gim-he-en-sikil-la sa-an-gim he-en dadag-ga

eme-hul-gal bar-se he-im-ta-gub


Your hands are washed, your hands are washed.

Your hands are washed you are holy; your hands are washed you are pure.

Your hands are washed-your resplendent. Your hands are washed- you are clean

He who's hands are washed is shining. He who's hands are washed is pure.

He who's hands are washed is resplendent. He who's hands are washed is shining.

May this man the son of his god (remember Dingir?) become holy like the heavens!

May he become pure like the Earth May he shine like the holy heart of Heaven!

May the evil tongue stand aside!

I leave you with this old Mesopotamian proverb:

The scribe that does not know Sumerian; then what scribe is he?

Thank you for reading

Christopher Cressey.


Sources in Havard Reference Format:

Kramer S.N History begins at Sumer

Crawford H Sumer and the Sumerians

Jaokobsen T Treasures of Darkness

Black J Gods Demons and Symbols of Mesopotamia

Wilson J.E Holiness and Purity in Ancient Mesopotamia

Snell DC A workbook of Cuneiform Signs (Assyrian but pointing back to Sumerian sources)

Amazon books on this Subject

I personally recommend the following books on the subject of Sumerian language and its grammar!

This is my first article on here; please give constructive comments below:

please comment on my guestbook

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    • CruiseReady profile image


      7 years ago from East Central Florida

      Vry interesting~

    • zentao profile image


      7 years ago

      Very cool lens! I love your history and your writing! Keep it up I certainly want to see more!!

    • ChristopherCres profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      @anonymous: to be honest, sitchins works of sci-fi arent fit to line the bottom of bird-cages with. Evidence of this will be the subject of a future lense. Sitchin the king of mis-direction

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Awesome lens - fascinating! I've always enjoyed studying ancient civilizations.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Very Interesting and well crafted lens. I gained interest in the time and area with Sitchin's introduction. I wonder what you think of his translations.

    • ChristopherCres profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      thank you very much Jeffrey

    • jeffreysanford profile image


      7 years ago

      Wonderful lens with impeccable information! I have lens rolled both of my Sumerian article in mythology into this one. Well done!


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