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Cuneiform: Ancient Writing System

Updated on May 22, 2009

Cuneiform was a relatively simple writing system. The characters were traced on a soft, wet clay tablet, which was then dried in the sun. The writing implement was a reed stylus with a rectangular or triangular edge. When impressed in the clay, it formed the wedge-shaped stroke that is characteristic of cuneiform. The word "cuneiform" is derived from the Latin word cuneus, which means "wedge".

Cuneiform was developed before hieroglyphics.
Cuneiform was developed before hieroglyphics.

Cuneiform is the ancient writing system of the Near East. The earliest surviving examples of cuneiform are dated at about 3000 BC. Cuneiform was probably invented by the Sumerians and gradually adopted by their neighbors, the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Persians. Each culture modified the writing to suit its particular language. By about 2000 B.C. some type of cuneiform was in use throughout the Near East.

Cuneiform developed in the same way as the alphabet and Egyptian hieroglyphics. The characters were originally pictographs, or pictures of concrete objects. A picture of a bird, for example, signified "bird"; one of a mountain meant "mountain". Sometimes a pictograph referred to a related object. For instance, the Sumerians represented "food" with a picture of a bowl. Two pictographs were often combined to suggest a word. A combination of a mouth and a bowl expressed the Sumerian word ku, meaning "to eat".

Since pictographs were difficult to draw and since a different symbol was required for every object, scribes gradually simplified and conventionalized the forms. Sometimes the form was so simplified that it no longer resembled the original object. The number of characters was reduced as pictographs broadened in meaning to refer to related and often abstract ideas. For example, a picture of a foot not only meant a part of the anatomy but also expressed ideas about the motions of the foot, such as "going" and "standing".

The number of characters was further reduced when the same pictographs were used for different words that sounded alike. The Sumerian word for water, a, was represented by a picture of a stream. The stream also indicated another word, a, which meant "in" and could not be expressed pictorially. By about 2300 B.C. the number of cuneiform characters, which had originally been about 2,000, had been reduced to approximately 600, and a rudimentary type of script existed.

The latest existing specimens of cuneiform are from about the year 6 B.C. The writing was probably obsolete by the beginning of the Christian Era.

The characters were formed by the impressions of a stylus. rediscovered during the 18th century, when archaeologists began to work in the Middle East.

One of the most important inscriptions they found was on a cliff at Behistun, Persia (now Iran). The inscription, which is in Old Persian, Elamitic, and Assyrian, lists the achievements of Darius the Great. It was transcribed in 1835 and later deciphered by Henry Rawlinson. This was the first important deciphering of a cuneiform text. Some of the earliest examples of cuneiform were discovered from 1928 to 1931 at the Red Temple in Warka, Iraq.

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    • RichERich1175 profile image

      RichERich1175 

      8 years ago

      Sensational article! Cuneiform has a storied history in the Near East and deserves some more fan-fare. I really enjoy your writing style.

    • profile image

      yo yo dont want give real name 

      9 years ago

      you should show the alphebt because that is what most people are looking for

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