Cuneiform Script

Cuneiform script is an early form of writing created by the Sumerians around 5000 years ago. The script began as pictographs, simple pictures, though over time the symbols became more abstract.

To create cuneiform script, a scribe would use a stylus, a blunt reed, to make impressions on wet clay tablets. The stylus left wedge-shaped impressions, leading to the named cuneiform (“wedge shaped”).

Cuneiform started with the Sumerians around 3000 B.C. In the following diagram, we can see how pictographs (Stage one, 3000 B.C.) gradually led to Assyrian cuneiform (Stage seven, early first millennium until its extinction around 75 A.D.).

Early pictograms were not wedge-shaped. Beginning around 2900 B.C., pictographs began to change. The context could change the meaning of a given sign.

By the mid-third millennium, writing changed. Writing was done from left to right in horizontal rows, much as we do now. This caused pictograms to rotate 90° counterclockwise, while the new stylus produced true cuneiform script.

Symbols were scratched into play. If a permanent record was desired, the cuneiform tablets were fired in kilns. Many of the cuneiform tablets that have survived to the present day owe their survival to marauding armies who burned buildings, baking the tablets within.

Beginning around 2500 B.C., the Akkadians adopted cuneiform script. Over the next 500 years, they made several changes. New phonetic symbols were created from the old signs. Written Akkadian now had some symbols to represent syllables, others that represented entire words (logograms), and some that had and meaning in both syllabic and logographic styles.

The Babylonians and Assyrians continued using cuneiform. Around 1800 B.C., the Hittites adapted Assyrian cuneiform to their own language, creating a Hittite cuneiform. Many logographic spellings were added, and today we have lost the pronunciation of many Hittite words.

The last recorded use of cuneiform was in 75 A.D. on an astronomical text after that, knowledge of cuneiform was lost for almost 2000 years. In 1835, an officer of the British East India Company discovered that cuneiform version of the infamous Rosetta Stone. The Behistun inscriptions were written in Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite – the three official languages of the Persian Empire under the reign of King Darius (522-486 BC). Since then, great strides have been made in deciphering cuneiform text.

Letter sent by the high-priest Lu’enna to the king of Lagash (maybe Urukagina), informing him of his son’s death in combat, c. 2400 BC, found in Telloh (ancient Girsu). Courtesy Wikipedia.