from the Latin cuneus, meaning "wedge," is the term applied
to a mode
of writing which used a wedge-shaped stylus to make impressions on a
surface, and also on stone, metal, and wax. Most of the clay tablets
sun-baked, making surviving tablets very fragile. This technique
in ancient southern Mesopotamia and the earliest texts in cuneiform
are about 5000 years old.
Cuneiform writing was probably invented by the Sumerians, but was subsequently adapted for writing in the Akkadian language, of which Babylonian and Assyrian are dialects. Writing was invented in the ancient Near East in order to record business activities, but tablets containing medical texts and other subjects have also been found.
CONNECTION BETWEEN WRITING & AGRICULTURE
Around 3100 B.C. people began to record amounts of different crops. Barley was one of the most important crops in southern Mesopotamia and when it was first drawn it looked like this.
Scribes drew the sign on soft clay tablets using a pointed tool, probably made out of a reed.
The development of writing
Remember that the barley sign is only one of many. Here are some of the other signs, and how they changed over three thousand years.
A reed stylus was the main writing tool used by Mesopotamian scribes.
Scribes created the wedge shapes which made cuneiform signs by pressing the stylus into a clay or wax surface.
EXAMPLES OF CUNEIFORM WRITING
Fragment of a clay tablet from Nineveh, with the Assyrian epic of Creation called enuma elish ("when the gods"), which tells of how Marduk slew the monster Tiamat and created the world out of her body.
|Fragment of a clay tablet from the library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, with an Assyrian account of the Flood|
|An early world map, circa 600 B.C., shows Babylon as a rectangle intersected by two vertical lines representing the Euphrates River. Small circle stand for surrounding kingdoms, and an ocean encircles the world|
tablet from Babylon, about 870 BC. The cuneiform writing tells how the
restored the statue of the sun-god to a certain temple. The relief shows
king being led to an altar, bringing symbol for the sun. Shamash, the
sits in a shrine, holding symbols of his power.
Courtesy Barry Powell, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
DECIPHERING THE SCRIPT
The Key to Deciphering Cuneiform: inscriptions on a cliff
Knowledge of cuneiform was lost until AD 1835, when Henry Rawlinson, an English army officer, found some inscriptions on a cliff (shown above) at Behistun in Persia. Carved in the reign of King Darius of Persia (522-486 BC), they consisted of identical texts in three languages: Old Persian, Babylonian and Elamite. After translating the Persian, Rawlinson began to decipher the others. By 1851 he could read 200 Babylonian signs.
John Chuchiak, in cuneiform is
EXERCISE: WRITE YOUR NAME IN CUNEIFORM!