CUNEIFORM WRITING

  Cuneiform, 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 clay surface, and also on stone, metal, and wax. Most of the clay tablets were sun-baked, making surviving tablets very fragile. This technique originated in ancient southern Mesopotamia and the earliest texts in cuneiform script 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

The development of writing

 

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.

 

c. 3100 c. 2800 c. 2400 c. 600
barley

head
bird
ox
tree
palm


 

 

 

 

 

                                                                                                                                                     Sumerian Scribe

Reed stylus

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.

                  

 

Cuneiform numbers

1
 

 

2 3 4 5
6
 

 

7 8 9 10
11
 

 

12 13 14 15
16
 

 

17 18 19 20
30
 

 

40 50 60 70
   
80
 

 

90 100

 

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

 

 

map_babylon.JPG (15814 bytes) 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

 

The sun-god tablet from Babylon, about 870 BC. The cuneiform writing tells how the king restored the statue of the sun-god to a certain temple. The relief shows the king being led to an altar, bringing symbol for the sun. Shamash, the sun-god, 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!