Cuneiform - Mesopotamian Writing in Wedges

The Syllabary of Gilgamesh's Epic Tale and Hammurabi's Code

Cuneiform Babylonian Clay Tablet Inscribed with Geometrical Problems
Cuneiform Babylonian Clay Tablet Inscribed with Geometrical Problems, from the British Museum's collection. Print Collector / Getty Images

Cuneiform, one of the earliest forms of writing, was developed from Proto-Cuneiform in Uruk, Mesopotamia around 3000 BC. The word comes from the Latin, meaning "wedge-shaped"; we don't know what the script was actually called by its users. Cuneiform is a syllabary, a writing system used to stand for syllables or sounds in a variety of Mesopotamian languages. 

According to illustrations included in Neo-Assyrian sculptural reliefs, the triangular symbols of cuneiform were created with wedge-shaped styluses made from the giant cane (Arundo donax) a reed widely available in Mesopotamia, or carved from bone or formed from metal.

A cuneiform scribe held the stylus between his thumb and other fingers and pressed the wedge-shaped end into small soft clay tablets held in his other hand. Such tablets were then fired, some intentionally but often accidentally—fortunately for scholars, many cuneiform tablets were not meant for posterity. Cuneiform used for keeping momentous historical records was sometimes chiseled into stone.

Decipherment

Cracking the cuneiform script was a puzzle for centuries, the solution for which was attempted by numerous scholars. A few major breakthroughs in the 18th and 19th centuries led to its eventual decipherment.

  1. The Danish king Frederik V (1746-1766) sent six men to the Arab world to answer scientific and natural history questions and learn the customs. The Royal Danish Arabia Expedition (1761-1767) was comprised of a natural historian, a philologist, a doctor, a painter, a cartographer, and an orderly. Only the cartographer Carsten Niebuhr [1733-1815] survived. In his book Travels Through Arabia, published in 1792, Niebuhr describes a visit to Persepolis where he made copies of the cuneiform inscriptions.
  1. Next came philologist Georg Grotefend [1775-1853], who deciphered but didn't claim to translate the Old Persian cuneiform scripts. The Anglo-Irish clergyman Edward Hincks [1792-1866] worked on translations during this period.
  2. The most important step was when Henry Creswicke Rawlinson [1810-1895] scaled the steep limestone cliff above the Royal Road of the Achaemenids in Persia to copy the Behistun inscription. This inscription was from the Persian king Darius I (522-486 BC) who had the same text bragging about his exploits inscribed in cuneiform in three different languages (Akkadian, Elamite, and Old Persian). Old Persian had already been deciphered when Rawlinson climbed the cliff, allowing him to translate the other languages.
  1. Finally, Hincks and Rawlinson worked on another important cuneiform document, the Black Obelisk, a Neo-Assyrian black limestone bas-relief from Nimrud (today in the British Museum) referring to the deeds and military conquests of Shalmaneser III (858-824 BC). By the end of the 1850s together these men were able to read cuneiform.

Cuneiform Letters

Cuneiform writing as an early language doesn't have the rules about placement and order as our modern languages do. Individual letters and numbers in cuneiform differ in placement and position: the characters can be arranged in different directions around lines and dividers. Lines of text can be horizontal or vertical, parallel, perpendicular, or oblique; they can be inscribed written beginning from the left or from the right. Depending on the steadiness of the hand of the scribe, the wedge shapes may be small or elongated, oblique or straight.

Each given symbol in cuneiform could represent a single sound or syllable. For example, according to Windfuhr there are 30 Ugaritic word-related symbols that are made anywhere from 1-7 wedge shapes, while Old Persian had 36 phonic signs made with 1-5 wedges. The Babylonian language used over 500 cuneiform symbols.

Using Cuneiform

Originally created to communicate in Sumerian, cuneiform proved very useful for the Mesopotamians, and by 2000 BC, the characters were used to write other languages used throughout the region including Akkadian, Hurrian, Elamite, and Urartian. In time the consonantal script of Akkadian replaced cuneiform; the last known example of the use of cuneiform dates to the first century AD.

Cuneiform was written by usually anonymous palace and temple scribes, known as dubsars in early Sumerian, and umbisag or tupsarru ("tablet writer") in Akkadian. Although its earliest use was for accounting purposes, cuneiform was also used for historical records such as the Behistun inscription, legal records including the Code of Hammurabi, and poetry like the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Cuneiform was also used for administrative records, accounting, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, medicine, divination, and literary texts, including mythology, religion, proverbs, and folk literature.

Sources

The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative is an excellent source of information, including a sign list for cuneiform written between 3300-2000 BC.

This entry was updated by N.S. Gill

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