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What is cuneiform?

Some three thousand years of human achievement, documenting a period which saw many "firsts" of civilisation, are locked up in a vast archive of documents that few people can read. These documents are the clay tablets containing the cuneiform ("wedge-shaped") script that was the written means of communication in the ancient near east from the beginning of history until New Testament times.

The history of cuneiform begins at the end of the fourth millennium B.C. at a city called Uruk. Several thousand tablets have been found there written in a pictographic script. This script comprised about 1000 or so signs, including mostly pictographs - representing an object by drawing it or a significant part of it - but also some more abstract signs. Additional signs could be made by combining or adapting existing signs. The signs were drawn into wet clay using a pointed stylus. Most texts from this period are administrative in nature, the rest being school texts, designed to help teach scribes the cuneiform system. Although these pictographs could theoretically be read in any language, there are indications that the language written is Sumerian.

Several important changes took place over an extended period of time. Signs were no longer drawn but rather impressed using a square-ended stylus, producing stylised signs made up of wedge shapes (depicted here) — hence the name cuneiform, derived from the Latin word cuneus meaning "wedge". Also, by about 2800 B.C., the script became more explicit; that is to say, signs were now also used to indicate sounds and grammatical elements, making it absolutely clear that Sumerian is the language in which the texts are written.

With use of the rebus principle - where words (or syllables) are represented using signs which represent words that sound like the intended word - and by using signs to represent a series of semantically related items (for instance, using the sign representing the word for "mouth" to represent also the words for "voice" and "speak"), cuneiform was able to write anything required. Cuneiform came to be used for increasingly diverse practical purposes, as well as being the vehicle of the world's first literature. The practical purposes to which cuneiform was put included tasks such as the recording of incomes and expenditures of large households, drawing up contracts and the writing of legal texts, letters, records of public building projects and wars to name only some of the most salient applications. The material conventionally referred to by Assyriologists as "literary" included not only hymns, prayers, myths, legends, proverbs and wise sayings but also handbooks on the interpretation of natural and invoked phenomena, medical and mathematical texts, school texts, recipes, technical instructions and much more besides.

The range of uses to which cuneiform was put was almost matched by the variety of surfaces upon which it was written. Most commonly, the clay was shaped into tablets, ranging in size from small tablets which could be held in the palm of the hand to very large tablets that could only be held with both hands.

A clay tablet inscribed with cuneiform
A clay tablet inscribed with cuneiform. This tablet is still partially enclosed in its clay envelope.

Clay could also be shaped into cones, cylinders and prisms.

A clay cone inscribed with cuneiform A clay prism inscribed with cuneiform
A clay cone inscribed with cuneiform A clay prism inscribed with cuneiform

Apart from tablets of various shapes and sizes, cuneiform inscriptions were often inscribed for monumental or dedicatory purposes on large slabs of stone, on metal or precious stones, or even on the rock faces of mountains. Cuneiform was also written on wax and painted onto tablets with ink but few remains of this type of writing have survived.

As the centuries passed, the cuneiform script came to be used by other peoples, and for other languages, including Akkadian, Eblaite, Elamite, Hittite, Hurrian, Urartian and even Aramaic. And it underwent many changes, systemisation and simplifications including scribal modifications that affected the appearance and use of individual signs. The script followed different paths of evolution in different areas, while maintaining its identity as one script apart from the Ugaritic and Persian cuneiform systems. Cuneiform was used as late as the first century A.D., more than three thousand years after it first appeared. Although the variation exhibited by cuneiform across the geographical and chronological spectra may be regarded as a curse by some, it is certainly a blessing for the historian. Once the palaeography has been established, analysis of the script can provide clues to the provenance and date of inscriptions; this in turn can sometimes help date whatever it was written upon, the archaeological layer in which it was found, as well as other artefacts found in those layers.

To learn more about cuneiform, how it works and what is was used for, an excellent introduction is provided by: C. B. F. Walker (1987) Reading the Past: Cuneiform. London, Published for the Trustees of the British Museum by British Museum Publications. Another account can be found in Section 3 (pp. 33-72) of P. Daniels, and W. Bright (1996) The world's writing systems. New York, Oxford; Oxford University Press.

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