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
|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
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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