Cuneiform is the world’s oldest system of writing. It was developed by the Sumerian people of Mesopotamia around 3000 BC. Historians consider the invention of cuneiform to be the most significant cultural development brought about by the Sumerian civilization, as it radically changed the way Mesopotamia communicated with the outside world.
Cuneiform is a pictorial system of language – this means that, instead of using modern letters, cuneiform was written using an alphabet based on pictures or symbols. Although this is similar to the hieroglyphic system of Ancient Egypt, historians believe that cuneiform came first.
Sumerian scribes would carve these cuneiform symbols onto clay tablets. They would do this using a reed stylus (pen) which made wedge-shaped marks in the clay. This is where the name cuneiform comes from; the word itself means “wedge-shaped.”
The Code of Hammurabi and The Epic of Gilgamesh are two particularly important cuneiform artifacts.
Cuneiform’s growth was slow in Mesopotamia. At first, it was only used for official documents, and was only known by the upper class – but over time, the public began to learn how to decipher it. The cuneiform system of writing was used for centuries in Mesopotamia and the Middle East, and quickly found a place as a universal system of writing.
However, the system of cuneiform died as other systems of writing gained popularity in the region. In particular, the growth of the Phoenician alphabet spelled the end of cuneiform, and by the time the Greeks came to power, they weren’t even aware that cuneiform had existed. It was only in the 1800s that researchers began to wonder what the cuneiform symbols carved around the Middle East meant.
Cuneiform was used to produce some great works of literature in Mesopotamia, including the famous Epic of Gilgamesh. Other literary works written in cuneiform include Atrahasis, The Descent of Inanna, and The Myth of Etana.
Cuneiform may also have been used for trade and commerce, to keep track of what items were sold to who. Cuneiform was used to record laws, like the Code of Hammurabi, which is important to historians because it gives us insight into how the people of Mesopotamia lived their lives.
Cuneiform would also have been used for recording maps, documenting religious stories/beliefs, and for personal letters/business documents by the general public. Unlike other ancient civilizations, where being able to read and write was a skill reserved for the upper class, cuneiform was taught to average citizens as well. Mesopotamia was, because of this, a literate society.
For many years, it was completely impossible for archaeologists to translate cuneiform. Because there were over 700 symbols in the cuneiform system, and their meaning could change depending on the context of how they were written, it was very difficult to establish what any symbol meant.
However, with the translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh in 1872, scholar George Smith transformed our understanding of cuneiform and enabled archaeologists to translate other pieces of text from the era. However, this system of translation was not foolproof.
Cuneiform symbols could both refer to real-world objects and certain sounds, which makes it nearly impossible for it to be translated even nowadays.
– World’s oldest system of writing.
– Around 3000 BC.
– Over 1000.
– The Epic of Gilgamesh.
– Writing of laws/literature/personal letters/record of trade.