Cuneiform: 6 things you (probably) didn’t know about the world’s oldest writing system

Distinguished by its wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets, cuneiform script is the oldest form of writing in the world, first appearing even earlier than Egyptian hieroglyphics

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Now, the curators of the world’s largest collection of cuneiform tablets – housed at the British Museum – have written a book exploring the history of cuneiform. In it, they reveal why the writing system is as relevant today as ever.

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Here, Irving Finkel and Jonathan Taylor share six lesser-known facts about cuneiform…

1) Cuneiform is not a language

The cuneiform writing system is also not an alphabet, and it doesn’t have letters. Instead it used between 600 and 1,000 characters to write words (or parts of them) or syllables (or parts of them).

The two main languages written in Cuneiform are Sumerian and Akkadian (from ancient Iraq), although more than a dozen others are recorded. This means we could use it equally well today to spell Chinese, Hungarian or English.

2) Cuneiform was first used in around 3,400 BC

The first stage used elementary pictures that were soon also used to record sounds. Cuneiform probably preceded Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, because we know of early Mesopotamian experiments and ‘dead-ends’ as the established script developed – including the beginning of signs and numbers – whereas the hieroglyphic system seems to have been born more or less perfectly formed and ready to go. Almost certainly Egyptian writing evolved from cuneiform – it can’t have been an on-the-spot invention.

Amazingly, cuneiform continued to be used until the first century AD, meaning that the distance in time that separates us from the latest surviving cuneiform tablet is only just over half of that which separates that tablet from the first cuneiform.

3) All you needed to write cuneiform was a reed and some clay

Both of which were freely available in the rivers alongside the Mesopotamian cities where cuneiform was used (now Iraq and eastern Syria). The word cuneiform comes from Latin cuneus, meaning ‘wedge’, and simply means ‘wedge shaped’. It refers to the shape made each time a scribe pressed his stylus (made from a specially cut reed) into the clay.

Most tablets would fit comfortably in the palm of a hand – like mobile phones today – and were used for only a short time: maybe a few hours or days at school, or a few years for a letter, loan or account. Many of the tablets have survived purely by accident.

4) Cuneiform looks somewhat impossible…

Those who read cuneiform for a living – and there are a few – like to think of it as the world’s most difficult writing (or the most inconvenient). However, if you have six years to spare and work round the clock (not pausing for meals) it’s a doddle to master! All you have to do is learn the extinct languages recorded by the tablets, then thousands of signs – many of which have more than one meaning or sound.

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c2044 BC, Sumeria, Ancient Iraq: Ur III clay administrative tablet, impressed with the scribes seal, which depicts a goddess leading a worshipper and the text Ur Gigir, scribe, son of Barran. The main text on the reverse (pictured) lists ploughmen employed by the state with the quantities of land assigned to them as wages. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

5) … but children master it surprisingly quickly

Children who visit the British Museum seem to take to cuneiform with a kind of overlooked homing instinct, and they often consider clay homework in spikey wedges much more exciting than exercises in biro on paper.

In fact, many of the surviving tablets in the museum collection belonged to schoolchildren, and show the spelling and handwriting exercises that they completed: they repeated the same characters, then words, then proverbs, over and over again until they could move on to difficult literature.

6) Cuneiform is as relevant today as ever

Ancient writings offer proof that our ‘modern’ ideas and problems have been experienced by human beings for thousands of years – this is always an astounding realisation. Through cuneiform we hear the voices not just of kings and their scribes, but children, bankers, merchants, priests and healers – women as well as men.
It is utterly fascinating to read other people’s letters, especially when they are 4,000 years old and written in such elegant and delicate script.

Irving Finkel and Jonathan Taylor are the authors of Cuneiform (British Museum Press, March 2015). To find out more, click here

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To learn more about the world’s largest collection of cuneiform tablets, which contains more than 130,000 examples of cuneiform writing, click here