Cuneiform: An Introduction to One of the Earliest Scripts

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Cuneiform has always interested me. It is difficult and subject to a huge amount of interpretation and choice. So let me set it out for you so that you can understand better the complexity of Cuneiform.

One of the first mistakes that people make when thinking about Cuneiform is that it is a language and writing systems in itself. More accurately, cuneiform is one of the earliest known expressions of writing, made up of a number of writing systems used for a number of languages throughout Mesopotamia. These several types of writing inscriptions include logosyllabic, syllabic and alphabetic scripts.

Clay Tokens used prior to establishment of writing systems

It dates to as far back as 3000 BC but precursors of Cuneiform reach far further into the 80th Century BC when clay tokens were used for record keeping. These tokens require an article in themselves but for the moment I direct you to the analysis of Denise Schmandt-Besserat. More direct precursors were being used in the Uruk IV period around the 4000 BC before more recognisable forms appear in Sumer. Precursors began as pictograms like many other early scripts. But these pictographs evolved through time becoming simplified and abstract with the number of symbols becoming smaller. Cuneiform simplified in a way similar to the Egyptian scripts become less pictographic and more phonetic. However, the Cuneiform scripts became extinct by the 2nd Century AD. It was gradually replaced by the Phoenician alphabet during the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

So cuneiform itself was not a language but a writing system being adapted to many languages and evolving in form to suit such languages and period. It was particularly adapted for writing Akkadian, Eblaite, Elamite, Hittite, Luwian, Hattic, Hurrian, and Urartian. And the alphabet was used in both Ugaritic and Old Persian. The majority of examples that survive were written on clay tablets with blunt reed styluses which produced the wedge-shaped signs that give cuneiform its name. Wedge-shaped signs inspired the name cuneiform from the Latin cueus meaning ‘wedge’. While precursors were often written vertically, cuneiform eventually changed to being written horizontally from left to right.

We can split the forms into several periods which help us track the evolution:

Development of Cuneiform

The Proto-literate period from around 3500 to 3100 sees the first documents in cuneiform which survive, which were found at Jemdet Nasr in the Sumerian language. These early forms are on clay tablets in vertical columns which have survived because of baking in fires which occurred in the period. Particular to the earliest forms we see the use of pictographs to indicate important concepts and things such as gods, countries, objects, cities and peoples. These were used as determinants; signs depicting the concept at the end of a word or as the word itself similar in use to those found in Egyptian hieroglyphs. These pictographs began to lose their original function and in some cases disappeared around 2900 BC. Other pictographs started to exhibit phonetic elements as the range of signs decreased in number during a constant flux of forms.

Archaic Cuneiform saw the change of direction from left to right in horizontal rows around the middle of the third millennium BC. Additionally the signs rotated by 90 degrees counter clockwise to accommodate for the writing styles and implements. This made the writing quicker and easier for the scribe. The majority of examples from the Archaic period show cuneiform being used on commemorative stelae and carved reliefs in an official capacity to record the achievements of the rulers involved. While the number of signs continued to decrease, their use and complexity increased as signs were used to portray several concepts and/or phonetic meanings. This increased complexity makes it very difficult to transliterate the script because of the vagueness in distinctions between pictograms and syllabograms.

Akkadian cuneiform started to appear between 2500 and 2000 BC and would later evolve into Old Assyrian cuneiform with additional modification to Sumerian orthography and new phonetic values being added to older signs. This led to a higher level of abstraction in the form of the signs being used. Typical signs from this period tend to hand between five and ten wedges making up one symbol. The script remained logophonetic though with its use of both logograms and determinatives in addition to phonetic signs. By this time, Akkadian cuneiform was made up of around 300-400 signs plus determinatives which made a total of about 800 signs being used.

Assyrian Cuneiform

Assyrian cuneiform was a mixed method of writing from the end of the Babylonian and Assyrian Empires. It was made up of a mixture of logographic and phonemic writing which eventually was adapted to form Hittite cuneiform in around 1800 BC. This Hittite cuneiform adapted Old Assyrian cuneiform to the Hittite language with a layer of Akkadian logographic spellings added. Between 1000 and 600 BC the Assyrian cuneiform continued in use but was further simplified.

So you see, the cuneiform scripts are difficult to transliterate and were very difficult to originally decipher. Decipherment attempts date to the Arabic and Persian historians of the medieval Islamic world and it is only recently that some of these scripts have been fully interpreted and deciphered. The difficultly in transliteration means that one is required to make choices during analysis because of the many meanings that can be ascribed to a sign.

One thing that has stayed the same in cuneiform scripts is their numerical system, which funnily enough we still use in part today. It was based on the numbers, 1, 10 and 60. Look familiar? Our concept of reflecting time still encompasses this numerical system. So no one can say the Sumerians didn’t do anything for us!

Akkadian Syllabary - just a few of the thousands of symbols involved in cuneiform scripts
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12 thoughts on “Cuneiform: An Introduction to One of the Earliest Scripts

    Apollodorosh said:
    April 28, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    Concerning that table of the Akkadian syllabary: ah if only it were that simple! They had so many different signs for the same sound…

    GraecoMuse responded:
    April 28, 2012 at 9:29 pm

    Oh I know! Hence I have resorted to showing a few of the many because otherwise it would take up about a hundred times the space!
    It’s like when I show people the Egyptian Hieroglyph signs and they just keep going and going and jaws drop :)

      Apollodorosh said:
      April 28, 2012 at 9:44 pm

      Egyptians have about 700 signs I think :-P I don’t know about the Mesopotamian cuneiform though…

        GraecoMuse responded:
        April 28, 2012 at 9:56 pm

        Egyptians have about 800, Cuneiform consists of several thousand over the millennia with overlaps and different uses etc. It’s very complicated.

        Apollodorosh said:
        April 30, 2012 at 3:29 am

        You don’t have to tell me that. LOL :D

        GraecoMuse responded:
        April 30, 2012 at 10:02 am

        Lol I know I don’t have to tell you but I am taking the opportunity to tell my many other readers :-P
        Nice Blog btw

        Apollodorosh said:
        April 30, 2012 at 4:47 pm

        I think I’m gonna remove the one about Akkadian when WordPress allows that again. It’s just too much work studying and keeping all those blogs up.

    Divna Manolova said:
    April 29, 2012 at 10:43 pm

    Reblogged this on 7artesliberales.

    GraecoMuse responded:
    April 30, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    Ah I see, you have multiple blogs, in fact every time I click your name I get transferred to a different one. It’s so much work researching, studying and blogging. My blogging is what I call ‘productive procrastination’ :)

    Feel free to suggest topics you want to see researched if you don’t have the time yourself

      Apollodorosh said:
      April 30, 2012 at 5:12 pm

      Yes I have multiple blogs, the one you get redirected to is my main blog, though I also have one in Dutch to mirror that one. The one about Akkadian is going to be removed once that’s possible again. It’s hard enoguh trying to keep posting things on my blogs about Hellenismos :-P

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