71 Amazing Cuneiform Facts About The Ancient Writing System

Gincy Alphonse
Oct 05, 2022 By Gincy Alphonse
Originally Published on Mar 02, 2022
Edited by Naomi Carr
Fact-checked by Niyati Parab
Here are some lesser-known cuneiform facts about the world's ancient writing system.

Cuneiform is an ancient system of writing.

Cuneiform is an ancient Mesopotamia writing system that dates back over 5000 years. It is significant because it contains information on Sumerian history as well as the history of the social world in general.

Cuneiform writing began as a pictorial system. The cuneiform sign became more artistic and simpler in the third millennium BCE.

From around 1000 in the ancient Bronze Age until around 400 in the late Bronze Age, lesser cuneiform symbols were used. Phonetic writing, consonant sounds alphabet, and syllable signs were used in the system. In the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the cuneiform script was eventually overtaken by the Phoenician alphabet.

Cuneiform writing had vanished by the second century. All information about how to understand it was unknown till the 19th century when it started being translated.

What is cuneiform?

Cuneiform is a logo-syllabic cuneiform script used to represent various ancient near Eastern languages. From the early Bronze Age through the start of the Common Era, the cuneiform script was in use.

It is believed to have come from the French Word cunéiforme.

The cuneiform script was the ancient Sumerian written language, which did not require an alphabet.

On clay tablets, the Sumerians developed a writing system that utilized pointed styluses to create symbols that represented syllables, allowing them to express more complicated concepts.

A reed stylus was used to make wedge-shaped markings on clay tablets.

Cuneiform writing became faster and easier as a result of the advancement of the new wedge-tipped stylus, especially when scribbling on clay.

Most cuneiform tablets would easily fit in your hand, like today's mobile phones, and be used for only a few minutes.

Cuneiform writing developed from a pictographic system.

This pictorial representation was refined and formalized over time, eventually taking on a more symbolic character.

We see not just the words of monarchs and their writers, but also children, merchants, and healers in cuneiform.

History And Origins Of Cuneiform

Cuneiform, possibly the oldest system of writing ever created, was formed between 3500 and 3000 BCE by Sumerians, who lived in the Mesopotamian region.

In the fourth millennium BCE, the cuneiform script evolved from graphical proto-writing.

Early symbols were found in Tell Brak, with graphical shapes of animals coupled with numbers dating to the mid-fourth millennium BCE.

Some Sumerian pictorial representations may have originated from the token shapes, according to some interpretations.

Determinatives, which were Sumerian markings, were used to signify the names of deities, kingdoms, cities, objects, animals, and trees.

According to Geoffrey Sampson, Egyptian hieroglyphs appeared after the Sumerian script and were most likely inspired by cuneiform script.

The idea of conveying language ideas in writing was most likely transferred to Egypt through Ancient Mesopotamia.

From the early 18th century onwards, the word cuneiform has been the writings' present name. Cuneiform is derived from Middle French and Latin origins and means 'wedge-shaped'.

Letters in clay packets, as well as pieces of literature like the Epic of Gilgamesh, have been discovered.

In the ancient Middle East, cuneiform was by far the most widely used and historically important writing system.

Its active history spanned at least three millennia, and its long growth and expansion included a variety of nations and languages.

Before the advent of conventional wedge-shaped signs, early cuneiform lettering used linear inscriptions formed with a sharp stylus, commonly referred to as 'linear cuneiform.'

The cuneiform writing system likewise lacks characters and is not an alphabet. Instead, words were written using 600-1000 characters.

In cuneiform, there is no such thing as the largest number, this system of writing can be altered to handle any number.

It was created for and by the Sumerians, although it was later utilized by bilinguals, mainly Akkadians.

Cuneiform was still in use in several parts of the world until the first century CE. During that time, the Phoenician alphabet replaced it.

It's likely that cuneiform went extinct as a result of culture or because other communication systems were far more effective.

In the 19th century, European archaeologists tried to translate cuneiform. It was difficult to do so, not least since cuneiform was applied to write a variety of languages.

To interpret it, archaeologists had to learn Sumerian, which was especially difficult because Sumerian was likely a language alone, without any other languages connected to it.

Scholars did not have a working system for interpreting cuneiform until the later years of the 19th century.

Cuneiform is a writing system that was created by the ancient Mesopotamians.

Languages Used In Cuneiform

Cuneiform writing was used to preserve a wide range of information, including events, trade, and business. Cuneiform was used to create personal messages, stories, and mythology.

Cuneiform was used to write roughly 15 different languages during its 3000-year span, including Sumerian, Elamite, Akkadian, Hittite, Assyrian, and Urartian.

The Akkadian Empire acquired the ancient cuneiform script in the 23rd century BCE.

Because Akkadian was a dialect, its structure was very unique from Sumerian.

Because the ancient Sumerian could not be used as is, the Akkadians devised a practical solution by expressing their language pronunciation using the phonetic value.

Many alterations to Sumerian spelling were used in the Old Assyrian cuneiform.

The old pictograms had been reduced to an abstract level during that time and were made up of only five fundamental wedge shapes.

Elamite cuneiform was a modified version of Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform, it was used to transcribe the Elamite language in what is now Iran.

The oldest known Elamite cuneiform inscription is a 2200 BCE pact between both the Akkadians and the Elamites.

The Elamite writings contained in the multi-lingual Behistun writings ordered by the Achaemenid kings, are the most renowned and those that finally led to its translation.

Hittite cuneiform is a Hittite version of the Old Assyrian script from around 1800 BCE.

Because a layer of Akkadian pictographs spellings was added to the cuneiform inscriptions when it was modified to write Hittite, the phonetic spellings of many Hittite names that were previously recorded by pictograms are now unclear.

Assyrian cuneiform was simplified even more throughout the Iron Age.

The characters were the same in the Sumerian alphabet and Akkadian cuneiforms, but the visual art of each symbol was more abstract, relying mainly on wedge-shaped edges.

The Assyrian variant of the Akkadian language was used to substitute the characters' pronunciation.

Darius the Great created Old Persian cuneiform in the fifth century BC, using a totally separate series of simple cuneiform symbols.

It had no clear links with other writings at the time, such as Akkadian, Elamite, Hittite, and Hurrian cuneiforms, most researchers considered this system of writing to be an original creation.

The Old Persian cuneiform script, with its clarity and logical representation, was the first to be translated by researchers, beginning with Georg Friedrich Grotefend's work in 1802.

Various ancient inscriptions thus allowed the decoding of other, far more difficult, and older scripts, dating back to the Sumerian script of the third millennium BCE.

The Ugaritic script, a conventional Biblical type alphabet constructed using the cuneiform technique, was used to write Ugaritic.

Significance And Purpose Of Cuneiform

Aside from math, the Babylonian scribal school emphasized learning to write Akkadian and Sumerian in cuneiform, as well as learning the norms for letter writing, agreements, and records.

Cuneiform writing has been used to preserve a wide range of information, including temple events, trade, and business.

Cuneiform was also used to create personal messages, cultural heritage, stories, and mythology.

Translating cuneiform scripts began in the 19th century by scholars looking for verification of biblical locations and events.

The ancient script was also commonly used on memorial stone carvings and carved to describe the accomplishments of the king for whose honor the monument was built.

With his interpretation of 'The Epic of Gilgamesh' in 1872 CE, the outstanding scholar and interpreter George Smith revolutionized the perspective of history.

The Bible was once supposed to be the oldest known book, and the 'Song of Solomon' to be the world's oldest love poetry. However, all of that altered with the uncovering and translation of cuneiform.

'The Love Song of Shu-Sin', which dates from 2000 BCE, before the 'Song of Solomon', is today considered as the world's earliest love poetry.

Visitors, relics, and some of the first archaeologists explored the ancient Near East, uncovering huge cities like Nineveh.

They returned with a variety of relics, including dozens of cuneiform-covered clay tablets.

Scholars began the arduous task of translating these peculiar cuneiform signs, which represented languages that no one had understood for centuries.

In 1857, they got confirmation that they had accomplished their goal. The Royal Asiatic Society provided four researchers copies of a freshly discovered clay inscription of King Tiglath-pileser I's military and hunting successes.

The British Museum displays one of the world's most notable collections of cuneiform tablets.

It is the biggest collection from outside Iraq, with around 130,000 manuscripts and parts.

The Library of Ashurbanipal is the gallery's showpiece, containing thousands of the most significant cuneiform tablets ever discovered.

The Ashurbanipal Library is the world's oldest existing royal library. The library was founded sometime in the seventh century BCE.

Archaeologists from the British Museum uncovered approximately 30,000 cuneiform tablets in Nineveh.

Dozens of divinatory, institutional, legal documents, mystic, clinical, artistic, and technical manuscripts were discovered with cuneiform inscriptions and messages.

'The Epic of Gilgamesh', a renowned ruler of Uruk, and his quest for immortality is considered the finest piece of ancient Mesopotamian writing.

'The Epic of Gilgamesh' is a massive masterpiece and is the oldest piece of Akkadian literature.

A cuneiform inscription and a rare map of Mesopotamia were both found on the Babylonian Map of the World tablet.

In the middle, Babylon is depicted, along with Assyria and other locations.

The map is often considered a serious example of an ancient landscape, but the map's true purpose is to describe the Babylonian perspective of the mystical world.

The Venus Observations cuneiform tablet is one of the most significant cuneiform tablets for recreating Mesopotamian history before 1400 BCE.

Cuneiform tablets exposed not just trade, construction, and government information, but also great pieces of literature, culture, and daily life in the region.

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Written by Gincy Alphonse

Bachelor of Computer Application

Gincy Alphonse picture

Gincy AlphonseBachelor of Computer Application

As a skilled visual storyteller, Gincy's passion lies in bringing ideas to life through creative design. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Computer Application from New Horizon College and has perfected her expertise with a PG Diploma in Graphic Design from Arena Animation. Gincy's talent shines in the realm of branding design, digital imaging, layout design, and print and digital content writing. She believes that content creation and clear communication are art forms in themselves, and is constantly striving to refine her craft.

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Fact-checked by Niyati Parab

Bachelor of Commerce

Niyati Parab picture

Niyati ParabBachelor of Commerce

With a background in digital marketing, Niyati brings her expertise to ensure accuracy and authenticity in every piece of content. She has previously written articles for MuseumFacts, a history web magazine, while also handling its digital marketing. In addition to her marketing skills, Niyati is fluent in six languages and has a Commerce degree from Savitribai Phule Pune University. She has also been recognized for her public speaking abilities, holding the position of Vice President of Education at the Toastmasters Club of Pune, where she won several awards and represented the club in writing and speech contests at the area level.

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