Cuneiform Writing: How Clay And Reeds Changed the World

Cuneiform writing was a powerful form of written communication in the ancient Middle East. It served as the vital cornerstone upon which modern writing was developed.

Mar 14, 2021By Hannah McCall
cuneiform clay
Student’s exercise tablet, c.a. 20th-16th century B.C.; with proto-cuneiform tablet with seal impressions, c.a. 3100-2900 B.C.; and the epic of Gilgamesh tablet, 7th century B.C.

 

Cuneiform writing was the most widespread form of written communication created and used in the ancient Middle East. Clay cuneiform tablets and reed styluses were used to produce something that had great historical significance and contributed to the development of many modern writing forms.

 

The Origin Of Cuneiform Writing’s Name

cuneiform tablet loan of silver
Cuneiform tablet: loan of silver, c.a. 20th-19th century B.C., The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

The word “cuneiform” comes from the original Latin “cuneus”, meaning “wedge-shaped” in reference to the appearance of the writing style. To create cuneiform symbols and letters, writers would use a stylus to press wedge-shaped symbols into soft clay tablets. These shapes represented various “word-signs,” also known as pictographs, and, later, “word-concepts,” the closest approximation to modern-day words.

 

The original pictographic symbols that predated cuneiform writing were largely organized into vertical columns, but once the wedge-shaped pen was created, that changed. Instead, people began writing in horizontal rows using the wedge shape to push signs into the malleable clay. That method was far easier to maintain than the original carving of symbols into clay with a sharpened reed, allowing cuneiform to spread farther across the Middle East than any writing system that came before it. 

 

The Creators Of Cuneiform

sumerian man in prayer
Sumerian man in prayer, c.a. 2750-2400 B.C., Rijsk Museum

 

The creation of cuneiform writing is attributed to the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia in modern-day Iraq. The Sumerians are among the oldest civilizations in history, predating even the Pyramids of Giza. They created a great many useful things, but the cuneiform stands out as their most significant cultural contribution. 

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Despite its Sumerian origins, cuneiform was also adopted, improved, and expounded upon by several other ancient civilizations. Among these were the Akkadians, the Babylonians, the Elamites, the Hittites, the Assyrians, and the Hurrians. Each culture improved the writing form in one way or another, enhancing its economic utility until the Phoenecian alphabet eventually replaced it. It is important to note that because of all the various changes and enhancements made to cuneiform, by the time the system was dismissed as a relevant means of communication, it had split to encompass multiple different writing styles that used individual wedge-shapes and was no longer a singular method.

 

Proto-Cuneiform

proto cuneiform
Proto-cuneiform tablet with seal impressions, c.a. 3100-2900 B.C., The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

The earliest version of cuneiform writing is known today as “proto-cuneiform.” It originally was developed near the end of the fourth millennium B.C. and was widely embraced. This type of writing centered entirely on pictures of highly concrete images and ideas. Subjects for early cuneiform tablets included such things as kings, battles, grains, and floods. Still, they could also communicate numbers, as represented by circular impressions, and economic information used in temples or other large gathering places to hold land records.

 

Wide-Spread Use Of Cuneiform Tablets and Writing

student exercise tablet
Student exercise tablet, c.a. 20th-16th century B.C., The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Until the alphabetic script was developed after 100 BCE, cuneiform writing was widely used across every great Mesopotamian civilization. The Akkadians, Babylonians, Elamites, Hittites, and Assyrians were several among a long list of ancient societies that embraced cuneiform. They all had many reasons for doing so, as a writing system was becoming an invaluable asset to developing societies. 

 

Originally, the cuneiform writing style was developed to play an economic role–maintaining inventories, counting items, and general related purposes. However, with the ease of its use and readily-available materials, the clay-and-reed writing system soon spread. Cuneiform began to be used to record maps, laws, medical manuals, and religious stories as it was developed. The clay cuneiform tablets created for preserving writings were also extensively used in schools, often recycled by students unless the information they contained was too valuable to lose. If it were, the tablet would be baked in a kiln to preserve the writing, and many of these cuneiform tablets still exist to be seen today in various museums. 

 

The Epic Of Gilgamesh

the epic of gilgamesh
The epic of Gilgamesh tablet, 7th century B.C., The British Museum

 

One of the greatest and most well-known literature pieces to come from cuneiform writing was the Epic of Gilgamesh. This epic poem is thought to date back to 2100 B.C. in the Third Dynasty of Ur, but the surviving cuneiform tablets available today only date to 1800 B.C. It was recorded on Babylonian cuneiform tablets by Sumerians in Mesopotamia, and it is predated as a religious text only by the Pyramid Texts.

 

The original epic tells the story of Uruk’s king, Bilgamesh, and Enkido, a wild man sent to stop the king from oppressing his people. The two undertake many quests and adventures together once Enkido becomes civilized, and they become good friends. However, once the pair kills a beast sent by a goddess, Enkido is put to death by the goddess, thus completing the first half of the story. In the second, Bilgamesh, or Gilgamesh in the modern translation, commits himself to a long, danger-filled journey to discover the secret of immortal life in light of his friend’s passing. Many great stories have been written about Gilgamesh and his trials, and they are featured in many modern adaptations. These include The Twelve Dancing Princesses (1857), collected by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, The Great American Novel (1973) by Phillip Roth, and Warm Bodies (2011) by Isaac Marion.

 

The Extinction Of Cuneiform

cuneiform tablet four impressed seals
Cuneiform tablet case with four impressed seals, c.a. 20th-19th century B.C., The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

By the year 1,000 A.D., cuneiform writing became almost entirely extinct. Everyone had turned to more diverse writing methods that allowed for greater communication, and cuneiform essentially became a dead writing system until the 19th century. By then, researchers began to decipher the various symbols and meanings to translate great Mesopotamian works of previously unknown literature. 

 

Cuneiform’s Contribution To Class-Free Literacy

cuneiform tablet record of lawsuit
Cuneiform tablet: record of a lawsuit, 20th-19th century B.C., The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Aside from unifying a writing system for the ancient Middle East, cuneiform also developed into styles that any citizen could read. It was meant to be used by all–not just the upper class. Various scripts and basic symbols were put in place specifically because of how easy to use they were. That is not to say that all cuneiform was easy to read and interpret by everyone. Rather, the ancient Sumerians intentionally took steps to ensure that everyone had the same ability to communicate via clay and reed.

 

Average citizens in any Mesopotamian culture were able to pick up the most basic, functional knowledge of cuneiform that they could then put to work for them in many ways. Most citizens did not need to keep lengthy economic or medical documents, but they still maintained various personal letters and business-related texts. Meanwhile, those with more scholastic inclinations were able to study the writing system more thoroughly. They began recording medicines, diagnoses, mathematical equations, and much, much more. People also used cuneiform to embrace creativity. This was done largely by those with the highest amount of literacy. These people could fine-tune their writing abilities to produce great stories, epic poems, and other artworks still admired today.

 

The Evolution Of Cuneiform Writing

relief from west wall chapel ramesses
Relief from the west wall of a chapel of Ramesses I, c.a. 1295-1294 B.C.The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Thanks to the wide-spread use of cuneiform writing, people soon realized how important it was to have a means by which they could record various pieces of information. From cuneiform symbols to hieroglyphs and beyond, ancient societies’ pictographic writing systems were greatly appreciated in their time. But as time progressed and societies advanced, people wanted a new way of writing. A way that wouldn’t limit them with pictures and symbols but would grant them access to their entire vocabularies in written form. The need for an alphabet soon became blindingly apparent.

 

Therefore, around 1500 B.C., the Proto-Sinaitic alphabet came into existence. Drawing largely from the easy pictographs of cuneiform and hieroglyphics, the system entered a three-phase cycle. The first phase was based on acrophony–using signs to take the place of the first letter of the word they represented. For example, the letter “H” could be represented by a picture of a house since the first letter in “house” is “H.” This phase most closely resembled the writing forms to date. 

 

The second phase was consonantal, focusing on spelling words based on closures in the breathing channel when certain letters like “B,” “M,” and “P,” were pronounced. Finally, the third phase was a compilation and summation of all other writing styles in developing twenty-two signs to represent different letters instead of the previous hundreds of options. It was this writing form, derived from cuneiform, that is the origin of Western writing today. 

 

Cuneiform Writing: Key Takeaways

cuneiform
Cuneiform tablet with a small second tablet: private letter, c.a. 20th-19th century B.C., The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Cuneiform writing was a system that used the most basic of tools to bring about one of the greatest inventions of the ancient Middle East. It allowed for records to be kept, art to be created, and societies to be more economically successful while promoting literacy for all and not just the aristocrats. Cuneiform is a system that is out of date as a whole now, but one that is time-honored because it is the cornerstone upon which the basis for modern writing sits.



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By Hannah McCallHannah graduated college with twin B.A.s in English and Criminal Justice & Legal Studies and intentionally made time throughout her education to pursue her lifelong love of history by serving on staff for her university’s history club. Hannah particularly loves studying mythologies and legends from a variety of cultures but enjoys Greek, Norse, Egyptian, and Hindu mythologies most of all.