History[ edit ] Early writing tablet recording the allocation of beer in southern Iraq— BC The cuneiform writing system was in use for more than three millennia, through several stages of development, from the 31st century BC down to the second century AD. It had to be deciphered as a completely unknown writing system in 19th-century Assyriology.
By the early 21st century some 30, tablets or fragments of tablets in the Hittite language had been recovered through archaeological excavations. The overwhelming majority of these were found in the tablet collections of Hattusa, although additional Origin and character of cuneiform The origins of cuneiform may be traced back approximately to the end of the 4th millennium bce.
At that time the Sumerians, a people of unknown ethnic and linguistic affinitiesinhabited southern Mesopotamia and the region west of the mouth of the Euphrates known as Chaldea. While it does not follow that they were the earliest inhabitants of the region or the true originators of their system of writing, it is to them that the first attested traces of cuneiform writing are conclusively assigned.
The earliest written records in the Sumerian language are pictographic tablets from Uruk Erechevidently lists or ledgers of commodities identified by drawings of the objects and accompanied by numerals and personal names.
Such word writing was able to express only the basic ideas of concrete mesopotamian cuneiform writing alphabet with dots. Numerical notions were easily rendered by the repetitional use of strokes or circles. However, the representation of proper names, for example, necessitated an early recourse to the rebus principle—i.
This brought about a transition from pure word writing to a partial phonetic script.
Sumerian words were largely monosyllabic, so the signs generally denoted syllables, and the resulting mixture is termed a word-syllabic script. The inventory of phonetic symbols henceforth enabled the Sumerians to denote grammatical elements by phonetic complements added to the word signs logograms or ideograms.
Because a logogram often represented several related notions with different names e. In the course of the 3rd millennium the writing became successively more cursive, and the pictographs developed into conventionalized linear drawings.
Due to the prevalent use of clay tablets as writing material stone, metal, or wood also were employed occasionallythe linear strokes acquired a wedge-shaped appearance by being pressed into the soft clay with the slanted edge of a stylus.
Curving lines disappeared from writing, and the normal order of signs was fixed as running from left to right, without any word-divider. This change from earlier columns running downward entailed turning the signs on one side.
Spread and development of cuneiform Before these developments had been completed, the Sumerian writing system was adopted by the Akkadians, Semitic invaders who established themselves in Mesopotamia about the middle of the 3rd millennium.
In adapting the script to their wholly different language, the Akkadians retained the Sumerian logograms and combinations of logograms for more complex notions but pronounced them as the corresponding Akkadian words. They also kept the phonetic values but extended them far beyond the original Sumerian inventory of simple types open or closed syllables like ba or ab.
Many more complex syllabic values of Sumerian logograms of the type kan, mul, bat were transferred to the phonetic level, and polyphony became an increasingly serious complication in Akkadian cuneiform e. The Akkadian readings of the logograms added new complicated values.
The earliest type of Semitic cuneiform in Mesopotamia is called the Old Akkadianseen for example in the inscriptions of the ruler Sargon of Akkad died c. Sumerthe southernmost part of the country, continued to be a loose agglomeration of independent city-states until it was united by Gudea of Lagash died c.
The political hegemony then passed decisively to the Akkadians, and King Hammurabi of Babylon died bce unified all of southern Mesopotamia. Babylonia thus became the great and influential centre of Mesopotamian culture. The Code of Hammurabi is written in Old Babylonian cuneiform, which developed throughout the shifting and less brilliant later eras of Babylonian history into Middle and New Babylonian types.
Farther north in Mesopotamia the beginnings of Assur were humbler. Specifically Old Assyrian cuneiform is attested mostly in the records of Assyrian trading colonists in central Asia Minor c. The Neo-Assyrian period was the great era of Assyrian power, and the writing culminated in the extensive records from the library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh c.
The expansion of cuneiform writing outside Mesopotamia began in the 3rd millennium, when the country of Elam in southwestern Iran was in contact with Mesopotamian culture and adopted the system of writing. The Elamite sideline of cuneiform continued far into the 1st millennium bce, when it presumably provided the Indo-European Persians with the external model for creating a new simplified quasi-alphabetic cuneiform writing for the Old Persian language.
The Hurrians in northern Mesopotamia and around the upper stretches of the Euphrates adopted Old Akkadian cuneiform around bce and passed it on to the Indo-European Hittiteswho had invaded central Asia Minor at about that time.
In the 2nd millennium the Akkadian of Babylonia, frequently in somewhat distorted and barbarous varieties, became a lingua franca of international intercourse in the entire Middle East, and cuneiform writing thus became a universal medium of written communication.
The political correspondence of the era was conducted almost exclusively in that language and writing. Cuneiform was sometimes adapted, as in the consonantal script of the Canaanite city of Ugarit on the Syrian coast c.
Even after the fall of the Assyrian and Babylonian kingdoms in the 7th and 6th centuries bce, when Aramaic had become the general popular language, rather decadent varieties of Late Babylonian and Assyrian survived as written languages in cuneiform almost down to the time of Christ.
Decipherment of cuneiform Many of the cultures employing cuneiform Hurrian, HittiteUrartian disappeared one by one, and their written records fell into oblivion.
The same fate overtook cuneiform generally with astonishing swiftness and completeness. One of the reasons was the victorious progress of the Phoenician script in the western sections of the Middle East and the Classical lands in Mediterranean Europe.
To this writing system of superior efficiency and economy, cuneiform could not offer serious competition. Its international prestige of the 2nd millennium had been exhausted by bce, and Mesopotamia had become a Persian dependency. Late Babylonian and Assyrian were little but moribund artificial literary idioms.
Old Persian and Elamite The rediscovery of the materials and the reconquest of the recondite scripts and languages have been the achievements of modern times. Paradoxically the process began with the last secondary offshoot of cuneiform proper, the inscriptions of the Achaemenid kings 6th to 4th centuries bce of Persia.The cuneiform alphabet.
Learn about cuneiform writing and what Sumerian cuneiform is. Cuneiform script is one of the oldest known writing forms. The Mesopotamian basin was the birthplace of writing. The Cuneiform writing system developed here was the first form of communication beyond the use of pictograms.
The earliest writing systems evolved independently and at roughly the same time in Egypt and Mesopotamia, but current scholarship.
Details of the Sumerian cuneiform script, the world's oldest writing system, which was used to write Sumerian, a semitic language spoken in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq and Syria) until about AD. Cuneiform writing was gradually replaced by the Phoenician alphabet during the Neo-Assyrian Empire ( BC).
By the second century CE, the script had become extinct, and all knowledge of how to read it was lost until it began to be deciphered in the 19th century. Cuneiform writing was around for thousands of years until it was replaced by the Phoenician alphabet near the end of the neo-Assyrian Empire.
Hieroglyphics was invented in Ancient Egypt about the same time as cuneiform in Mesopotamia, but scientists believe that cuneiform came first. Babylonia thus became the great and influential centre of Mesopotamian culture. The expansion of cuneiform writing outside Mesopotamia began in the 3rd millennium, The first was likely to reflect an alphabet, while the others seemed to be syllabaries or word writings.