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Nebuchadnezzar Barrel cylinder
Cuneiform, the script language of ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia, consists of small, repetitive impressed characters that look more like wedge-shape footprints than what we recognize as writing. A Sumerian clay tablet from around 3200 B.C. inscribed in wedgelike cuneiform with a list of professions “is among the earliest examples of writings that we know of so far,” according to the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute’ director, Gil J. Stein. [Source: Geraldine Fabrikant. New York Times, October 19, 2010]

Cuneiform (Latin for "wedge shaped") appears on baked clay or mud tablets that range in color from bone white to chocolate to charcoal. Inscriptions were also made on pots and bricks. Each cuneiform sign consists of one or more wedge-shaped impressions that are made with three basic marks: a triangle, a line or curbed lines made with dashes. Clay tablets with pictographs appeared around 4000 B.C. The earliest with Sumerian writing appeared around 3200 B.C. Around 2,500 B.C., Sumerian writing evolved into partial syllabic script capable of recording the vernacular.

Cuneiform symbols were made by scribes who used a stylus---with a triangular tip cut from reed---to make impressions on damp clay. The reeds could make straight lines and triangles but could not easily make curved lines. Different characters were made by superimposing identical triangles in different combinations. Complex characters had around 13 triangles. The moistened tablets were left to dry in the hot sun. After archaeologists excavate the tablets they are carefully cleaned and baked for preservation. The process is expensive and slow.

Many cuneiform tablets are dated by the year, month and day. Tablets from monarchs, ministers and other important people were impressed with their seal, which was applied on the wet clay like a paint roller with a cylinder seal. Some cylinder seals produced reliefs that were quite elaborate, made up of scores of images and markings. Important messages were encased in an "envelope" of more clay to insure privacy.

Cuneiform was used by speakers of 15 languages over 3,000 years. The Sumerians, Babylonians and Eblaites had large libraries of clay tablets. The Elbaites wrote in columns and used both sides of the tablets. The latest datable tablet, from Babylon, described the planetary positions for A.D. 74-75.

Books: Sumerian Dictionary of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania edited by Ake W. Sjoberg (University of Pennsylvania, 1984); The Sumerians, Their History, Culture and Character by Samuel Noah Kramer (University of Chicago Press, 1963); The Ancient Near East By William Hallo and William Kelly Simpson (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1971); Ancient Near Eastern History and Culture by William H. Stiebing Jr. Experts and Sources: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; John Russell, an art historian at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston; Irene Winter, professor of art history at Harvard; McGuire Gibson of Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago; Jeremy Black, Oriental Institute at Oxford University; Piotr Michalowski, University of Michigan.

Websites and Resources: Ancient History Encyclopedia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site ; British Museum ; Interent Ancient History Sourcebook ; Louvre ; Metropolitan Museum of Art ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago ; Iraq Museum Database ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia

Cuneiform and Cuneiform Tablets

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daily salary in Ur
Most of the early writing was used to make lists of commodities. The writing system is believed to have developed in response to an increasingly complex society in which records needed to be kept on taxes, rations, agricultural products and tributes to keep society running smoothly.

The oldest examples of Sumerian writing were bills of sales that recorded transactions between a buyer and seller. When a trader sold ten head of cattle he included a clay tablet that had a symbol for the number ten and a pictograph symbol of cattle.

The Mesopotamians could also be described as the worlds first great accountants. The recorded everything that was consumed in the temples on clay tablets and placed them in the temple archives. Many of the tablets recovered were lists of items like this. They also listed "errors and phenomena" that seemed to result in divine retribution such as sickness or bad weather.

Content of Early Sumerian Writing

By 2500 B.C. Sumerian scribes could write almost anything with 800 or so cuneiform signs, including myths, fables, essays, hymns, proverbs, epic poetry, lamentations, laws, lists of astronomical events, list of plants and animals, medical texts with lists ailments and their herbal . There are tablets that record intimate correspondence between friends.

Documents stored in libraries maintained by a succession of rulers. Tablets reported on international trade, described different jobs, kept track of cattle allotments to civil servants and recorded grain payments to the king.

One of the most famous Sumerian tablets contain a story about a great flood that destroyed Sumer. It is virtually the same story ascribed to Noah in the Old Testament. The same tablets also contain The Story of Gilgamesh .

The world oldest known prescriptions, cuneiform tablets dating back to 2000 B.C. from Nippur, Sumer, described how to make poultices, salves and washes. The ingredients, which included mustard, fig, myrrh, bat dropping, turtle shell powder, river silt, snakeskins and "hair from the stomach of a cow," were dissolved into wine, milk and beer.

The oldest known recipe dates back to 2200 B.C. It called for snake skin, beer and dried plums to be mixed and cooked. Another tablet from the same period has the oldest recipe for beer. Babylonian tablets now housed at Yale University also listed recipes. One of the two dozen recipes, written in a language only deciphered in the last century, described making a stew of kid (young goat) with garlic, onions and sour milk. Other stews were made from pigeon, mutton and spleen.

Sumerian Writing and Other Languages

The Sumerian language endured in Mesopotamia for about a thousand years. The Akkadians, the Babylonians, Elbaites, Elamites, Hittites, Hurrians, Ugaritans, Persians and the other Mesopotamian and Near Eastern cultures that followed the Sumerians adapted Sumerian writing to their own languages.

Laments on the ruin of Ur

Written Sumerian was adopted with relatively few modifications by the Babylonians and Assyrians. Other peoples such as Elamites, Hurrians, and Ugaritans felt that mastering the Sumerian system was too difficult and devised a simplified syllabary, eliminating many of the Sumerian word-signs.

Archaic Sumerian, the earliest written language in the world, remains as one of the written languages that have not been deciphered. Others include the Minoan language of Crete; the pre-Roman writing from the Iberian tribes of Spain; Sinaitic, believed to be a precursor of Hebrew; Futhark runes from Scandinavia; Elamite from Iran; the writing of Mohenjo-Dam, the ancient Indus River culture; and the earliest Egyptian hieroglyphics;

Mesopotamian Scribes

One of the highest positions in Mesopotamia society was the scribe, who worked closely with the king and the bureaucracy, recording events and tallying up commodities. The kings were usually illiterate and they were dependent on the scribes to make their wishes known to their subjects. Learning and education was primarily the provenance of scribes.

Laments on the ruin of Ur

Scribes were the only formally educated members of society. They were trained in the arts, mathematics, accounting and science. They were employed mainly at palaces and temples where their duties included writing letters, recording sales of land and slaves, drawing up contracts, making inventories and conducting surveys. Some scribes were women.

Some scribes could write very fast. One Sumerian proverb went: "A scribe whose hands move as fast the mouth, that's a scribe for you."

See Education

Babylonian and Elbaite Writing

At Sippar, a Babylonian site just south Baghdad, Iraqi archaeologists discovered an extensive library in the 1980s. A wide variety of tablets were found, including ones that contained literary works, dictionaries, prayers, omens, incantations, astronomical records---still arranged on shelves.

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Ebla tablet
A library with 17,000 clay tablets was discovered at Ebla in the 1960s. Most of tablets were inscribed with commercial records and chronicles like those found in Mesopotamia. Describing the importance of the tablets, Italian archaeologist Giovanni Pettinato told National Geographic, "Remember this: All the other texts of this period recovered to date are not total a forth of those from Ebla."

The tablets are mostly around 4,500 years old. They were written in the oldest Semitic language yet identified and deciphered with oldest know bilingual dictionary, written in Sumerian (a language already deciphered) and Elbaite. The Elbaites wrote in columns and used both sides of the tablets. Lists of figures were separated from the totals by a blank column. Treaties, description of wars and anthems to the gods were also recorded on tablets.

Ebla's writing is similar to that of the Sumerians, but Sumerian words are used to represent syllables in the Eblaite Semitic language. The tablets were difficult to translate because the scribes were bilingual and switched back and forth between Sumerian and the Elbaite language making it difficult for historians to figure which was which.

The oldest scribe academies outside of Sumer have been found in Ebla. Because the cuneiform script found on the Ebla tablets was so sophisticated, Pettinato said "one can only conclude that writing had been in use at Ebla for a long time before 2500 B.C."

Cuneiform tablets found in Ebla mention the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and contain the name of David. They also mention Ab-ra-mu (Abraham), E-sa-um (Esau) and Sa-u-lum (Saul) as well as a knight named Ebrium who ruled around 2300 B.C. and bears an uncanny resemblance to Eber from the Book of Genesis who was the great-great grandson of Noah and the great-great-great-great grandfather of Abraham. Some scholars suggest that Biblical reference are overstated because the divine name yahweh (Jehovah) is not mentioned once in the tablets.

Ugarites and the First Alphabet

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Phoenician alphabet
based on Ugaraite alphabet
According to the Guinness Book of Records, the earliest example of alphabetic writing was a clay tablet with 32 cuneiform letters found in Ugarit, Syria and dated to 1450 B.C. The Ugarits condensed the Eblaite writing, with its hundreds of symbols, into a concise 30-letter alphabet that was the precursor of the Phoenician alphabet.

The Ugarites reduced all symbols with multiple consonant sounds to signs with a single consent sound. In the Ugarite system each sign consisted of one consonant plus any vowel. That the sign for “p” could be “pa,” “pi” or “pu.” Ugarit was passed on to the Semitic tribes of the Middle east, which included the Phoenician, Hebrews and later the Arabs.

Ugarit, an important 14th century B.C. Mediterranean port on the Syrian coast, was the next great Canaanite city to arise after Ebla. Tablets found at Ugarit indicated it was involved in the trade of box and juniper wood, olive oil, wine.

Ugarit texts refer to deities such as El, Asherah, Baak and Dagan, previously known only from the Bible and a handful of other texts. Ugarit literature is full of epic stories about gods and goddesses. This form of religion was revived by the early Hebrew prophets. An 11-inch-high silver-and-gold statuette of a god, circa 1900 B.C., unearthed at Ugarit in present-day Syria.

Cuneiform Tablets as Historical Sources

Writing on the sun-baked tablets, preserved in the dry climate of Mesopotamia have survive the ravages of time better than the earliest writing of other ancient civilizations in Egypt, China, India and Peru, which used perishable materials such as papyrus, wood, bamboo, palm leaves and cotton and wool twine that have been largely lost to time. Scholars have access to more original documents from Sumer and other Mesopotamian culture than they do from ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome.

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ancient alphabets

The existence of cuneiform was not known until travelers in the Near East in the early 1600s began returning home with strange "chicken scratching" that were regarded as decorations not writing. A large archives of Sumerian cuneiform records was found in sacred Nippur. Some 20,000 cuneiform tablets were discovered in a 260-room place in Mari, a major Mesopotamian trading center that was ruled by Semitic-speaking tribes. Texts from Assyrian tablets established dates of events in Israelite history and confirmed parts of the Bible.

The Journal of Cuneiform Studies is authoritative periodical on Mesopotamian writing. The University of Pennsylvania contains the world's largest collection of Sumerian cuneiform tablets. Of about 10,000 known Sumerian tablets, the University of Pennsylvania contains about 3,500 of them.

Translating Cuneiform

The word cuneiform -- Latin for ''wedge-shaped'' -- was coined by Thomas Hyde in 1700. Italian nobleman Pietro della Valle was the first to publish facsimile copies of cuneiform in 1658. The first copies from cuneiform accurate enough to form a basis for future decipherment would appear more than a century later, in 1778, the work of Carsten Niebuhr of Denmark.

Comprehension of the ancient script would come nearly a century after that, thanks notably to Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson. In the 1830's and 1840's, the ''father of Assyriology'' copied the long cuneiform inscriptions of Darius I, which were repeated in three languages: Old Persian, Elamite and Akkadian.

With three languages -- and three different cuneiform scripts -- to work with, Sir Rawlinson was able to present the first ''substantial, connected Old Persian text properly deciphered and reasonably translated,'' Mr. Hallo wrote in ''The Ancient Near East: A History'' The book is a standard textbook that he co-authored with William Kelly Simpson.

The collection, copying, translation and publishing of cuneiform texts at Yale owe much to Albert T. Clay and J. Pierpont Morgan. In 1910 the Hartford-born financier and industrialist, who was a lifelong collector of Near Eastern artifacts, endowed a professorship of Assyriology and the Babylonian Collection at Yale, and Mr. Clay served as its first professor and curator.

Hand-copying cuneiform texts remains a mainstay of scholarship in the field.

The Babylonian Collection ay Yale houses the largest assemblage of cuneiform inscriptions in the United States and one of the five largest in the world. In fact, during Mr. Hallow's 40-year tenure as professor and curator, Yale acquired 10,000 tablets from the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.

The University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute opened in 1919. It was heavily financed by John D. Rockefeller Jr., who had been greatly influenced by James Henry Breasted, a passionate archaeologist. Abby Rockefeller had read his best seller “Ancient Times” to her children. Today the institute, which still has seven digs going on, boasts objects from excavations in Egypt, Israel, Syria, Turkey and Iraq. Many artifacts were acquired from joint digs with host countries with which the findings were shared. Among the institute’s prized holdings is a 40-ton winged bull from Khorsabad, the capital of Assyria, from around 715 B.C.

Hieroglyphics and Writing

The Egyptians were one of the earliest people to develop a writing system. Their writing system was totally different from the one we use today. Instead of letters in an alphabet they used pictures and symbols that we call “hieroglyphics.” The word Hieroglyph is Greek for "sacred writing." This a reference to the fact that the ancient Egyptians believed that the knowledge of writing was something that was bestowed from Thoth, the God of Knowledge.

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Hierogliphics Stela of Nemtiui
Hieroglyphics function as both logograms (signs representing things or ideas) and phonograms (pictured objects represented sounds, similar to letters in an alphabet). They also served as word-signs (signs which stood for entire words) and syllabic signs (signs which stood for syllables). In Egyptian times syllables were not grouped into a single word as they are in English today. They were written separately as were words and thus sometimes distinguishing between a word and a syllable of a word was difficult. There were no hieroglyphic vowels.

Hieroglyphics primarily represented the formal and ceremonial language for the pharaohs. They appeared on everything: paintings, obelisks, temple walls, coffins, tombs, documents, perfume containers. An estimated one third of the 110,000 Egyptian pieces in the British Museum have writing on them.

The Egyptians also used heriatic writing (a cursive form) and demotic writing (a cursive form that could be written very quickly). They were written mostly on papyrus and were used mainly for private and business correspondence. The symbols were abbreviated hieroglyphics.

Book: The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs & Pictograms by Andrew Robinson

Oldest Writing

scorpion mace
In 1995, John Coleman Darnell, a Yale Egyptologist, and his students discovered 18-x-20-inch tableau, dated to 3250 B.C., on a limestone cliff at a site called Gebel Tjauti, about 20 miles northwest of Luxor, that contains some line drawings of animals that are believed to be a record of the exploits of an Egyptian ruler. Because an image of a scorpion is present links to the Scorpion king were made. Some have even gone as far as calling the tableau “world’s oldest historical record” and claim the images are early hieroglyphics and are examples of the world’s oldest writing.

The tableau, probably incised with flint tools, has images of a scorpion, a falcon, large antelope, a bird, a serpent, a figure carrying a staff, a sedan chair, a bull’s head, a captor and captive. No one knows what the images mean. The link to the Scorpion King are based on the fact that the scorpion is near the falcon and falcons in ancient Egypt were associated with the god Horus and the pharaohs.

Some of the earliest writing was done on perishable papyrus. Much of has this been lost to time.

The earliest Egyptian hieroglyphics are among the written languages that have not been deciphered. Others include are the Minoan language of Crete; the pre-Roman writing from the Iberian tribes of Spain; Sinaitic, believed to be a precursor of Hebrew; Futhark runes from Scandinavia; Elamite from Iran; Mohenjo-Dam, the language of the ancient Indus River culture; and Archaic Sumerian, the earliest written language in the world."

Oldest Names and Alphabet

The world's oldest surviving personal name is a king represented by the hieroglyphic sign of a scorpion on a Upper Egypt tablet from 3,050 B.C. Some scholars have suggested that the king's name was Sekhen.

In the second millennium B.C. Semitic tribes converted Egyptian hieroglyphics into the first alphabet. Some graffiti with letters, dated to around 1800 B.C., found in southern Egypt, has been offered as evidence of the first alphabetic writing. The graffiti was dated based on nearby hieroglyphics and is theorized to have been made by an ancient Semitic people. What the symbols mean is not clear and whether there are indeed alphabetic letters is a matter of some debate. They predate other examples of alphabetic writing by two centuries.

Evolution of Writing

early Mesopotamian writing
The 2010 exhibition “Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond,” hosted by the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, The show demonstrates that, contrary to the long-held belief that writing spread from east to west, Sumerian cuneiform and its derivatives and Egyptian hieroglyphics evolved separately from each another. And those writing systems were but two of the ancient forms of writing that evolved independently. Over a span of two millenniums, two other powerful civilizations---the Chinese and Mayans---also identified and met a need for written communication. Writing came to China as early as around 1200 B.C. and to the Maya in Mesoamerica long before A.D. 500. “It was the first true information revolution,” the Oriental Institute’s director, Gil J. Stein told the New York Times. “By putting spoken language into material form, people could for the first time store and transmit it across time and space.”[Source: Geraldine Fabrikant. New York Times, October 19, 2010]

Geraldine Fabrikant wrote in the New York Times, “Until the 1950s experts had believed that the Sumerians influenced the Egyptians, spreading the use of writing westward. But in the 1950s Günther Dryer, a German archaeologist, found writing on bone and ivory tags in an elaborate, probably royal burial site at Abydos in southern Egypt. The depth at which they were buried and subsequent carbon tests proved the pieces to be as old as Sumerian works. Because the marks were different in style, scholars believe that the Egyptians developed their own writing system independently.

Experts are still struggling to understand just how writing evolved, but one theory, laid out at the Oriental Institute’s exhibition, places the final prewriting stage at 3400 B.C., when the Sumerians first began using small clay envelopes like the ones in the show. Some of the envelopes had tiny clay balls sealed within. Archaeologists theorize that they were sent along with goods being delivered; recipients would open them and ensure that the number of receivables matched the number of clay tokens. The tokens, examples of which are also are in the show , transmitted information, a key function of writing.

Writing as a carrier of narrative did not evolve for another 700 years, as shown in the inscribed versions of the Sumerian epic tale of Gilgamesh, also on display in the institute’s general collection. Although Egyptian hieroglyphics are more broadly familiar than cuneiform, Sumerian writing was done on clay, which is more durable than papyrus. As a result, Sumer is among the best documented of ancient societies.

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Narmer Palette 3100 BC
An important part of the Oriental Institute exhibition’s allure is that it describes some of the unknowns that still intrigue archaeologists, including the birth of the alphabet. The show includes a plaque dated from 1800 B.C. that contains signs that seem to be inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphics but that are actually the earliest letters of an alphabetic script representing Semitic languages. It was found near an ancient turquoise mining site in the Sinai Peninsula, in what was part of ancient Egypt, but the men who worked there spoke the Semitic language of the Canaanites.

Because this is one of the first examples of the use of the alphabetic letters, it suggests that the alphabet was inspired by hieroglyphics. Still, no one really knows who the miners were, if they were literate or how they adapted hieroglyphics to write a western Semitic language. But in later discoveries those same forms make up parts of words.

An alphabetic language has a limited number of signs and is easier to both use and to teach than a representational system like hieroglyphics. An alphabet allows a more rapid spread of literacy and communications. Today almost all languages except Chinese and Japanese are alphabetic. The lack of an alphabet makes Chinese particularly difficult for foreigners. But if Chinese bears little similarity to languages elsewhere in the world, its origins---like the origins of hieroglyphics---have to do with the gods. Bones from ancient Chinese tombs, also on display at the Oriental, were used to help divine the future. The inscriptions on them are the earliest form of Chinese writing, and they make statements about events, such as a battle or the birth of a royal child, and also, in effect, ask how they will come out. Hot brands were put into hollows carved into turtle shells, and the configurations of the resulting cracks were interpreted as answers to important questions.

Less is known about the earliest phases and origin of Mayan writing. Much of the work under way concentrates on artifacts from the Mayans’ later period, around A.D. 600. The exhibition includes a Mayan stone monument showing the face of a dead Mayan lord. It carries his name and the date of the dedication of the stone.To Christopher E. Woods, associate professor of Sumerology at the University of Chicago and the curator of the show, it was important to include examples from all four cultures because the goal of the exhibition was “to present and describe the four times in history when writing was invented from scratch.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Mostly from National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine and New York Times articles, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988. Also from the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2011

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