Cuneiform Inscriptions

One of the World's Earliest Systems of Writing

Over five thousand years ago, the people dwelling in southern Iraq invented one of the world's earliest systems of writing. They did not do so in order to write stories or letters, nor yet to publicize the deeds of gods and kings, though soon enough writing came to be used for those purposes. They invented writing because they needed a means of accounting for the receipt and distribution of resources. For their numbers had grown and their society had become complex in the alluvial plains of the lower Tigris and Euphrates rivers, an environment which required attentive management in order to sustain a large, agriculture-based civilization. Hence the need for organizing labor and resources; hence the need for accounting and accountability. The accounting system the people of ancient Iraq developed comprised both a method of recording language in writing, and a method of authenticating and authorizing records and transactions, through sealing them with personal or official seals.

The writing system employed signs to represent numbers, things, words, and the sounds of words. All of the signs were originally pictograms, that is, little schematic pictures of things, actions, or concepts. But they could be used to represent either the things of which they were pictures, or the sounds of the words for those things. For example, a picture of water, , could be used to mean “water,” or it could stand for the sound of the word for “water,” which was “A” in the Sumerian language spoken in southern Iraq at the time. A picture of a person's head, , could be used to mean "head" or "person," and it could also stand for the sound of the word for "head," which was "SAG" in Sumerian. Through using signs to represent syllables (like "a" and "sag") as well as to represent things and words for things, all the elements of language could be encoded in writing.

Clay was chosen as the standard medium of writing, for it was readily available, malleable, and recyclable, yet durable when dried in the sun or baked. Reeds, which grow abundantly in marshes and along riverbanks, were used to make writing implements called reed styli. For most types of records and documents, clay was formed into rectangular tablets, but for certain purposes cones, balls, prisms, and other shapes were used! To write on clay, one would impress the tip of a reed stylus into the surface and draw it along to make each stroke of a sign. These strokes acquired a "wedge-shaped" appearance, having a triangular head and slender tail, so the modern discoverers of this ancient writing system called it "cuneiform" – Latin for "wedge-shaped." Meanwhile, although the signs were originally oriented so that the pictures were right side up, they came to be turned on their sides and written left to right, since that was the easiest way for right-handed scribes to write without smearing their clay. So of the signs illustrated above, came to look like and became .

Transactions often required authorization, which was accomplished by impressing the seal of the person or institution responsible for the transaction onto the clay record of it. Seals were little cylinders or stamps, usually made of stone, carved with pictorial scenes and often with an inscription naming the seal owner as well. When a seal was pressed or rolled onto a clay tablet, it left its distinctive impression, in reverse. The seal impression served to uniquely identify the owner of the seal – like a signature, or like the seals still used today on certain official documents. Seals were impressed not only on clay tablets, but on clay envelopes, jar stoppers, and door sealings. A sealed storeroom, container, or record was thus protected against entry, tampering, or alteration without the oversight of the individual in possession of the same seal.

April 14, 2003

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University of Minnesota

© 2003 Science Museum of Minnesota

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