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What you should know about Cuneiform writing: One of the most important ancient writing systems

Ancient History

What you should know about Cuneiform writing: One of the most important ancient writing systems

It is believed to be the oldest writing system known to man to date. The cuneiform writing can be found on numerous clay and stone tablets and originated in ancient Mesopotamia. The name Cuneiform, comes from the Latin word cuneus for ‘wedge’ owing to the wedge-shaped style of writing and most likely came into the English language probably from Old French: cunéiforme. Cuneiform writing was completely replaced by alphabetic writing in the course of the Roman era.

The Sumerian script was adapted for the writing of many ancient languages such as Akkadian, Eblaite, Elamite, Hittite, Luwian, Hattic, Hurrian, and Urartian.

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This invaluable ancient writing system emerged in Ancient Sumer in the late 4th millennium BCE. Researchers believe that up to date, around two million cuneiform tablet have been excavated out of which 30.000 – 100.000 have been read or published.

The earliest known Sumerian king whose name appeared on a contemporary cuneiform tablet is believed to be Enmebaragesi of Kish.

Cuneiform writing evolved through time. by the III millennium BCE, cuneiform writing direction was switched from left to right in horizontal rows. For this, a new wedge-tipped “stylus” was utilized which was basically pushed into the clay creating the “wedge-shaped signs.

Cuneiform is a writing system and not a language as it isn’t an alphabet nor does it have letters. Instead, ancient people used around 1000 characters to form words or syllables. It is believed to have been used for the first time around 3400 BC. Even though more than a dozen of ancient languages were represented using Cuneiform writing, there are two main languages which are written using cuneiform: Akkadian and Sumerian. to write in Cuneiform all you needed is reed and clay, materials which were easily found in the rivers located near the Mesopotamian cities. Most of the tablets written in cuneiform could fit into the palm of your hand and were used for short periods of time.

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Even though it is one of the most important ancient languages, it is one of the most difficult ones to understand. Historians and archaeologists who are able to “decipher” cuneiform, state that it is one of the most difficult writing systems in the world since you’d have to master several “disappeared languages” and thousands of different signs. Interestingly, children have been able to understand Cuneiform writing swiftly. The British museum even organizes school visits and young students are interested in cuneiform writing because it is portrayed onto clay artifacts.

Cuneiform writing has been proven to be one of the most interesting writing systems from the ancient times. Researchers are able to understand and learn a lot thanks to the numerous clay artifacts recovered in ancient Mesopotamia.

When it comes to numbers, the Ancient Sumerians used a system which is based on the numbers 1, 10 and 60. If you would write a number like 60, you’d write the sign for the number 50 and a sign for the number 10 right after.

Ivan

Ivan is editor-in-chief at ancient-code.com, he also writes for Universe Explorers.
You may have seen him appear on the Discovery and History Channel.

2 Comments
  • phlushfish

    Interesting that children find it easier to translate, as they also find it easier to pick up new languages!

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