cuneiform: the first evidence of writing

Cuneiform tablet image

Cuneiform tablet

Wedge shaped Cuneiform stylus image

Wedge shaped Cuneiform stylus

In Mesopotamia, about 5000 years ago, the Sumerians were developing a writing system, which we now call cuneiform (from the Latin meaning wedge shaped) It was written with wedge shaped sticks pressed into clay tablets, which were then baked to preserve them.

The introduction of the Sumerian system was a significant occurrence in that cuneiform is the first known use of abstract forms to represent a single word. This form of writing probably derived from former pictorial and symbolised representations of words and ideas.

Many of the tablets discovered are administrative records of temples, crops, calendars and so on. They were baked at the time as a way of making them permanent for archive use but this also helped to preserve them for us to find today.

More recently, around 4000 years ago, the Babylonians adopted the cuneiform script and used the symbols to represent syllables, or parts of word sounds. The Persians later developed it further into the beautiful Arabic scripts we see today.

The Persian system still uses symbols to represent syllables, for instance the word ‘al-pha-bet’ would use three symbols, one for each syllable. This is known as a syllabic writing system as opposed to alphabetic, which uses symbols to represent each component sound of a word and consists of consonants and vowels.

Egyptians →