Invention of Writing in Sumer - Cuneiform

One of the most important inventions that came from the civilization of ancient Sumer was writing. Oral language existed for centuries before, but the Sumerians developed a system for recording language around 3100 BC. Today, we call the Sumerian writing system cuneiform.

The word cuneiform comes from from Latin and means "wedge writing." It should come as no surprise then that cuneiform was a writing system based on different combinations of wedges. These wedges were pressed into moist clay tablets using a stylus made from the reeds that grew along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The pattern of wedges on the tablet could then be interpreted by someone that knew cuneiform into words, phrases, sentences, and even entire books. If the tablet was intended to be a permanent record, it could be fired, much the way a potter fires her pot to make it more or less permanent.

When cuneiform first developed, the wedge patterns resembled the objects they represented. For example, in Figure 1 (a list of gods c2300 BC), the star looking symbols on the left were a symbol for divinity. This makes sense since many of the gods lived in the sky. Figure 2 (religious record c2500 BC) also shows patterns that appear to represent objects or ideas. This early cuneiform is sometimes called pre-cuneiform.

Figure 1

Figure 2

In later examples of cuneiform, the wedge patterns appear much simpler, and they were therefore much faster to write. However, they were also harder to decipher because the wedge patterns have no resemblance to the literal ideas they represent. Similarly, the English language, when written, means nothing to someone that cannot read it. Figure 3 (sketch of cuneiform found on cliffs in Persia/Iran c500 BC) is an example of later forms of cuneiform.

In fact, Figure 3 is part of the script from the key to cuneiform, the Behistun Inscription. The Behistun Inscription was part of a memorial to King Darius I of Persia, and, much like the Rosetta Stone of Egypt, it was inscribed in three languages, Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian. All of those languages were in written in cuneiform, and by decoding one of the languages, Britain's Sir Henry Rawlinson and his colleagues were able to translate all three languages by the 1860s.

Figure 3

Cuneiform was used for all sorts of things in ancient Sumer. It could be used to keep crop or animal records and other important business transactions. The first known recipe, a recipe for beer, was found in the region of ancient Sumer. Cuneiform could also be used to record oral traditions. In fact, the first written story ever came out of Sumer. The story was called the Epic of Gilgamesh. Eventually, cuneiform was also used to develop the first written set of laws - Hammurabi's Code.

Image attribution: Figures 1, 2, and 3 are all considered to be in the public domain.