Word on the Word

Have you ever wondered how the alphabet came about? Before written communication, how did people document trade, administrative work, the law, or the designation and transportation of goods? Writing had to begin somewhere. Think of the things we would not be able to do without it now!

The Sumerians were the first to advance in this domain by creating the cuneiform; it was the first manifestation of the written language. Henceforth, the development of cuneiform assisted with the transformation of Mesopotamia and its society by introducing the system of uniformity and creating more roles in the society, which was crucial in remembering history and fundamental for a civilisation to grow,

A brief history of the written language and how it has progressed along the years.

Cuneiform in Mesopotamia

Hold up! Before the creation of the wonderful cuneiform, credit has to be attributed to its early beginnings; the proto-cuneiform.

Pictographs Recording the Allocation of Beer, Southern Iraq,  3100-3000 BCE. Public Domain. 

Pictographs Recording the Allocation of Beer, Southern Iraq,  3100-3000 BCE. Public Domain. 

It took shape in form of pictures, which made the ‘language’ easy to understand for everyone. However, the proto-cuneiform was overly-specific and was not able to convey more ambiguous or bigger terms. For example, the priestess-poet Enheduanna wrote hymns of praise that revolved around emotions such as love and devotion, terror and disloyalty, and other enigmatic states, which could not be defined with clarity with proto-cuneiform. As a result,...

...there came the birth of the Cuneiform! It is known to have originated in about 3200 BCE, and the last dated text recorded was written in 75 CE. The advantage of Mesopotamian documentation was the durability and longevity. This was because cuneiform signs were recorded on clay tablets. Clay was inexpensive despite the amount of time it took to produce the clay; it also had enough plasticity that allowed for an extensive variety of forms. However, clay was heavy, depending on the size of the text. Furthermore, scribes also had to predict in advance the length of the text so that a tablet big enough could be made. Once the tablet was left out in the sun to dry after inscriptions were done, no rectification could be made.

The term cuneiform refers to the appearance of the signs, resulting from the organisation of wedges formed by an indentation of a reed calamus on clay. It derives from the latin word ‘cunei’, which means 'wedge-shaped'. Cuneiform itself contains a mixed system of both logograms (one sign representing one word) and phonograms (one sign representing one syllable). It was a collection of about six hundred signs, which usually consisted of assorted logographic and phonetic values.

By the way, did you know that Mesopotamia is today's Iraq? 


A Guide to the Creation of Cuneiform Tablets

Tablet with Cuneiform inscriptions, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1840 BCE. Public Domain.

Tablet with Cuneiform inscriptions, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1840 BCE. Public Domain.

The tools and materials used in the making of cuneiform tablets were easily accessible and abundant in supply. Excavated tablets found were made from stones, bones and from sun-dried clay (sometimes known as wet clay).

The making of sun dried clay bricks, Peru, April 16, 2009. Public Domain.

The making of sun dried clay bricks, Peru, April 16, 2009. Public Domain.

This clay material 1 was the first choice of medium because the Sumerians dwelled in a land where two rivers crossed and clay was readily available. If left to ‘bake’ under the sun at 700-2000 degrees Celsius, it will transform into a pale rock-like material.

  1. Did you know that the same material has been and is still being used in the construction of buildings? They are known to be one of the strongest, most sustainable, durable, and eco-friendly building materials!

Other than sun-dried clay/stones/bones, a twig and a knife is also required. Here's a cheeky how-to:

Step 1: Find clay and try to keep it in its purest form (i.e. dust of sand from its surface or removing other materials lodged).

Step 2: Shape the clay into a block, then, use the knife to cut the block into smaller pieces.

Step 3: Flatten the clay blocks with stress-filled punches and slaps so that it has a flat, even, writable surface.

Step 4: Use the twig as a pen and begin to make incisions in Cuneiform.

Step 5: Leave the rest up to the sun and voila!

To get you started, here is a list of the Cuneiform alphabets:

Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet in Cuneiform, May 30, 2009. Public domain.

Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet in Cuneiform, May 30, 2009. Public domain.

And here is the numbering system:

Babylonian numerals, March 28, 2010. Public domain.

Babylonian numerals, March 28, 2010. Public domain.

The arduous process of clay refining and baking is the reason why we can read about the Epic of Gilgamesh (a text we are all familiar with thanks to class with Professor Bennett), many other stories and very importantly, learn about mankind’s history. However, today, thanks to technology and entrepreneurs, you can simply get yours customised at www.dumbcuneiform.com

Cuneiform Inscriptions. April 10, 2010. Public Domain

Cuneiform Inscriptions. April 10, 2010. Public Domain

The significance of Cuneiform

Laying the fundamentals of building a civilization

The creation of cuneiform was a testament to how important and useful written language could aide in the administration of empire in terms of its economies and administration.

As one of the most significant civilizations to emerge, there is only so much a man can remember in an operation in Mesopotamia. Have you ever wondered how we got inspirations from keeping an inventory logbook, or creating a database system for organizing a large database? Cuneiform, was the earliest precursor to today’s convenience. Fundamentally, cuneiform is used to record and keep tabs of a complicated operation. Imagine! The temple of the Sumerian city of Lagesh employed more than 1700 employees. Surely no man can ever remember the specific operations of each departments?

With a structured system of keeping tabs on operations, this eventually morphed and shaped the civilization's trading system one of rules and regulations. Not only did this rid any ambivalence, but the uniform system of inventory check was a main determinant in aspiring the advancement of trade among various cities across the world. While there is no proper or singular establishment as to how systems first owe its origin, it can be safely deduced from the early civilizations that it was cuneiform that first introduced the system of uniformity.

Egyptian hieroglyphs. 23 May. 2015. Public Domain.

Egyptian hieroglyphs. 23 May. 2015. Public Domain.


Cuneiform subsequently transformed under King Hammurabi’s rule and his written law code. Later, the Egyptians developed the pictorial script called hieroglyphs which required sophisticated and dexterous artists to create the writing system, and was also utilized to depict magnificent stories. The hieroglyphs are made of phonograms (represents sounds) and ideograms (represents objects or ideas). Later, hieroglyphs would integrate and transform into symbols not only seen as a form of documenting, but into symbolic inscriptions, or patterns, on jewelries and even furniture. At that point of time, literacy was seen as a trait that only people with fame and wealth could attain, and thus, Egyptians who possessed objects with inscriptions were highly respected and admired. However, writings began to infiltrate and accompany the everyday lives of the Egyptians. Even if literacy was seen as a highest form of art, even Egyptians from the lower class would have seen it in their everyday lives. Such subtle and mild influence can be very powerful as the writing system began to further evolve into a system of convenience where it would ultimately become prevalent as public education was established instead.

Today, most of Mesopotamia’s records were deciphered and translated from texts known as the ‘royal inscriptions’, a much-evolved form of writing that owes its origins from cuneiform.

The Newly Discovered Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, 2016. Public domain. 

The Newly Discovered Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, 2016. Public domain. 

Learning from the past

The birth of cuneiform is also instrumental in making the documentation of “The Saga of Gilgamesh’ and ‘The Circle of Agade’ possible, where the world, thousands of years from now, would learn of the most epic and formidable stories that were buried deep along with the passing of time. Ultimately, we owe cuneiform for the ability to exponentially understand the lives of the people that had lived in the ancient times of Mesopotamia.

In addition, cuneiform was the gateway to showing us what and how lives were led back in the ancient civilization.

Cuneiform was a testament to the evolution of Mesopotamia. Cuneiform, which was first a simplistic mode of communication of a system of pronouns, transformed to be more abstract as Mesopotamia was influenced by different phases of cultures. The Sumerians believed that writing was a gift bestowed by the Goddess Nisaba, a Goddess of Grain, and while it was profound and difficult to use due to its numerous characters, cuneiform was a medium of worship in documenting the tremendous and victorious stories of the myths of Babylon.

As mentioned, cuneiform subsequently transformed into hieroglyphs under the Egyptian’s culture and was most frequently used as scripted guide to the afterlife. However, the most significant function of hieroglyphs lies in how Egyptians documented the historical everyday events, such as the changing depths of the Nile River at every other day.  

In all of cuneiform’s history, there is a common entity in how cuneiform was unanimous in the function of documenting Mesopotamia’s stories and legends. Cuneiform was an all-important tool in remembering their deities and their history. Surprisingly, even as thousands of years have passed, we have books and scripts that are simply a different but similar embodiment of cuneiform. Likewise, we document and piece down our histories. For what? We might question. With that question answered, you would have fully understood the significance of cuneiform.


Without cuneiform, cities that have died in the passage of time, like Jerusalem and other city states, would not have been shared and discovered in present time. Without cuneiform, the languages we were blessed with at birth could not have been thus perfect. Without cuneiform, there would not be any form of formal written documentation that supported uniformity and consistency in governance. It may seem far-fetched but it is not. A language allows every generation to progress by avoiding the mistakes our ancestors have made, facilitates passing down of experiences, traditions, means of making things and allows education. These are just some fundamental benefits of a language which has wide ripple effects on many other aspects in human life, as it did on Mesopotamia more than 5000 years ago.  


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Meador, B. D. S. (2006). Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: poems of the Sumerian high priestess Enheduanna. Austin: University of Texas Press.

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