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Etched in Stone: First, There Was The Word

(The following is a post by Muhannad Salhi, Arab World Area Specialist, Near East Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division. This is the first installment of a three-part series.  Links to the other two posts will be provided here following their publication.)

A script that has baffled the world for many centuries, cuneiform is now generally recognized as the world’s oldest writing system. Deemed analogous to the Roman/Latin alphabet, cuneiform was similarly adopted and adapted by many peoples and cultures to convey a variety of, often unrelated, languages. Indeed, the list of peoples who have utilized the cuneiform script, estimated to be 15 in total, includes Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Urartians, Elamites, Assyrians, Hatti, Hurrians, Hittities, and Persians, thus covering an extensive area from today’s Iraq to Syria, central Turkey and south-west Iran.

The term “cuneiform” derives from the Latin cuneifōrmis—cuneus (wedge) and fōrmis (figure or shape)—due to the careful transcription of wedge shaped letters on clay or stone using a sharp reed cut at an angle. There is some dispute over who coined the actual term, with some attributing it to the German scholar Engelbert Kämpfer (1651-1716) and others attributing it to the English Orientalist Thomas Hyde (1636-1703)–the latter believing cuneiform’s function to be purely decorative rather than an actual writing system.

Originally, the cuneiform script was invented by the Sumerians of Mesopotamia around 3200 BCE. Archeological excavations in that very region, however, uncovered a system antecedent to cuneiform dating from the 8th millennium BCE. Hence, as archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat has argued, cuneiform can be traced back, without discontinuity, to a period of 10,000 years. Initially a basic counting/accounting system, proto-cuneiform was used to keep track of goods and transmit related information. This system utilized three dimensional clay tokens, which came in a variety of shapes, each signifying a particular form of goods. The shape of the token itself was therefore deemed semantic: a cone, for example, could indicate a measure of grain, while an ovoid would stand for a jar of oil.

A stone tablet etched with cuneiform script.

Ledger of fish, Cuneiform tablet no. 20, [between 2200 B.C. and 1900 B.C.], Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

The abundance of mud and stone determined not only the building methods of ancient Mesopotamia but also provided materials suitable for writing. The tablets were created from a damp ball of clay, which was then flattened to about the size of a hand (sometimes larger), with one convex side and the other flat. The wedge marks were then etched on the damp clay using a reed stylus and the tablet was left to dry in the sun or occasionally fired in a kiln.

The earliest evidence of cuneiform as a “writing system” dates to the 4th millennium BCE. At that point, it was used as an accounting system to write ledgers of commodities, numbers, and expressing the most basic representations of concrete objects. Pictograms, for example, denoted objects, while strokes and circles represented numbers, thus dispensing with the three-dimensional tokens since their shapes could now be transcribed on clay tablets. With this development, “writing” became more cursive, albeit without the ability to reflect actual speech.

A square object with etchings on a gray cloth background

Bill of sale, Cuneiform tablet no. 34. Kirkor Minassian Collection, [2050 B.C.], Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

a round object as cuneiform tablet on a gray cloth background.

Accounting or receipt, Cuneiform tablet no. 19, Kirkor Minassian Collection,[between 2200 B.C. and 1900 B.C.], Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Over the next few centuries, cuneiform continued to evolve. “Writing” became more cursive and was now transcribed from left to right. Symbols were turned on their sides, and the triangular-tipped stylus was replaced by a sharpened point.. As information became easier to record, the use of pictograms would soon be used to express different related concepts rather than the object itself–the pictograph for sun, for example, could also mean light or day. Nevertheless, ideograms were still limited by their inability to convey such things as personal names, prepositions, or adverbs, and hence to accurately represent spoken language. This led to another development whereby the ideograms were now used to convey the sound of the object rendering the pictogram as graphic symbol for sound—also known as the rebus principle. It has been speculated that one of the reasons for this development was funerary inscriptions–the dead needed their names recorded along with their patrimony, the temples they worshipped at, pleas and prayers for their souls, and so forth, as a means of assuring them of eternal life presumably according to Sumerian belief.  According to Schmandt-Besserat:

Inscriptions on stone seals or metal vessels deposited in tombs of the ‘Royal Cemetery’ of Ur, c. 2700–2600 BC, are among the first texts that did not deal with merchandise, did not include numerals and were entirely phonetic. (Schmandt-Besserat, 2007)

Literacy being extremely limited, scribes were held in high esteem by the general public. Further, believing that death could be effected when someone’s name was etched into a “Book of Fate” of sorts, scribes were thus imbued with awesome powers, not to say control over life and death. In order to access these ceremonial and magical qualities, however, a person needed to master writing which was not an easy task. This education, it should be noted, was generally the preserve of the elite who could afford the long, expensive education of their male children.

According to translations of the cuneiform tablets, a young student, began his schooling at the edubba—“tablet house”–usually before the age of ten.  The rigorous and often harsh instruction was given by the master and the no less severe assistance his aides—older students referred to as “big brothers,” whom, one might add, were not above being bribed to avoid the customary beatings.  Hence, students worked from sunrise to sunset with very few days of rest, until finally being able to acquire the necessary skills to complete the proscribed curriculum and pass their examinations. Recording the average day in a student’s life, renowned scholar Samuel Kramer translates:

“I read my tablet, ate my lunch,
prepared my [new] tablet, wrote it, finished it; then
my model tablets were brought to me;
and in the afternoon, my exercise tablets were brought to me.” (Kramer 1963)

A round object as cuneiform tablet on a gray cloth background.

School exercise tablet, Cuneiform tablet no. 04, Kirkor Minassian Collection, [between 2200 B.C. and 1900 B.C.], Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

A round object as cuneiform tablet on a gray cloth background.

School exercise tablet, Cuneiform tablet no. 01, Kirkor Minassian Collection, [between 2200 B.C. and 1900 B.C.], Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

Once his years of training were successfully completed–a process that could take 12 years–a student, was entitled to the title of dubsar or “scribe.”  As such, he became a member of a privileged élite, and could now look with contempt upon his fellow “illiterate” citizens.


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