Pictograms, or drawings representing actual things, were the basis for cuneiform writing. As shown in the chart, early pictograms resembled the objects they represented, but through repeated use over time they began to look simpler, even abstract. These marks eventually became wedge-shaped ("cuneiform"), and could convey sounds or abstract concepts.

Sumerians created cuneiform
script over 5000 years ago. It was the world's first written language. The last known cuneiform inscription was written in 75 AD.


let your students try cuneiform with these classroom projects

1. Print out your monogram in cuneiform from the Write Like a Babylonian webpage.
2. Roll out Sculpey clay onto a 4x6 card.
3. Using wedge-shaped pieces from a Trivial Pursuit game and a popsicle stick, copy your cuneiform monogram onto the clay.
4. Optional: using a pencil, make holes at the edge of the clay (for hanging later).
5. Bake the clay pieces in an ordinary oven (instructions on Sculpey boxes) until brown and ancient looking!

Project submitted by
Cecilia Wondergem
St. Basil Catholic School
South Haven, Michigan
7th grade class

1. Make cuneiform "tablets" by placing 11 popsicle sticks side by side. Glue 3 sticks crosswise to hold them together.
2. Paint the smooth sides of the tablets in earth colors.
3. Draw your cuneiform monograms on the smooth sides with ink, paint, or pipecleaners which can be bent and glued into place.

Got a classroom project?
Send it -- we'll post it!

The first pictograms were drawn in vertical columns with a pen made from a sharpened reed. Then two developments made the process quicker and easier: People began to write in horizontal rows, and a new type of pen was used which was pushed into the clay, producing "wedge-shaped" signs that are known as cuneiform writing.

Cuneiform was written on clay tablets, and then baked hard in a kiln.

Cuneiform was adapted by the Akkadians, Babylonians, Sumerians and Assyrians to write their own languages and was used in Mesopotamia for about 3000 years.

Clay tablets were the primary media for everyday written communication and were used extensively in schools. Tablets were routinely recycled and if permanence was called for, they could be baked hard in a kiln. Many of the tablets found by archaeologists were preserved because they were baked when attacking armies burned the building in which they were kept. Clay was an ideal writing material when paired with the reed stylus writing tool. The writer would make quick impressions in the soft clay using either the wedge or pointed end of the stylus. By adjusting the relative position of the tablet to the stylus, the writer could use a single tool to make a variety of impressions. While many wedge positions are possible, awkward ones quickly fell from use in favor of those that were quickest and easiest to make. Like sloppy handwriting, badly made cuneiform signs would be illegible or misunderstood.

Becoming a Scribe

On a hot sunny day 3700 years ago in the city of Nippur under the rule of the Hammurabi Dynasty (circa 1900 - 1600 BC) a young boy was learning to be a scribe. His classroom was most likely in a private home; his materials: a reed stylus and clay tablets. The lesson of the day was to practice writing thousand year old Sumerian cuneiform characters. Higher levels of Babylonian learning involved studying the Sumerian roots of their civilization, much like modern students study Greek and Latin. Literacy and knowledge were the tickets to a prosperous life as a scribe in the ever-growing government and religious bureaucracies. The day's lesson was a routine, but important, practice in handwriting and vocabulary.

In the reign of Hammurabi (1792 - 1750 BC) when law and literature were celebrated with zeal, the ancient Sumerian heritage of the region was fully incorporated into the education of the empire's most promising students. These Babylonians spoke Akkadian and wrote in cuneiform on clay tablets. Akkadian and cuneiform continued to thrive for more than another thousand years under the Assyrians and the later Babylonian revival of Nebuchadnezzar. The use of Aramaic became widespread after the beginning of the first millennium and the Aramaean alphabet gradually replaced cuneiform.

The Round School Tablet
from the Babylonian city of Nippur during the Hammurabi Dynasty

This type of school tablet is called a "lentil" or "bun." The convex shaped back fits naturally into the palm of the hand. There are 4 rows of signs on the front of the tablet. The teacher in ancient Nippur inscribed the signs in rows 1 and 2. The student then took the soft tablet and copied the text into rows 3 and 4. Our student was learning Sumerian signs that were already 1000 years old. The signs in row 1 were pronounced gi-gur which translates "reed basket." Row 2 reads gi-gur-da and that means a type of large reed basket. This lesson was both for handwriting and vocabulary.

Early Sumerian Tablet

The Early Sumerian Tablet represents the second stage in the development of the Mesopotamian system of recording ancient economic activities. The very first stage of bookkeeping was tied to specific economic items represented by tokens, originally made from stone and then from clay. There was a specific token for sheep, another for wine, another for a day's work, etc. To record 3 sheep and 2 jugs of wine, the ancient bookkeeper would create the token for sheep three times and the token for wine twice. These tokens were then stored in a container, probably made of cloth or leather. In this first stage, quantities and items were integrally linked together.

Around 3000 BC the second stage of recording economic activities began to develop. Scribes began to utilize a more complex system of notation, in which tokens were replaced by pictographs on wet clay using a reed stylus. In this second stage, quantites and items were separated. No longer were they using the token for sheep three times in order to reprent three sheep, but rather they began to write the pictographic symbol for sheep alongside the symbol denoting the number three. Instead of the same symbol used three times, scribes now wrote two different symbols: one for the amount and another for the item. This was revolutionary. Numbers were now free to develop on their own into a complicated numerical designation system. Simultaneously, other written symbols were developed on a phonetic basis rather than a purely pictographic basis. This allowed for the recording of more abstract items such as names of gods, kings and humans and the recording of spoken words in addition to the recording of concrete pictograph items, like sheep and flour. With this breakthrough, the recording of written language developed so that cuneiform writing not only counted things, but could also tell stories.

The Sumerians lived along the lower Tigris and Euphrates valley in what is now Iraq. They were the first people to build cities and achieve what we call 'civilization.' Sumerians domesticated goats and cattle; they developed writing; they grew wheat and barley, and used them to bake bread and brew beer. The Sumerians built large temple complexes and had kings whom they buried in large tombs. We don't know whether the wheel was invented by the Sumerians or imported, but in the years between 4000 and 3000 BC it come into general use for military, commercial and agricultural applications.

Early Sumerian Tablet
found near Baghdad, Iraq
3100-2900 BC

Five thousand years ago the people of Sumer began to write. They were the first, and they began not with poetry or stories or great literature, but rather with economic transactions. This tablet is one of the earliest on record. It describes the transfer of 300 acres of land between two parties. As the city states of Sumer grew in size, an increasingly complex social structure called for more sophisticated techniques to record and store accounts of economic transactions. This tablet illustrates the transition from a token oriented record keeping to the use of the world's first writing: cuneiform. The tablet is divided into 3 columns, which are further subdivided in panels. Solid lines mark both the columns and the panels. Reading begins at the top left (column 1), moves down the three panels on that side. and continues around the bottom edge and on to the reverse side. The text picks up again on the front at the top of column 2, which continues down and around to the back. Column 3 does the same. Column 1 describes the acquisition of 180 iku (63.5 heactares) of land by a person or temple household of a deity. Columns 2 and 3 describe how the 180 iku is divided into 4 fields. The round holes in the tablet count the bur (or field size).

The Key to Deciphering Cuneiform: inscriptions on a cliff

Knowledge of cuneiform was lost until AD 1835, when Henry Rawlinson, an English army officer, found some inscriptions on a cliff (shown above) at Behistun in Persia. Carved in the reign of King Darius of Persia (522-486 BC), they consisted of identical texts in three languages: Old Persian, Babylonian and Elamite. After translating the Persian, Rawlinson began to decipher the others. By 1851 he could read 200 Babylonian signs.

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