§1. According to the BBC Science Report May 4th, 1999, the first known examples of writing may have been (subject to conclusive comparison and radioactive-dating methods) unearthed at the site remains of an ancient village in southern Pakistan (ironically in the same province of that country's first nuclear detonation a few months later). These written components consisting of what are believed to be 'contents markings' found on a wide range of fragmented earthen pottery, initially carbon-dated on-site in the range of being 5500 years old, in an area widely known as Harappa in the valley region where the Indus civilization rose to its height four and a half millennia ago. Harappa became a major urban center by 2600 BC, and the discovery suggests writing may have developed both concurrently and independently in a least three separate places- Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley between 3500 - 3100 BC.

§2. It is not difficult to imagine that these first cuneiform 'labels', carved into the sides of clay pots, may have representing nothing more profound than 'oil' or 'barley', and produced by no more noble an instinct than the owner being tired of having to look inside each individual container to find what was sought. However, not long after that first brilliant trouble-saving measure took place- in Mesopotamia, the Sumerian culture by 3000 BC had developed an extensive system of trade, which this time out of necessity rather than convenience spurred the development of written communication. Their civilization lasted some 1300 years (until its eclipse under Babylonian influence around 2000 BC) between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, during which time their writing evolved from purely pictographic to wedge-like symbols of phonetic cuneiform.

§3. Sumerian temples, besides their mystical and social functions, also served as economic centers by acting as commercial archives in the aid of conducting trade, managing estates and lending money. Using beveled sticks they marked these records into clay and then stored them for later reference, along with libraries which also contained the works of scribes written on subjects such as grammar, mathematics (they used both decimals and fractions), treatises on medicine, astrology, prayer, history, law and even literary forms. The oldest written story in the world, The epic of Gilgamish, was traced out in clay form in this manner, and was responsible for the lasting impact of the Sumerian language, which outlived the vernacular use of its own people for centuries (much like Latin), while the creation myth served as source of transmission and instruction for temple and scribe schools teaching new generations of transcribers. However, it is only with the rise of Babylonian culture, perhaps that we see the potential for the library, as a site of administrative and political acumen, first being fully utilized by a societal leader, and the idea presented above, about the necessity in a society for being able to validate or verify its leadership becomes centered around the resources of information.

§4. It is in particular under Hammurabi (c. 1750 BC) that the first articulated step towards the wide-spread dissemination of written information, with the tacit motivation of ensuring social stability, as it first appears in history. By this time, Babylon had grown into the largest unified empire in history thus far (from the Persian Gulf to the Euphrates, reaching as far north as Assyria and as far south as Nineveh and Nimrod) with a complex administrative system, necessitated by a large standing army, massive irrigation and flood prevention projects. Again, as with the growth of trade in Sumerian society, all this demanded careful record keeping, technical planning and clear written communication in order to function. Similarly, as society expanded and complicated, law became increasingly important for the expedient conduct of commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes.

§5. As mentioned, the libraries of this time were centered in temples, and in every major temple under the reign of Hammurabi any citizen could freely consult a clay brick obelisk known as Hammurabi's Stele, listing 282 articles dealing with wages, divorce, medical fees as well as family, property and trade law. This open-to-all presentation of legal information (granted to the extremely limited number of people who did not have to rely on the translation of a nearby scribe or priest who could actually read the codes) is not seen again until the establishment of 'public' Roman libraries under Augustus in 4th cen. AD, almost two millennia later. At the Palace of Mari (by 1000 BC) and the library at Nineveh (c. 750 BC), by the time the first empires of the Fertile Crescent were at their height, these stores of collected histories and records allowed priests to predict lunar eclipses and the path of the sun and near planets through the sky with great accuracy and they inherited the Sumerian system of 360 degree circles and 60 minute hours in relation to this astronomical knowledge. King Sargon II and his successor Ashurbanipal had both placed an emphasis on the scribes and scholars of libraries to not only preserve and study old records & texts, but to serve as reference points for the entire community and to collect tablets or 'texts' from other lands on a wide range of subjects. "So it was that the first issues and logistical matters of selection and storage were placed directly into the hands of librarians, as they were also required to locate and acquire specific materials abroad, oversee their translation or transcription, classification by subject and language and then provide access to their contents."*
* Kathryn McChesney, "History of Libraries, Librarianship, and Library Education." The Library in Society (Library Science Text Series) Libraries Unlimited, Inc.: Littleton, CO, 1984. p. 36

Other sources: Schottloher, Karl. Books and the Western World (London: McFarland, 1989)
The cuneiform script was first deciphered by the teacher Georg Grotefend (1775-1853), whose work was completed by Henry Rawlinson (1810-1895), working with the Achaemenid Persian inscriptions of Darius I. The first results were published in 1850, and since then Assyriologists and Sumerologists have worked their way backwards, to the earliest Sumerian pictographic signs.

Because of their early pictographic nature, most signs represent more than one ideographic or phonetic value, usually of no more than three letters. Thus, the ka sign, originally a stylised picture of a head and neck, meaning "mouth", also serves for , "to call, name", and inim, "word, speech".

The signs were only formalized over time, taking their final form in the Neo Assyrian period. The first signs are obviously representative, and often allow for curved elements, with individual strokes often freely disappearing or re-appearing according to the individual scribe. Eventually, the script was reduced to combinations of 5 strokes: an horizontal with the angle beginning at the left, a downward sloping, an upward sloping, a "winkelhaken" (basically a wedge opening towards the right and no real linear extension), and a vertical with the angle beginning at the top.

Since the days of Grotefend and Rawlinson, many new phonetic values have been discovered for each sign (the current sign list numbers around 500 individual signs). In publishing a text, a transliteration is included from which it should every time be possible to reconstruct the cuneiform text. Since many signs have a value ka (it is assumed that there were originally slight differences in pronunciation, though these are impossible to reconstruct), every time a sign is discovered to have this value, it is transcribed with the value and a sequential number. The first value is thus transliterated as simply ka, the second (with an acute), the third (with a grave), and the rest numbered with subscripts (thus, e.g., ka4, etc.).

Sign lists are constantly being updated, though it is a slow process. The standard sign lists are Labat's Manuel d'epigraphie akkadienne, which serves as an excellent epigraphic reference though fails in the sign-values, and Borger's Assyrisch-babylonische Zeichenliste. Both are organised according to the neo-Assyrian values.

I'll add an addendum (03-18-01), just because it's 5:00 in the AM and I'm still up working on dear Hammurabi's law codes (I'm around paragraph 65 or so). This stuff can be quite maddening, really...signs blur, and without a transcription, it can take hours to piece together the correct values (is it a ga? a ka? a qa? each would give a different verbal root, and then you realize, hey! they're throwing in Sumerian just for the fun of it!). There's a sort of academic urban legend about an assyriologist who went dotty as a doughnut in his later years, and started translating the bird-tracks on his frosted window sill. It's pretty much what I feel like right now.


In the back of my mind I would like to survey the writing systems of the world, but rather than working from general to specific , as I'm inclined to do, I'd like to create needed nodes and pull them together later into a metanode of writing systems, thus avoiding the criticism of creating nodes without links.

E2 already has an excellent node for cuneiform. This writeup was created to pull together information located in the many writeups that already exist and to add new information.


The name cuneiform technically does not refer to a writing system. The term is applied to several kinds of writing systems, including:
  • logo-syllabic - (a mixture of word signs and syllables
  • syllabic - signs representing combinations of sounds, usually consonant + vowel
  • alphabetic - signs representing individual sounds of the language

  • The word comes from the Latin cuneus, which means wedge. Therefore, any writing system can be called cuneiform whenever individual signs are composed of wedges. Many languages, including Semitic, Indo-European, and isolates (languages that appear to be unrelated to any other group) are written in cuneiform.

    Earliest Examples

    The first examples of this script appear in the form of clay tokens which date back to end of the 4th millenium BCE, arising at the same time as the the development of urban centers like Nippur, Susa, and Ur. These early records are used almost exclusively for accounting and record keeping. Evidence of clay tokens of various sizes and shapes were used for counting as far back as 8,000 BC.

    Languages using cuneform

  • Sumerian
  • Akkadian/Assyrian/Babylonian (Eastern Semitic)
  • Elamite
  • Eblaite
  • Hittite
  • Hurrian
  • Ugaritic: This is actually an alphabetic system.
  • Old Persian: a mostly syllabic system, but there are a few logograms
  • Human Anatomy

    There are three cuneiform bones in the human foot. They are the medial cuneiform, the intermediate cuneiform and the lateral cuneiform - they are located between the navicular bone and the first, second and third metatarsal bones and are medial to the cuboid bone.

    The first cuneiform (a.k.a. os cuneiform primum / medial cuneiform) is the largest of the cuneiforms. It is situated at the medial side of the foot, anterior to the navicular and posterior to the base of the first metatarsal. It articulates with four bones: the navicular, second cuneiform, and first and second metatarsals.

    The second cuneiform (a.k.a. os cuneiforme secundum / intermediate cuneiform / middle cuneiform) is shaped like a wedge, the thin end pointing downwards. It is situated between the other two cuneiforms, and articulates with the navicular posteriorly, the second metatarsal anteriorly and with the other cuneiforms on either side.

    The third cuneiform (a.k.a. os cuneiforme tertium / lateral cuneiform / external cuneiform) intermediate in size between the two preceding, is also wedge-shaped, the base being uppermost. It occupies the center of the front row of the tarsal bones, between the second cuneiform medially, the cuboid laterally, the navicular posteriorly and the third metatarsal in front.

    Cu*ne"i*form (k?-n?"?-f?rm), Cu"ni*form (k?"n?-f?rm), a. [L. cuneus a wedge + -form: cf. F. cunei-forme. See Coin.]


    Wedge-shaped; as, a cuneiform bone; -- especially applied to the wedge-shaped or arrowheaded characters of ancient Persian and Assyrian inscriptions. See Arrowheaded.


    Pertaining to, or versed in, the ancient wedge-shaped characters, or the inscriptions in them.

    "A cuneiform scholar."



    © Webster 1913.

    Cu*ne"i*form, Cu"ni*form, n.


    The wedge-shaped characters used in ancient Persian and Assyrian inscriptions.

    I. Taylor (The Alphabet).

    2. Anat. (a)

    One of the three tarsal bones supporting the first, second third metatarsals. They are usually designated as external, middle, and internal, or ectocuniform, mesocuniform, and entocuniform, respectively.


    One of the carpal bones usually articulating with the ulna; -- called also pyramidal and ulnare.


    © Webster 1913.

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