The word cuneiform comes from the Latin cuneus, meaning “wedge.” This style of writing used a wedge-shaped stylus to make impressions on primarily clay, but also on stone, metal, and wax. Sumerians were likely the inventors of cuneiform writing, but it was also used for writing in the Akkadian language, of which Babylonian and Assyrian are dialects. The earliest tablets in cuneiform script are about 5000 years old, originating from ancient southern Mesopotamia.

The vast majority of wedges were made of reed, inspiring the Sumerian word for stylus, meaning, literally, “tablet-reed.” Reed provided optimal characteristics for a writing tool as it was readily available, made of solid stalk, and is covered in glossy, waterproof skin that prevented it from sticking to the clay. 

To call cuneiform a language is a little misleading. It is a system of 600 to 1,000 characters representative of certain words, or parts of words, in order to translate meaning. All characters in cuneiform are made from 5 different ways to mark with the stylus, as explained in the video below. We could just as easily use cuneiform to spell English or Chinese as the ancient languages of Sumerian and Akkadian.

Scribes in Mesopotamia


Video: Scribes in Mesopotamia by Theo van den Hout of The Oriental Institute

Reading the Past Brochure

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