Cuneiform script is one of the earliest systems of writing, distinguished by its wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets, made by means of a blunt reed for a stylus. The name cuneiform itself simply means "wedge shaped", from the Latin cuneus "wedge" and forma "shape," and came into English usage probably from Old French cunéiforme.
Emerging in Sumer in the late 4th millennium B.C.E. (the Uruk IV period), cuneiform writing began as a system of pictographs. In the third millennium, the pictorial representations became simplified and more abstract as the number of characters in use grew smaller, from about 1,000 in the Early Bronze Age to about 400 in Late Bronze Age (Hittite cuneiform). The system consists of a combination of logophonetic, consonantal alphabetic and syllabic signs.
The original Sumerian script was adapted for the writing of the Akkadian, Eblaite, Elamite, Hittite, Luwian, Hattic, Hurrian, and Urartian languages, and it inspired the Ugaritic and Old Persian alphabets. Cuneiform writing was gradually replaced by the Phoenician alphabet during the Neo-Assyrian Empire. By the 2nd century C.E., the script had become extinct, and all knowledge of how to read it was lost until it began to be deciphered in the 19th century.
Between half a million and two million cuneiform tablets are estimated to have been excavated in modern times, of which only approximately 30,000 – 100,000 have been read or published. The British Museum holds the largest collection, c. 130,000, followed by the Vorderasiatisches Museum Berlin, the Louvre, the Istanbul Archaeology Museums, the National Museum of Iraq, the Yale Babylonian Collection (c.40,000) and Penn Museum. Most of these have "lain in these collections for a century without being translated, studied or published," as there are only a few hundred qualified cuneiformists in the world.
The cuneiform writing system was in use for more than three millennia, through several stages of development, from the 34th century B.C.E. down to the 2nd century C.E. Ultimately, it was completely replaced by alphabetic writing (in the general sense) in the course of the Roman era and there are no Cuneiform systems in current use. It had to be deciphered as a completely unknown writing system in 19th-century Assyriology. Successful completion of its deciphering is dated to 1857.
The cuneiform script underwent considerable changes over a period of more than two millennia. The image below shows the development of the sign SAG "head" (Borger nr. 184, U+12295 𒊕).
The cuneiform script was developed from pictographic proto-writing in the late 4th millennium B.C.E. Mesopotamia's "proto-literate" period spans roughly the 35th to 32nd centuries. The first documents unequivocally written in the Sumerian language date to c. the 31st century, found at Jemdet Nasr.
Certain signs to indicate names of gods, countries, cities, vessels, birds, trees, etc., are known as determinatives, and were the Sumerian signs of the terms in question, added as a guide for the reader. Proper names continued to be usually written in purely "logographic" fashion.
The earliest known Sumerian king whose name appears on contemporary cuneiform tablets is Enmebaragesi of Kish. Surviving records only very gradually become less fragmentary and more complete for the following reigns, but by the end of the pre-Sargonic period, it had become standard practice for each major city-state to date documents by year-names commemorating the exploits of its lugal (king).
From about 2900 B.C.E., many pictographs began to lose their original function, and a given sign could have various meanings depending on context. The sign inventory was reduced from some 1,500 signs to some 600 signs, and writing became increasingly phonological. Determinative signs were re-introduced to avoid ambiguity. Cuneiform writing proper thus arises from the more primitive system of pictographs at about that time (Early Bronze Age II).
In the mid-3rd millennium B.C.E., writing direction was changed to left to right in horizontal rows (rotating all of the pictographs 90° counter-clockwise in the process), and a new wedge-tipped stylus was used which was pushed into the clay, producing wedge-shaped ("cuneiform") signs; these two developments made writing quicker and easier. By adjusting the relative position of the tablet to the stylus, the writer could use a single tool to make a variety of impressions.
Cuneiform tablets could be fired in kilns to provide a permanent record, or they could be recycled if permanence was not needed. Many of the clay tablets found by archaeologists were preserved because they were fired when attacking armies burned the building in which they were kept.
The script was also widely used on commemorative stelae and carved reliefs to record the achievements of the ruler in whose honor the monument had been erected.
The spoken language consisted of many similar sounds, and in the beginning similar sounding words such as "life" [til] and "arrow" [ti] were described in writing by the same symbol. After the Semites conquered Southern Mesopotamia, some signs gradually changed from being pictograms to syllabograms, most likely to make things clearer in writing. In that way the sign for the word "arrow" would become the sign for the sound "ti". If a sound represented many different words the words would all have different signs, for instance the syllable "gu" had fourteen different symbols. When the words had similar meaning but very different sounds they were written with the same symbol. For instance "tooth" [zu], "mouth" [ka] and "voice" [gu] were all written with the symbol for "voice". To be more accurate they started adding to signs or combine two signs to define the meaning. They used either geometrical patterns or another cuneiform sign. As time went by the cuneiform got very complex and the distinction between a pictogram and syllabogram became vague. Several symbols had too many meanings to permit clarity. Therefore, symbols were put together to indicate both the sound and the meaning of compound. The word "Raven" [UGA] had the same logogram as the word "soap" [NAGA], name of a city [ERESH] and the patron goddess of Eresh [NISABA]. Two phonetic complements were used to define the word [u] in front of the symbol and [gu] behind. Finally the symbol for "bird" [MUSHEN] was added to ensure proper interpretation. The written part of the Sumerian language was used as a learned written language until the 1st century C.E. The spoken language died out around the 18th century B.C.E.
The archaic cuneiform script was adopted by the Akkadians from c. 2500 B.C.E., and by 2000 B.C.E. had evolved into Old Assyrian cuneiform, with many modifications to Sumerian orthography. The Semitic equivalents for many signs became distorted or abbreviated to form new "phonetic" values, because the syllabic nature of the script as refined by the Sumerians was unintuitive to Semitic speakers. At this stage, the former pictograms were reduced to a high level of abstraction, and were composed of only five basic wedge shapes: horizontal, vertical, two diagonals and the Winkelhaken impressed vertically by the tip of the stylus. The signs exemplary of these basic wedges are
- AŠ (B001, U+12038) 𒀸: horizontal;
- DIŠ (B748, U+12079) 𒁹: vertical;
- GE23, DIŠ tenû (B575, U+12039) 𒀹: downward diagonal;
- GE22 (B647, U+1203A) 𒀺: upward diagonal;
- U (B661, U+1230B) 𒌋: the Winkelhaken.
Except for the Winkelhaken which has no tail, the length of the wedges' tails could vary as required for sign composition.
Signs tilted by about 45 degrees are called tenû in Akkadian, thus DIŠ is a vertical wedge and DIŠ tenû a diagonal one. If a sign is modified with additional wedges, this is called gunû or "gunification;" if signs are crosshatched with additional Winkelhaken, they are called šešig; if signs are modified by the removal of a wedge or wedges, they are called nutillu.
"Typical" signs have usually in the range of about five to ten wedges, while complex ligatures can consist of twenty or more (although it is not always clear if a ligature should be considered a single sign or two collated but still distinct signs); the ligature KAxGUR7 consists of 31 strokes.
Most later adaptations of Sumerian cuneiform preserved at least some aspects of the Sumerian script. Written Akkadian included phonetic symbols from the Sumerian syllabary, together with logograms that were read as whole words. Many signs in the script were polyvalent, having both a syllabic and logographic meaning. The complexity of the system bears a resemblance to Old Japanese, written in a Chinese-derived script, where some of these Sinograms were used as logograms, and others as phonetic characters.
This "mixed" method of writing continued through the end of the Babylonian and Assyrian empires, although there were periods when "purism" was in fashion and there was a more marked tendency to spell out the words laboriously, in preference to using signs with a phonetic complement. Yet even in those days, the Babylonian syllabary remained a mixture of logographic and phonemic writing.
Hittite cuneiform is an adaptation of the Old Assyrian cuneiform of c. 1800 B.C.E. to the Hittite language. When the cuneiform script was adapted to writing Hittite, a layer of Akkadian logographic spellings was added to the script, thus the pronunciations of many Hittite words which were conventionally written by logograms are now unknown.
In the Iron Age (c. 10th to 6th centuries B.C.E.), Assyrian cuneiform was further simplified. From the 6th century, the Assyrian language was marginalized by Aramaic, written in the Aramaean alphabet, but Neo-Assyrian cuneiform remained in use in literary tradition well into Parthian times (250 B.C.E. – 226 C.E.). The last known cuneiform inscription, an astronomical text, was written in 75 C.E.
The complexity of the system prompted the development of a number of simplified versions of the script. Old Persian was written in a subset of simplified cuneiform characters known today as Old Persian cuneiform. It formed a semi-alphabetic syllabary, using far fewer wedge strokes than Assyrian used, together with a handful of logograms for frequently occurring words like "god" and "king". The Ugaritic language was written using the Ugaritic alphabet, a standard Semitic style alphabet (an abjad) written using the cuneiform method.
For centuries, travellers to Persepolis, in modern-day Iran, had noticed carved cuneiform inscriptions and were intrigued. Attempts at deciphering these Old Persian writings date back to Arabo-Persian historians of the medieval Islamic world, though these early attempts at decipherment were largely unsuccessful.
In the 15th century, the Venetian Barbero explored ancient ruins in the Middle East and came back with news of a very odd writing he had found carved on the stones in the temples of Shiraz and on many clay tablets.
In 1625, the Roman traveler Pietro Della Valle, coming back from Mesopotamia and Persia, brought back a tablet written with cuneiform glyphs he had found in Ur, and also the copy of five characters he had seen in Persepolis. Della Valle understood that the writing had to be read from left to right, following the direction of wedges, but did not attempt to decipher the scripts.
Englishman Sir Thomas Herbert, in the 1634 edition of his travel book A relation of some yeares travaile, reported seeing at Persepolis carved on the wall “a dozen lines of strange characters…consisting of figures, obelisk, triangular, and pyramidal” and thought they resembled Greek. In the 1664 edition he reproduced some and thought they were ‘legible and intelligible’ and therefore decipherable. He also guessed, correctly, that they represented not letters or hieroglyphics but words and syllables, and were to be read from left to right. Herbert is rarely mentioned in standard histories of the decipherment of cuneiform.
Carsten Niebuhr brought the first reasonably complete and accurate copies of the inscriptions at Persepolis to Europe. Bishop Friedrich Münter of Copenhagen discovered that the words in the Persian inscriptions were divided from one another by an oblique wedge and that the monuments must belong to the age of Cyrus and his successors. One word, which occurs without any variation towards the beginning of each inscription, he correctly inferred to signify "king". By 1802 Georg Friedrich Grotefend had determined that two king's names mentioned were Darius and Xerxes (but in their native Old Persian forms, which were unknown at the time and therefore had to be conjectured), and had been able to assign correct alphabetic values to the cuneiform characters which composed the two names. Although Grotefend's Memoir was presented to the Göttingen Academy on September 4, 1802, the Academy refused to publish it; it was subsequently published in Heeren's work in 1815, but was overlooked by most researchers at the time.
In 1836, the eminent French scholar Eugène Burnouf discovered that the first of the inscriptions published by Niebuhr contained a list of the satrapies of Darius. With this clue in his hand, he identified and published an alphabet of thirty letters, most of which he had correctly deciphered.
A month earlier, a friend and pupil of Burnouf's, Professor Christian Lassen of Bonn, had also published his own work on The Old Persian Cuneiform Inscriptions of Persepolis. He and Burnouf had been in frequent correspondence, and his claim to have independently detected the names of the satrapies, and thereby to have fixed the values of the Persian characters, was consequently fiercely attacked. According to Sayce, whatever his obligations to Burnouf may have been, Lassen's
...contributions to the decipherment of the inscriptions were numerous and important. He succeeded in fixing the true values of nearly all the letters in the Persian alphabet, in translating the texts, and in proving that the language of them was not Zend, but stood to both Zend and Sanskrit in the relation of a sister.— Sacye
Meanwhile, in 1835 Henry Rawlinson, a British East India Company army officer, visited the Behistun Inscriptions in Persia. Carved in the reign of King Darius of Persia (522–486 B.C.E.), they consisted of identical texts in the three official languages of the empire: Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite. The Behistun inscription was to the decipherment of cuneiform what the Rosetta Stone was to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Rawlinson correctly deduced that the Old Persian was a phonetic script and he successfully deciphered it. In 1837 he finished his copy of the Behistun inscription, and sent a translation of its opening paragraphs to the Royal Asiatic Society. Before his article could be published, however, the works of Lassen and Burnouf reached him, necessitating a revision of his article and the postponement of its publication. Then came other causes of delay. In 1847 the first part of the Rawlinson's Memoir was published; the second part did not appear until 1849. The task of deciphering the Persian cuneiform texts was virtually accomplished.
After translating the Persian, Rawlinson and, working independently of him, the Irish Assyriologist Edward Hincks, began to decipher the others. (The actual techniques used to decipher the Akkadian language have never been fully published; Hincks described how he sought the proper names already legible in the deciphered Persian while Rawlinson never said anything at all, leading some to speculate that he was secretly copying Hincks.) They were greatly helped by Paul Émile Botta's discovery of the city of Nineveh in 1842. Among the treasures uncovered by Botta were the remains of the great library of Ashurbanipal, a royal archive containing tens of thousands of baked clay tablets covered with cuneiform inscriptions.
By 1851, Hincks and Rawlinson could read 200 Babylonian signs. They were soon joined by two other decipherers: young German-born scholar Julius Oppert, and versatile British Orientalist William Henry Fox Talbot. In 1857 the four men met in London and took part in a famous experiment to test the accuracy of their decipherments. Edwin Norris, the secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society, gave each of them a copy of a recently discovered inscription from the reign of the Assyrian emperor Tiglath-Pileser I. A jury of experts was empanelled to examine the resulting translations and assess their accuracy. In all essential points the translations produced by the four scholars were found to be in close agreement with one another. There were of course some slight discrepancies. The inexperienced Talbot had made a number of mistakes, and Oppert's translation contained a few doubtful passages which the jury politely ascribed to his unfamiliarity with the English language. But Hincks' and Rawlinson's versions corresponded remarkably closely in many respects. The jury declared itself satisfied, and the decipherment of Akkadian cuneiform was adjudged a fait accompli.
In the early days of cuneiform decipherment, the reading of proper names presented the greatest difficulties. However, there is now a better understanding of the principles behind the formation and the pronunciation of the thousands of names found in historical records, business documents, votive inscriptions, literary productions and legal documents. The primary challenge was posed by the characteristic use of old Sumerian non-phonetic logograms in other languages that had different pronunciations for the same symbols. Until the exact phonetic reading of many names was determined through parallel passages or explanatory lists, scholars remained in doubt, or had recourse to conjectural or provisional readings. Fortunately, in many cases, there are variant readings, the same name being written phonetically (in whole or in part) in one instance, and logographically in another.
Cuneiform has a specific format for transliteration. Because of the script's polyvalence, transliteration requires certain choices of the transliterating scholar, who must decide in the case of each sign which of its several possible meanings is intended in the original document. For example, the sign DINGIR in a Hittite text may represent either the Hittite syllable an or may be part of an Akkadian phrase, representing the syllable il, it may be a Sumerogram, representing the original Sumerian meaning, 'god' or the determinative for a deity. In transliteration, a different rendition of the same glyph is chosen depending on its role in the present context.
Therefore, a text containing DINGIR and MU in succession could be construed to represent the words "ana", "ila", god + "a" (the accusative ending), god + water, or a divine name "A" or Water. Someone transcribing the signs would make the decision how the signs should be read and assemble the signs as "ana", "ila", "Ila" ("god"+accusative case), etc. A transliteration of these signs, however, would separate the signs with dashes "il-a", "an-a", "DINGIR-a" or "Da". This is still easier to read than the original cuneiform, but now the reader is able to trace the sounds back to the original signs and determine if the correct decision was made on how to read them. A transliterated document thus presents both the reading preferred by the transliterating scholar as well as the opportunity to reconstruct the original text.
There are differing conventions for transliterating Sumerian, Akkadian (Babylonian) and Hittite (and Luwian) cuneiform texts. One convention that sees wide use across the different fields is the use of acute and grave accents as an abbreviation for homophone disambiguation. Thus, u is equivalent to u1, the first glyph expressing phonetic u. An acute accent, ú, is equivalent to the second, u2, and a grave accent ù to the third, u3 glyph in the series (while the sequence of numbering is conventional but essentially arbitrary and subject to the history of decipherment). In Sumerian transliteration, a multiplication sign 'x' is used to indicate ligatures. As shown above, signs as such are represented in capital letters, while the specific reading selected in the transliteration is represented in small letters. Thus, capital letters can be used to indicate a so-called Diri compound – a sign sequence that has, in combination, a reading different from the sum of the individual constituent signs (for example, the compound IGI.A – "water" + "eye" – has the reading imhur, meaning "foam"). In a Diri compound, the individual signs are separated with dots in transliteration. Capital letters may also be used to indicate a Sumerogram (for example, KÙ.BABBAR – Sumerian for "silver" – being used with the intended Akkadian reading kaspum, "silver"), an Akkadogram, or simply a sign sequence of whose reading the editor is uncertain. Naturally, the "real" reading, if it is clear, will be presented in small letters in the transliteration: IGI.A will be rendered as imhur4.
Since the Sumerian language has only been widely known and studied by scholars for approximately a century, changes in the accepted reading of Sumerian names have occurred from time to time. Thus the name of a king of Ur, read Ur-Bau at one time, was later read as Ur-Engur, and is now read as Ur-Nammu or Ur-Namma; for Lugal-zaggisi, a king of Uruk, some scholars continued to read Ungal-zaggisi; and so forth. Also, with some names of the older period, there was often uncertainty whether their bearers were Sumerians or Semites. If the former, then their names could be assumed to be read as Sumerian, while, if they were Semites, the signs for writing their names were probably to be read according to their Semitic equivalents, though occasionally Semites might be encountered bearing genuine Sumerian names. There was also doubt whether the signs composing a Semite's name represented a phonetic reading or a logographic compound. Thus, e.g. when inscriptions of a Semitic ruler of Kish, whose name was written Uru-mu-ush, were first deciphered, that name was first taken to be logographic because uru mu-ush could be read as "he founded a city" in Sumerian, and scholars accordingly retranslated it back to the original Semitic as Alu-usharshid. It was later recognized that the URU sign can also be read as rí and that the name is that of the Akkadian king Rimush.
The tables below show signs used for simple syllables of the form CV or VC. As used for the Sumerian language, the cuneiform script was in principle capable of distinguishing at least 16 consonants, transliterated as
- b, d, g, g̃, ḫ, k, l, m, n, p, r, ř, s, š, t, z
as well as four vowel qualities, a, e, i, u. The Akkadian language had no use for g̃ or ř but needed to distinguish its emphatic series, q, ṣ, ṭ, adopting various "superfluous" Sumerian signs for the purpose (e.g. qe=KIN, qu=KUM, qi=KIN, ṣa=ZA, ṣe=ZÍ, ṭur=DUR etc.[clarification needed]) Hittite as it adopted the Akkadian cuneiform further introduced signs for the glide w, e.g. wa=PI, wi5=GEŠTIN) as well as a ligature I.A for ya.
|g̃-||g̃á=GÁ 𒂷||g̃e26=GÁ 𒂷||g̃i6=MI 𒈪||g̃u10=MU 𒈬|
|ř-||řá=DU 𒁺||ře6=DU 𒁺|
|ed=Á 𒀉||id=Á 𒀉,
|eḫ=AḪ 𒄴||iḫ=AḪ 𒄴||uḫ=AḪ 𒄴,
|-k||ak=AG 𒀝||ek=IG 𒅅||ik=IG 𒅅||uk=UG 𒊌|
|em=IM 𒅎||im 𒅎,
|-n||an 𒀭||en 𒂗,
|er=IR 𒅕||ir 𒅕,
|-s||as=AZ 𒊍||es=GIŠ 𒄑,
át=GÍR gunû 𒄉
|et=Á 𒀉||it=Á 𒀉||ut=UD 𒌓,
|-z||az 𒊍||ez=GIŠ 𒄑,
|iz= GIŠ 𒄑,
|-g̃||ág̃=ÁG 𒉘||èg̃=ÁG 𒉘||ìg̃=ÁG 𒉘||ùg̃=UN 𒌦|
The Sumerian cuneiform script had on the order of 1,000 distinct signs (or about 1,500 if variants are included). This number was reduced to about 600 by the 24th century B.C.E. and the beginning of Akkadian records. Not all Sumerian signs are used in Akkadian texts, and not all Akkadian signs are used in Hittite.
Falkenstein (1936) lists 939 signs used in the earliest period (late Uruk, 34th to 31st centuries). With an emphasis on Sumerian forms, Deimel (1922) lists 870 signs used in the Early Dynastic II period (28th century, "LAK") and for the Early Dynastic IIIa period (26th century, "ŠL"). Rosengarten (1967) lists 468 signs used in Sumerian (pre-Sargonian). Lagash and Mittermayer ("aBZL", 2006) list 480 Sumerian forms, written in Isin-Larsa and Old Babylonian times. Regarding Akkadian forms, the standard handbook for many years was Borger ("ABZ", 1981) with 598 signs used in Assyrian/Babylonian writing, recently superseded by Borger ("MesZL", 2004) with an expansion to 907 signs, an extension of their Sumerian readings and a new numbering scheme.
Signs used in Hittite cuneiform are listed by Forrer (1922), Friedrich (1960) and the HZL (Rüster and Neu 1989). The HZL lists a total of 375 signs, many with variants (for example, 12 variants are given for number 123 EGIR).
The Sumerians used a numerical system based on 1, 10 and 60. The way of writing a number like 70 would be the sign for 60 and the sign for 10 right after. This way of counting is still used today for measuring time as 60 seconds per minute and 60 minutes per hour.
As of version 8.0, the following ranges are assigned to the Sumero-Akkadian Cuneiform script in the Unicode Standard:
- U+12000–U+123FF (922 assigned characters) "Cuneiform"
- U+12400–U+1247F (116 assigned characters) "Cuneiform Numbers and Punctuation"
- U+12480–U+1254F (196 assigned characters) "Early Dynastic Cuneiform"
The final proposal for Unicode encoding of the script was submitted by two cuneiform scholars working with an experienced Unicode proposal writer in June 2004. The base character inventory is derived from the list of Ur III signs compiled by the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative of UCLA based on the inventories of Miguel Civil, Rykle Borger (2003), and Robert Englund. Rather than opting for a direct ordering by glyph shape and complexity, according to the numbering of an existing catalog, the Unicode order of glyphs was based on the Latin alphabetic order of their "last" Sumerian transliteration as a practical approximation.
List of major Cuneiform tablet discoveries
|Location||Number of tablets||Initial discovery||Language|
|Library of Ashurbanipal||20,000–24,000||1849||Akkadian|
|Sippar||Tens of thousands||1880||Neo-Babylonian|
|Ebla tablets||c.5,000||1974||Sumerian and Eblaite|