How Cuneiform “Works”

In the very early years of Mesopotamian life, there was a token exchange system. Tokens (often small clay cones) would be given in receipt for goods or services.  This system was in use at least as early as 3500 B.C.E., during the Neolithic period.

The token system evolved into a use of “bullae” or hollow clay balls used for inserting the tokens.  Cylinder seals made from stone were used as early as this period. An impression would be carved into a stone and it would be rolled over the clay of the balls, making an impression that would stand for its user’s signature.

By 3300 B.C.E., the tokens were fully enclosed in the bullae, and the bullae would be stamped with information about the enclosed tokens.  Early on, this information was simple and usually only showed the numbers of the objects inside. As this technology evolved, the information became more detailed and began to show pictures of objects being traded or of the tokens themselves.  These symbols are called pictographs: they would symbolize a donkey, for example, or food.

These pictographic signs were gradually standardized into about 600 symbols. They are the basis for later evolution of cuneiform script. By 3000 B.C.E., scholars believe that the signs that stood for objects or ideas actually also signified the sound of the object: in this way, speech became connected to what was written. Initially this was used only for personal names, but after a few hundred years, writing evolved into full expression of the spoken word.

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Evolution of Cuneiform Script

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The first language of the cuneiform script was, naturally, Sumerian. The Sumerian language is related to no other language, living or dead (which makes the task of the Sumeriologists working on the Sumerian Dictionary project at the University of Pennsylvania extraordinarily difficult).

The people who rose to power in Mesopotamia after the Sumerians were the Akkadians, named for their city-state of Akkad. Their language was different from Sumerian. Akkadian was the earliest written Semitic language. There were two predominant dialects of Akkadian: Assyrian in the north and Babylonian in the south.

Sumerian was eventually replaced by Akkadian after the two languages coexisted on tablets for many years. Spoken Sumerian died out around 1800 B.C.E. Yet the language continued to exist in archaic written language, understood and read by scholars.

As a script, cuneiform was adapted by a number of groups in the Near East: the Hittites, Elamites, Eblaites (from the ancient city of Ebla), and Hurrians. Cuneiform was a script used for at least twelve different languages over a 3000-year period. Eventually, cuneiform script was supplanted by alphabetic scripts.

The last extant clay tablet written in Sumerian is dated 75 C.E. (by that time, Sumerian was a very, very old language that hadn’t been spoken for over 1800 years).

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Cylinder Seal

Late Uruk/Jamdat Nasr Period (3500-2900 B.C.E.)

Marble cylinder seal and impression

Similar to “Goats Before a Shrine” Seal no. 23 in the Morgan Collection.

FLP cylinder seal

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Proto-Elamite Period

Other systems of writing emerged at the same time as the writing of the Sumerians, but were short-lived. Most notable is the writing system called Proto-Elamite, which surfaced during the Jemdat-Nasr period in the area called Susa in southwestern Iran.  Susa was the capital of the Elamite people. The Lewis Collection has a cylinder seal that has been identified as belonging to that period.

The Proto-Elamite period was roughly from 3200 to 2700 B.C.E. The Elamite writing system is largely undeciphered and might bear some relation to the precursor of Sumerian cuneiform (Proto-Cuneiform).

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Proto-Elamite Tablet

Louvre, Paris

Sb 3047

This is an example of the Proto-Elamite script. The Free Library does not have any Proto-Elamite tablets, but does have a Proto-Elamite cylinder seal.

© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

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Cylinder seal

Proto-Elamite period (c. 3000 B.C.E.)

The animals pictured on this seal and the seal itself have been dated to the Proto-Elamite period of Iran. The incriptions were added at a later time, most likely in the Akkadian period (2340-2154 B.C.E.).

FLP cylinder seal

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