The first revolution in human communications occurred when the
Sumerians developed a written
language. In this they were followed shortly after by the Egyptians.
This step had a fantastic impact on life in Mesopotamia. With
this invention, people
could record their deeds and transactions, give lasting form to
their thoughts and visions, and preserve their laws and
commandments. Writing proved to be a huge tool in aiding progress
and it vastly hastened the growth and spread of civilisation.
The Sumerian writing system went through several stages of
development from its beginnings, and some of them were roughly paralleled by equivalent
developments in Egypt.
The first stage in Sumerian writing was pictorial, with simple
pictures representing concrete objects and
actions. These symbols, or pictograms, were initially used as
business accounts from the late fourth millennium onwards in Mesopotamia.
The use of clay counters, or tokens, to help record transactions was
already common by then, having been introduced as early as 8000 BC
for basic record keeping.
The next stage was keeping those tokens inside a sealed clay
'envelope' which was marked with symbols to indicate what was
inside. The first actual texts consisted of numbers only, but the next
development was in numbers with representations of domesticated
animals, which probably functioned as receipts. Records of the most
primitive kind come from Uruk and Ninevah in Mesopotamia, Habuba
Kabira and Tell Brak in Syria, and Susa, Choga Mish, and Godin Tepe
in Elam (modern Iran).
An example of a Sumerian cylinder seal from the earliest pictorial script
phase at about 3300 BC
The most important subsequent development took place in
Mesopotamia. Marks were made by inscribing wet cakes of clay
(tablets) in vertical columns with the end of a hollow reed stem, or stylus, which
produced wedge-shaped marks. Gradually a whole pictographic script
In this early Sumerian script, a stylised drawing of a human head meant
"head", while two wavy lines meant "water".
A detailed collection of features and king lists covering all of this
Then two developments occurred which made the process quicker
and easier: scribes began to write from left to right in horizontal
rows, rotating all the existing pictograms anti-clockwise by ninety
degrees in the process. They also used a new type of stylus which
was pushed deeper into the clay, producing wedge-shaped, 'cuneiform'
symbols (from the Latin cuneus, or 'wedge'). By
adjusting the relative position of the tablet to the stylus, the
writer could use a single tool to make a wider variety of
The previously limited system was extended by making
certain pictures stand for less easily communicated words. The
Sumerian sign for "mouth" also came to mean "speak".
Cuneiform tablets could be fired in kilns to provide a permanent
record as, once dry, they became very hard and brittle. Or they
could be recycled if permanence was not called for.
Casts of both faces of a pictographic stone tablet from 3300-3100
BC, not fully understood, show a human head, a sledge, a foot, a
hand, and the numbers 1, 2, and 3
Other than those
which were stored in official state archives, many of the tablets
which have been discovered by archaeologists were preserved because
they were baked when attacking armies burned the building in which
they were kept.
Although the language of these early texts is not known for sure
it is likely that those from Susa are an early form of Elamite while
those from the Mesopotamian sites are early Sumerian.
Some of the oldest known full texts come from the temple
precincts of Uruk and date to about 3400-3100 BC. Some symbols are
recognisable, but the texts are poorly understood and appear closer
to aides memoire than anything else, limited by characters for about
2000 words. In short, the earliest texts are of little help for
reconstructing political events of the crucial 3500 to 2900 BC
period of state formation in Sumer.
The second phase of script from about 2800 BC
In a short
time, the system was expanded again when scribes began to combine symbols. A
literate Sumerian from around 2800 BC knew that the linked signs for
"mouth" and "food" meant the verb "to eat".
Ascent and decline
The greatest change occurred when to a very large extent the picture symbols came to stand for sounds. Generally
these were the sounds that began
the words for which the pictures had previously stood and lighter
brush strokes could be used to indicate case and tense. The transformation
was far from complete; many Sumerian characters (and Egyptian
hieroglyphs) retained their picture meanings. But by about 2400 BC,
both writing systems represented most of the sounds of the spoken
Phase three script, year four of the reign of Uruinimgina of
Lagash (2348 BC), describing barley rations distribution to
workmen and their families in Girsu
Literary compositions are known from this period, and after the
accession of the Akkadian king, Sargon, and his conquest of Sumer, the Akkadian language began to be
written in cuneiform too. Sumerian has no relations, but Akkadian is
Semitic, like Aramaic, Hebrew and Arabic. Assyrian and Babylonian
are dialects of Akkadian, and over the next two thousand years they
were used to record all manner of things in the cuneiform script,
from royal chronicles to private letters, lawsuits, poetry and even
After the conquest of Mesopotamia by Alexander the
Great cuneiform rapidly lost popularity in favour of the much more
convenient Aramaic alphabetic script which survives to today.
The last cuneiform dates to AD 75.
However, even the most mundane of the applications for which
cuneiform was used testifies to the huge imaginative leap made when people found out
how to make
their perishable thoughts permanent, and carry their message to
Many cultures would evolve their own scripts over the following centuries, but the next revolution in communications,
the invention of printing, would not take place for almost 5,000
Inscriptions were rediscovered,
maintaining an understanding of older forms of cuneiform
Ancient Scripts - Web Site
Diringer, D - Writing
Diringer, D - The Alphabet: A Key to the
History of Mankind
Gelb, I J - A Study of Writing
Matthiae, P - Ebla: An Empire Rediscovered
Scarre, Chris (Ed) - Past Worlds - The Times
Atlas of Archaeology
Shupp, Mike - Some Problems for Mesopotamian
The British Museum
Time Life Books - The Age of the God-Kings
One of a small number of tablets written on gypsum plaster,
before clay became the standard material, this from Uruk about