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Ancient Mesopotamia

First Writing System

by Peter Kessler, 6 January 2008

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.

First use

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. Long-range trading networks were being solidified at the same time, reaching up into Anatolia and westwards to Syria and the Levant.

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).

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, from this, an entire pictographic script was developed.

In this early Sumerian script, a stylised drawing of a human head meant 'head', while two wavy lines meant 'water'.

Cylinder seal from Uruk 3300 BC

An example of a Sumerian cylinder seal from the earliest pictorial script phase (3300 BC) (click or tap on image to read more on a separate page)


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 impressions.

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.

Pictographic stone tablet from Uruk

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. The fire did the same job as a kiln, preserving the tablets for thousands of years.

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 which could only manage to construct around two thousand 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.

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 sounds which formed the initial basis for those 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 their respective spoken languages.

Literary compositions are known from this period and, following 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 magic spells.

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 succeeding generations.

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 five thousand years.

Sumerian re-used script

Inscriptions were rediscovered, maintaining an understanding of older forms of cuneiform (click or tap on image to read more on a separate page)


Main Sources

Ancient Scripts - Website

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 Archaeology

The British Museum

Time Life Books - The Age of the God-Kings



Images and text copyright © P L Kessler, including exhibits at the British Museum. An original feature for the History Files.