Monday, May 18, 2009


I have started reading another "assigned" book called, The Bible and the Ancient Near East by Cyrus H. Gordon and Gary A. Rendsburg. It's interesting so far; however, it has referred to cuneiform a couple of times, and since I know very little about it, I decided to do a short study on it. Here's what I found out:

The word cuneiform comes from two Latin words: cuneus, which means "edge," and forma, which means "shape." It was a picture writing invented by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia over 5000 years ago and was the world's first written language. Cuneiform is similar to but more abstract than Egyptian hieroglyphics. The last known cuneiform inscription was written in 75 AD.

Basic History of Cuneiform

The first cuneiform was drawn in vertical columns on wet clay tablets with a pen made from a sharpened reed. It was formed by laying the length of the reed along the wet clay and moving the end nearest the hand from one side to another. Early on, individual words were merely crude pictures of the object being named. But these pictures were difficult to produce on fresh clay. Two developments made the process quicker and easier---people began to write in horizontal rows, and a new type of pen was used which was pushed into the clay. This produced the more abstract series of wedges and hooks that represented entire words. These word symbols are called ideograms, which means "concept writing."

The clay tablets were routinely recycled; however, if permanence was called for, they were dried or baked hard in a kiln. In fact, many of the tablets found by archaeologists were preserved because they were baked when attacking armies burned the building in which they were kept.

Cuneiform and the Bible World

The main cuneiform literature of the Bible World is Akkadian*. It is sometimes called Babylonian or Assyrian after the two main dialects of the language.

Centuries after cuneiform was invented, it was handed down to the Semitic people when they conquered Mesopotamia. It eventually developed into a syllabic alphabet under the Semites (Assyrians and Babylonians). However, they spoke an entirely different language. In fact, it was as different from Sumerian as English is different from Japanese. In order to adapt this foreign writing to a Semitic language, the Akkadians converted it in part to a syllabic writing system---individual signs represented entire syllables. In addition to this, some of their cuneiform symbols were picture words (ideograms) that represented an entire word. So, the Hebrew people then had a very polished medium for giving their distinctive message to the world.

This complicated writing system dominated Mesopotamia until the century before the birth of Christ. The Persians, who by 486 BC controlled all of Mesopotamia, greatly simplified cuneiform until it represented something closer to an alphabet.

Cuneiform Lost and Found

Knowledge of cuneiform was lost until AD 1835. It was then that Henry Rawlinson, an English army officer, found some inscriptions on a cliff at Behistun in Persia. Carved in the reign of King Darius of Persia (522-486 BC), they were of identical texts in three languages: Old Persian, Babylonian and Elamite. After translating the Persian, Rawlinson began to decipher the others. And by 1851 he could read 200 Babylonian signs.

If you would like to see what your name looks like in cuneiform, click here.

*The Akkadians were Semites, meaning they spoke a language taken from a family of languages called Semitic languages (the word "Semite" is taken from the Hebrew Scriptures---Shem was a son of Noah and the nations descended from Shem are the Semites). These languages include Hebrew, Arabic, Assyrian, and Babylonian. When Sumerian power and civilization ended around 2000 BC, the area came under the exclusive control of Semitic peoples for centuries.

No comments:

Post a Comment