Cuneiform

What is Cuneiform?

Cuneiform(kew-nee-i-form or kew-ni-form)is one of the first forms of literature, and was used in Mesopotamia. Cuneiform was used mainly for trade, and developed at around 3000BC. Originally, cuneiform was documented on vertical columns of pictographs carved into clay with a sharpened reed, but this lacked the definitive wedge-shape from the later cuneiform. Cuneiform was mainly practiced on clay tablets, though sometimes papyrus paper was used.

Who knew it?

Not everyone in Mesopotamia learned cuneiform, but scribes did. Scribes were people who used their writing skills for a livelihood. They were usually male, also, all males from the wealthier families knew cuneiform, despite the fact that they may not become scribes. Also, due to the fairly complex system of cuneiform, many simplified forms were created.

What was it for?

Cuneiform was actually created for trade. The first well-known piece of literature created with cuneiform is "The Epic of Gilgamesh," a tale about a king who is part human, and part god. The original copy consisted of 12 clay tablets, (SPOILER)telling Gilgamesh's quest for a legacy, power, and immortality, ultimately leading him to his demise. The story depicts Gilgamesh as cold and harsh, but after befriending a man who saved his life, ruled over fairly.

What did Cuneiform look like?

Cuneiform began as simple shapes, and developed into sharp, defined lines(as seen below). The cuneiform symbols were drawn with a wedge-shaped reed, called a stylus. They changed cuneiform from pictures to more abstract shapes because it is far more time consuming to draw fairly accurate pictographs than wedge-tipped lines, especially with a stylus, so it was modified. Cuneiform originally had 1500 "words," which were narrowed down over the years to around 600.
This shows the sign for "head." 1 shows what the sign was like at around 3000BCE. 7 is the last sign, at less than 1000BCE.
This shows the sign for "head." 1 shows what the sign was like at around 3000BCE. 7 is the last sign, at less than 1000BCE.

A fragment of a cuneiform tablet.
A fragment of a cuneiform tablet.
An extract from the Cyrus Cylinder.
An extract from the Cyrus Cylinder.



A letter from a high priestess to a king, informing his son's death.
A letter from a high priestess to a king, informing his son's death.

Cuneiform is a very complicated writing, and was eventually replaced with alphabetic writing. A college student recreated one of the tablets in the Epic of Gilgamesh. You can see for yourself how complex it is in the video below:

It took the person here 5 hours to recreate that single tablet. There were, as previously stated, 12 tablets found, so one could imagine how much time would be spent on the whole Epic of Gilgamesh.

Critical Thinking


Before cuneiform, Mesopotamians could not sell or keep track of things efficiently. Cuneiform greatly improved a trader's life, and allowed them to be sure what they have left, so they do not go short on a deal. Cuneiform is a form of written language, like alphabetic languages. English is widely used nowadays, like cuneiform was popular around 3000BCE. It actually took about 3000 years for it to completely dissipate from use, replaced by Latin, an alphabetic language. After an even longer time, English came in, and basically spread everywhere. Personally, I think cuneiform was one of the greatest milestones in time, and helped a little bit in the creation of everything.

Bibliography:

Main Cuneiform Info:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuneiform
Scribes:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scribe

Video:
http://www.youtube.com/