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Type Logographic and syllabic
Spoken languages Akkadian, Eblaite, Elamite, Hattic, Hittite, Hurrian, Luwian, Sumerian, Urartian
Time period ca. 34th century BC to 1st century AD
Parent systems
  • Cuneiform
Child systems Old Persian, Ugaritic
Unicode range U+12000 to U+1236E (Sumero-Akkadian Cuneiform)
U+12400 to U+12473 (Numbers)
ISO 15924 Xsux
Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode.

Cuneiform script (pronounced /kjuːˈniː.ɨfɔrm/ koo-NEE-i-form or /ˈkjuːnɨfɔrm/ KEW-ni-form) is the earliest known writing system in the world.[1] Cuneiform writing emerged in the Sumerian civilization of southern Iraq around the 34th century BC[2] during the middle Uruk period, beginning as a pictographic system of writing. Cuneiform was the most widespread and historically significant writing system in the Ancient Near East.[3]

The development of cuneiform writing was an evolution of an earlier Mesopotamian accounting system that had been used for five thousand years before.[4] Clay tokens had been used for some form of record-keeping in Mesopotamia since as early as 8,000 BC.[4][5] Cuneiform documents were written on clay tablets, by means of a reed stylus. The impressions left by the stylus were wedge shaped, thus giving rise to the name cuneiform ("wedge shaped," from the Latin cuneus, meaning "wedge").

Cuneiform script underwent considerable changes over a period spanning three millennia. In the course of the 3rd millennium BC the script became successively more cursive, and the pictographs developed into conventionalized linear drawings, the number of characters in use also refined from around 1,000 unique characters in the Early Bronze Age to around 400 characters in Late Bronze Age (Hittite cuneiform).

The original Sumerian script was adapted for the writing of the Akkadian, Eblaite, Elamite, Hittite, Luwian, Hattic, Hurrian, and Urartian languages, and it inspired the Ugaritic and Old Persian alphabets. Cuneiform writing was gradually replaced by the Aramaic alphabet during the Neo-Assyrian Empire, and by the second century of the Common Era, the script had become extinct.



The cuneiform writing system was in use for more than 30 centuries, as the world's first system through several stages of evolution, from the 34th century BC down to the 1st century AD.[6] It was completely replaced by alphabetic writing in the course of the Roman era and has left behind no descendant systems in continued use. For this reason, it had to be deciphered from scratch in 19th century Assyriology. Successful completion of decipherment is dated to 1857.

The system consists of a combination of logophonetic, consonantal alphabetic and syllabic signs.[7]

The cuneiform script underwent considerable changes over a period of more than two millennia. The image below shows the development of the sign SAG "head" (Borger nr. 184, U+12295 𒊕).

Evolution of the cuneiform sign SAG "head", 3000–1000 BC.

Stage 1 shows the pictogram as it was drawn around 3000 BC. Stage 2 shows the rotated pictogram as written around 2800 BC. Stage 3 shows the abstracted glyph in archaic monumental inscriptions, from ca. 2600 BC, and stage 4 is the sign as written in clay, contemporary to stage 3. Stage 5 represents the late 3rd millennium, and stage 6 represents Old Assyrian ductus of the early 2nd millennium, as adopted into Hittite. Stage 7 is the simplified sign as written by Assyrian scribes in the early 1st millennium, and until the script's extinction.

Proto-literate period

The cuneiform script proper emerges out of pictographic proto-writing in the later 4th millennium. Mesopotamia's "proto-literate" period spans the 35th to 32nd centuries. The first documents unequivocally written in the Sumerian language date to the 31st century, found at Jemdet Nasr.

The Sumerians of the Uruk period used clay tokens to count their agricultural and manufactured foods. They would place the tokens in hollow clay containers and mark the lids with the number of tokens inside. They impressed a picture of the token inside as many times as the amount of tokens. Later they realized that they did not have to use both the tokens and the inscription on the containers, so they started using only the inscription. For example, to avoid making 100 pictures to represent 100 tokens they started making symbols for 100 tokens. Thus writing began.[7]

Originally, pictograms were either drawn on clay tablets in vertical columns with a pen made from a sharpened reed stylus, or incised in stone. This early style lacked the characteristic wedge shape of the strokes.

Certain signs to indicate names of gods, countries, cities, vessels, birds, trees, etc., are known as determinants, and were the Sumerian signs of the terms in question, added as a guide for the reader. Proper names continued to be usually written in purely "logographic" fashion.

From about 2900 BC, many pictographs began to lose their original function, and a given sign could have various meanings depending on context. The sign inventory was reduced from some 1,500 signs to some 600 signs, and writing became increasingly phonological. Determinative signs were re-introduced to avoid ambiguity. This process is chronologically parallel to, and possibly not independent of,[citation needed] the development of Egyptian hieroglyphic orthography.

Archaic cuneiform

Sumerian inscription in monumental archaic style, ca. 26th century BC
Letter sent by the high-priest Lu'enna to the king of Lagash (maybe Urukagina), informing him of his son's death in combat, c. 2400 BC, found in Telloh (ancient Ngirsu).

In the mid-3rd millennium BC, writing direction was changed to left to right in horizontal rows (rotating all of the pictograms 90° counter-clockwise in the process), and a new wedge-tipped stylus was used which was pushed into the clay, producing wedge-shaped ("cuneiform") signs; these two developments made writing quicker and easier. By adjusting the relative position of the tablet to the stylus, the writer could use a single tool to make a variety of impressions.

Cuneiform tablets could be fired in kilns to provide a permanent record, or they could be recycled if permanence was not needed. Many of the clay tablets found by archaeologists were preserved because they were fired when attacking armies burned the building in which they were kept.

The script was also widely used on commemorative stelae and carved reliefs to record the achievements of the ruler in whose honour the monument had been erected.

The spoken language consisted of many similar sounds and in the beginning the words "Life" [ti] and "Arrow" [til] were described in writing by the same symbol. After the Semites conquered Southern Mesopotamia, most likely to make things clearer in writing, some signs gradually changed from being pictograms to syllabograms. In that way the sign for the word "Arrow" would become the sign for the sound "ti". If a sound would represent many different words the words would all have different signs, for instance the syllable "gu" had fourteen different symbols. When the words had similar meaning but very different sounds they were written with the same symbol. For instance "tooth" [zu], "mouth" [ka] and "voice" [gu] were all written with the symbol for "voice". To be more accurate they started adding to signs or combine two signs to define the meaning. They used either geometrical patterns or another cuneiform sign.[7]

As time went by the cuneiform got very complex and the difference between a pictogram and syllabogram were getting vague. Several symbols were too overloaded to be clear. Therefore, symbols were begun to put together to define the writing in a better way and to give a hint on the meaning of the symbol (word). The word "Raven" [UGA] had the same logogram as the words "soap" [NAGA] "name of a city" [ERESH] and "the patron goddess of Eresh" [NISABA]. Two phonetic compliments were used to define the word [u] in front of the symbol and [gu] behind. To be sure there would not be any complications they added the symbol for "bird" [MUSHEN] behind the three symbols. The written part of the Sumerian language was used as a learned written language until the 1st century AD. The spoken language died out around the 18th century BC.[7]

Akkadian cuneiform

A list of Sumerian deities, ca. 2400 BC

The archaic cuneiform script was adopted by the Akkadians from ca. 2500 BC, and by 2000 BC had evolved into Old Assyrian cuneiform, with many modifications to Sumerian orthography. The Semitic equivalents for many signs became distorted or abbreviated to form new "phonetic" values, because the syllabic nature of the script as refined by the Sumerians was unintuitive to Semitic speakers.

At this stage, the former pictograms were reduced to a high level of abstraction, and were composed of only five basic wedge shapes: horizontal, vertical, two diagonals and the Winkelhaken impressed vertically by the tip of the stylus. The signs exemplary of these basic wedges are

  • AŠ (B001, U+12038) 𒀸: horizontal;
  • DIŠ (B748, U+12079) 𒁹: vertical;
  • GE23, DIŠ tenû (B575, U+12039) 𒀹: downward diagonal;
  • GE22 (B647, U+1203A) 𒀺: upward diagonal;
  • U (B661, U+1230B) 𒌋: the Winkelhaken.

Except for the Winkelhaken which is tail-less, the length of the wedges' tails could vary as required for sign composition.

Signs tilted by (ca.) 45 degrees are called tenû in Akkadian, thus DIŠ is a vertical wedge and DIŠ tenû a diagonal one. Signs modified with additional wedges are called gunû, and signs crosshatched with additional Winkelhaken are called šešig.

Cuneiform tablet from the Kirkor Minassian collection in the US Library of Congress, ca. 24th century BC.
One of the Amarna letters, 14th century BC.
Neo-Assyrian ligature KAxGUR7 (𒅬); the KA sign (𒅗) was a Sumerian compound marker, and appears frequently in ligatures enclosing other signs. GUR7 is itself a ligature of SÍG.AḪ.ME.U, meaning "to pile up; grain-heap" (Akkadian kamāru; karû).

"Typical" signs have usually in the range of about five to ten wedges, while complex ligatures can consist of twenty or more (although it is not always clear if a ligature should be considered a single sign or two collated but still distinct signs); the ligature KAxGUR7 consists of 31 strokes.

Most later adaptations of Sumerian cuneiform preserved at least some aspects of the Sumerian script. Written Akkadian included phonetic symbols from the Sumerian syllabary, together with logograms that were read as whole words. Many signs in the script were polyvalent, having both a syllabic and logographic meaning. The complexity of the system bears a resemblance to old Japanese, written in a Chinese-derived script, where some of these Sinograms were used as logograms, and others as phonetic characters.

Assyrian cuneiform

This "mixed" method of writing continued through the end of the Babylonian and Assyrian empires, although there were periods when "purism" was in fashion and there was a more marked tendency to spell out the words laboriously, in preference to using signs with a phonetic complement. Yet even in those days, the Babylonian syllabary remained a mixture of logographic and phonemic writing.

Hittite cuneiform is an adaptation of the Old Assyrian cuneiform of ca. 1800 BC to the Hittite language. When the cuneiform script was adapted to writing Hittite, a layer of Akkadian logographic spellings was added to the script, with the result that we no longer know the pronunciations of many Hittite words conventionally written by logograms.

In the Iron Age (ca. 10th to 6th c. BC), Assyrian cuneiform was further simplified. From the 6th century, the Assyrian language was marginalized by Aramaic, written in the Aramaean alphabet, but Neo-Assyrian cuneiform remained in use in literary tradition well into Parthian times ( 250 BC-226 AD ). The last known cuneiform inscription, an astronomical text, was written in 75 AD.[citation needed]

Derived scripts

The complexity of the system prompted the development of a number of simplified versions of the script. Old Persian was written in a subset of simplified cuneiform characters known today as Old Persian cuneiform. It formed a semi-alphabetic syllabary, using far fewer wedge strokes than Assyrian used, together with a handful of logograms for frequently occurring words like "god" and "king." The Ugaritic language was written using the Ugaritic alphabet, a standard Semitic style alphabet (an abjad) written using the cuneiform method.


For centuries, travellers to Persepolis, in modern-day Iran, had noticed carved cuneiform inscriptions and were intrigued.[8] Attempts at deciphering these Old Persian writings date back to Arabic/Persian historians of the medieval Islamic world, though these early attempts at decipherment were largely unsuccessful.[9] The Englishman Sir Thomas Herbert in the 1634 edition of his travel book “A relation of some yeares travaile” reported seeing at Persepolis carved on the wall “a dozen lines of strange characters…consisting of figures, obelisk, triangular, and pyramidal” and thought they resembled Greek. However by the 1664 edition he had guessed, correctly, that they represented not letters or hieroglyphics but words and syllables, and furthermore that they were to be read from left to right. He even reproduced some for his readers.[8] He was also correct in guessing that they were not merely decorative, but were ‘legible and intelligible’ and therefore decipherable. However, his insights never received the credit they perhaps deserved and, like earlier Arabic/Persian insights, he is rarely mentioned in standard histories of the decipherment of cuneiform.

Understanding of cuneiform therefore had to wait until Carsten Niebuhr brought the first reasonably complete and accurate copies of the inscriptions at Persepolis to Europe.[8] Bishop Frederic Munter of Copenhagen discovered that the words in the Persian inscriptions were divided from one another by an oblique wedge and that the monuments must belong to the age of Cyrus and his successors. One word, which occurs without any variation towards the beginning of each inscription, he correctly inferred to signify "king".[8] By 1802 Georg Friedrich Grotefend had determined that two king's names mentioned were Darius and Xerxes, and had been able to assign alphabetic values to the cuneiform characters which composed the two names.[10][nb 1][8]

In 1836, the eminent French scholar, Eugène Burnouf discovered that the first of the inscriptions published by Niebuhr contained a list of the satrapies of Darius. With this clue in his hand, he identified and published an alphabet of thirty letters, most of which he had correctly deciphered.[8][11][12]

A month earlier, Burnouf's friend and pupil, Professor Christian Lassen of Bonn, had also published a work on "The Old Persian Cuneiform Inscriptions of Persepolis".[12][13] He and Burnouf had been in frequent correspondence, and his claim to have independently detected the names of the satrapies, and thereby to have fixed the values of the Persian characters, was in consequence fiercely attacked. According to Sayce, whatever his obligations to Burnouf may have been, Lassen's "contributions to the decipherment of the inscriptions were numerous and important. He succeeded in fixing the true values of nearly all the letters in the Persian alphabet, in translating the texts, and in proving that the language of them was not Zend, but stood to both Zend and Sanskrit in the relation of a sister."[8]

Meanwhile, in 1835 Henry Rawlinson, a British East India Company army officer, visited the Behistun Inscriptions in Persia. Carved in the reign of King Darius of Persia (522–486 BC), they consisted of identical texts in the three official languages of the empire: Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite. The Behistun inscription was to the decipherment of cuneiform what the Rosetta Stone was to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs.[14]

Rawlinson correctly deduced that the Old Persian was a phonetic script and he successfully deciphered it. In 1837 he finished his copy of the Behistun inscription, and sent a translation of its opening paragraphs to the Royal Asiatic Society. Before, however, his Paper could be published, the works of Lassen and Burnouf reached him, necessitating a revision of his paper and the postponement of its publication. Then came other causes of delay. In 1847 the first part of the Rawlinson's Memoir was published; the second part did not appear till 1849.[15][nb 2] The task of deciphering the Persian cuneiform texts was virtually accomplished.[8]

After translating the Persian, Rawlinson and, working independently of him, the Irish Assyriologist Edward Hincks, began to decipher the others. (The actual techniques used to decipher the Akkadian language have never been fully published; Hincks described how he sought the proper names already legible in the deciphered Persian while Rawlinson never said anything at all, leading some to speculate that he was secretly copying Hincks.[16]) They were greatly helped by Paul Émile Botta's discovery of the city of Nineveh in 1842. Among the treasures uncovered by Botta were the remains of the great library of Assurbanipal, a royal archive containing tens of thousands of baked clay tablets covered with cuneiform inscriptions.

By 1851, Hincks and Rawlinson could read 200 Babylonian signs. They were soon joined by two other decipherers: young German-born scholar Julius Oppert, and versatile British Orientalist William Henry Fox Talbot. In 1857 the four men met in London and took part in a famous experiment to test the accuracy of their decipherments. Edwin Norris, the secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society, gave each of them a copy of a recently discovered inscription from the reign of the Assyrian emperor Tiglath-Pileser I. A jury of experts was empanelled to examine the resulting translations and assess their accuracy. In all essential points the translations produced by the four scholars were found to be in close agreement with one another. There were of course some slight discrepancies. The inexperienced Talbot had made a number of mistakes, and Oppert's translation contained a few doubtful passages which the jury politely ascribed to his unfamiliarity with the English language. But Hincks' and Rawlinson's versions corresponded remarkably closely in many respects. The jury declared itself satisfied, and the decipherment of Akkadian cuneiform was adjudged a fait accompli.

In the early days of cuneiform decipherment, the reading of proper names presented the greatest difficulties. However, there is now a better understanding of the principles behind the formation and the pronunciation of the thousands of names found in historical records, business documents, votive inscriptions and literary productions. The primary challenge was posed by the characteristic use of old Sumerian non-phonetic logograms in other languages that had different pronunciations for the same symbols. Until the exact phonetic reading of many names was determined through parallel passages or explanatory lists, scholars remained in doubt, or had recourse to conjectural or provisional readings. Fortunately, in many cases, there are variant readings, the same name being written phonetically (in whole or in part) in one instance, and logographically in another.


Extract from the Cyrus Cylinder (lines 15–21), giving the genealogy of Cyrus the Great and an account of his capture of Babylon in 539 BC.

Cuneiform has a specific format for transliteration. Because of the script's polyvalence, transliteration is not only lossless, but may actually contain more information than the original document. For example, the sign DINGIR in a Hittite text may represent either the Hittite syllable an or may be part of an Akkadian phrase, representing the syllable il, it may be a Sumerogram, representing the original Sumerian meaning, 'god' or the determinative for a deity. In transliteration, a different rendition of the same glyph is chosen depending on its role in the present context.

Therefore, a text containing DINGIR and MU in succession could be construed to represent the words "ana", "ila", god + "a" (the accusative ending), god + water, or a divine name "A" or Water. Someone transcribing the signs would make the decision how the signs should be read and assemble the signs as "ana", "ila", "Ila" ('god"+accusative case), etc. A transliteration of these signs, however, would separate the signs with dashes "il-a", "an-a", "DINGIR-a" or "Da". This is still easier to read than the original cuneiform, but now the reader is able to trace the sounds back to the original signs and determine if the correct decision was made on how to read them.

There are differing conventions for transliterating Sumerian, Akkadian (Babylonian) and Hittite (and Luwian) cuneiform texts. One convention that sees wide use across the different fields is the use of acute and grave accents as an abbreviation for homophone disambiguation. Thus, u is equivalent to u1, the first glyph expressing phonetic u. An acute accent, ú, is equivalent to the second, u2, and a grave accent ù to the third, u3 glyph in the series (while the sequence of numbering is conventional but essentially arbitrary and subject to the history of decipherment). In Sumerian transliteration, a multiplication sign 'x' is used to indicate ligatures. As shown above, signs as such are represented in capital letters, while the specific reading selected in the transliteration is represented in small letters. Thus, capital letters can be used to indicate a so-called Diri compound - a sign sequence that has, in combination, a reading different from the sum of the individual constituent signs (for example, the compound IGI.A - "water" + "eye" - has the reading imhur, meaning "foam"). In a Diri compound, the individual signs are separated with dots in transliteration. Capital letters may also be used to indicate a Sumerogram (for example, KUG.BABBAR - Sumerian for "silver" - being used with the intended Akkadian reading kaspum, "silver"), an Akkadogram, or simply a sign sequence of whose reading the editor is uncertain. Naturally, the "real" reading, if it is clear, will be presented in small letters in the transliteration: IGI.A will be rendered as imhur4.

Since the Sumerian language has only been widely known and studied by scholars for approximately a century, changes in the accepted reading of Sumerian names have occurred from time to time. Thus the name of a king of Ur, read Ur-Bau at one time, was later read as Ur-Engur, and is now read as Ur-Nammu or Ur-Namma; for Lugal-zaggisi, a king of Uruk, some scholars continued to read Ungal-zaggisi; and so forth. Also, with some names of the older period, there was often uncertainty whether their bearers were Sumerians or Semites. If the former, then their names could be assumed to be read as Sumerian, while, if they were Semites, the signs for writing their names were probably to be read according to their Semitic equivalents, though occasionally Semites might be encountered bearing genuine Sumerian names. There was also doubt whether the signs composing a Semite's name represented a phonetic reading or a logographic compound. Thus, e.g. when inscriptions of a Semitic ruler of Kish, whose name was written Uru-mu-ush, were first deciphered, that name was first taken to be logographic because uru mu-ush could be read as "he founded a city" in Sumerian, and scholars accordingly retranslated it back to the original Semitic as Alu-usharshid. It was later recognized that the URU sign can also be read as and that the name is that of the Akkadian king Rimush.


The tables below show signs used for simple syllables of the form CV or VC. As used for the Sumerian language, the cuneiform script was in principle capable of distinguishing 14 consonants, transliterated as

b, d, g, ḫ, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, š, t, z

as well as four vowel qualities, a, e, i, u. The Akkadian language needed to distinguish its emphatic series, q, ṣ, ṭ, adopting various "superfluous" Sumerian signs for the purpose (e.g. qe=KIN, qu=KUM, qi=KIN, ṣa=ZA, ṣe=ZÍ, ṭur=DUR etc.) Hittite as it adopted the Akkadian cuneiform further introduced signs for the glide w, e.g. wa=we=PIN, wi5=GEŠTIN) as well as a ligature I.A for ya.

-a -e -i -u
a 𒀀,

á 𒀉

e 𒂊,

é 𒂍

i 𒄿,

í=IÁ 𒐊

u 𒌋,

ú 𒌑

b- ba 𒁀,

=PA 𒉺,
=EŠ 𒂠

be=BAD 𒁁,

=BI 𒁉,
=NI 𒉌

bi 𒁉,

=NE 𒉈,
=PI 𒉿

bu 𒁍,

=PÙ 𒅤

d- da 𒁕,

=TA 𒋫

de=DI 𒁲,

=NE 𒉈

di 𒁲,

=TÍ 𒄭

du 𒁺,

=TU 𒌅,
=GAG 𒆕,
du4=TUM 𒌈

g- ga 𒂵,


ge=GI 𒄀,

=KID 𒆤,
=DIŠ 𒁹

gi 𒄀,

=KID 𒆤,
=DIŠ 𒁹,
gi4 𒄄,
gi5=KI 𒆠

gu 𒄖,

=KA 𒅗,
gu4 𒄞,
gu5=KU 𒆪,
gu6=NAG 𒅘,
gu7 𒅥

ḫ- ḫa 𒄩,

ḫá=ḪI.A 𒄭𒀀,
ḫà=U 𒌋,
ḫa4=ḪI 𒄭

ḫe=ḪI 𒄭,

ḫé=GAN 𒃶

ḫi 𒄭,

ḫí=GAN 𒃶

ḫu 𒄷
k- ka 𒅗,

=GA 𒂵

ke=KI 𒆠,

=GI 𒄀

ki 𒆠,

=GI 𒄀

ku 𒆪,

=GU7 𒅥,
ku4 𒆭

l- la 𒆷,

=LAL 𒇲,
=NU 𒉡

le=LI 𒇷,

=NI 𒉌

li 𒇷,

=NI 𒉌

lu 𒇻,


m- ma 𒈠,


me 𒈨,

=MI 𒈪,

mi 𒈪,

=ME 𒈨

mu 𒈬,

=SAR 𒊬

n- na 𒈾,

=AG 𒀝,
na4 ("NI.UD") 𒉌𒌓

ne 𒉈,

=NI 𒉌

ni 𒉌,

=IM 𒉎

nu 𒉡,

=NÁ 𒈿

p- pa 𒉺,

=BA 𒐀

pe=PI 𒉿,

=BI 𒁉

pi 𒉿,

=BI 𒁉,
=BAD 𒁁

pu=BU 𒁍,

=TÚL 𒇥,

r- ra 𒊏,

=DU 𒁺

re=RI 𒊑,

=URU 𒌷

ri 𒊑,

=URU 𒌷

ru 𒊒,

=GAG 𒆕,
=AŠ 𒀸

s- sa 𒊓,

=DI 𒁲,
=ZA 𒍝,
sa4 ("ḪU.NÁ") 𒄷𒈾

se=SI 𒋛,

=ZI 𒍣

si 𒋛,

=ZI 𒍣

su 𒋢,

=ZU 𒍪,
=SUD 𒋤,
su4 𒋜

š- ša 𒊭,

šá=NÍG 𒐼,
šà 𒊮

še 𒊺,

šé ,
šè 𒂠

ši=IGI 𒅆,

ší=SI 𒋛

šu 𒋗,

šú 𒋙,
šù=ŠÈ 𒂠,
šu4=U 𒌋

t- ta 𒋫,

=DA 𒁕

te 𒋼,

=TÍ 𒊹

ti 𒋾,

=DIM 𒁴,
ti4=DI 𒁲

tu 𒌅,

=UD 𒌓,
=DU 𒁺

z- za 𒍝,

=NA4 𒉌𒌓

ze=ZI 𒍣,

=ZÌ 𒍢

zi 𒍣,


zu 𒍪,

=KA 𒅗

a- e- i- u-
a 𒀀,

á 𒀉

e 𒂊,

é 𒂍

i 𒄿,

í=IÁ 𒐊

u 𒌋,

ú 𒌑

-b ab 𒀊,

áb 𒀖

eb=IB 𒅁,

éb=TUM 𒌈

ib 𒅁,

íb=TUM 𒌈

ub 𒌒,

úb=ŠÈ 𒂠

-d ad 𒀜,

ád 𒄉

ed𒀉 id𒀉,

íd=A.ENGUR 𒀀𒇉

ud 𒌓,

úd=ÁŠ 𒀾

-g ag 𒀝,

ág 𒉘

eg=IG 𒅅,

ég=E 𒂊

ig 𒅅,

íg=E 𒂊

ug 𒊌
-ḫ aḫ 𒄴,

áḫ=ŠEŠ 𒋀

eḫ=AḪ 𒄴 iḫ=AḪ 𒄴 uḫ=AḪ 𒄴,

úḫ 𒌔

-k ak=AG 𒀝 ek=IG 𒅅 ik=IG 𒅅 uk=UG 𒊌
-l al 𒀠,

ál=ALAM 𒀩

el 𒂖,

él=IL 𒅋

il 𒅋,

íl 𒅍

ul Cuneiform UL.png,

úl=NU 𒉡

-m am 𒄠/𒂔,

ám=ÁG 𒉘

em=IM 𒅎 im 𒅎,

ím=KAŠ4 𒁽

um 𒌝,

úm=UD 𒌓

-n an 𒀭 en 𒂗,

èn=LI 𒇷

in 𒅔,

in4=EN 𒂗,
in5=NIN 𒊩𒌆

un 𒌦,

ún=U 𒌋

-p ap=AB 𒀊 ep=IB ,

ép=TUM 𒌈

ip=IB 𒅁,

íp=TUM 𒌈

up=UB 𒌒,

úp=ŠÈ 𒂠

-r ar 𒅈,

ár=UB 𒌒

er=IR 𒅕 ir 𒅕,

íp=A.IGI 𒀀𒅆

ur 𒌨,

úr 𒌫

-s as=AZ 𒊍 es=GIŠ 𒄑,

és=EŠ 𒂠

is=GIŠ 𒄑,

ís=EŠ 𒂠


ús=UŠ 𒍑


áš 𒀾


éš=ŠÈ 𒂠




úš𒍗=BAD 𒁁

-t at=AD 𒀜,

át=GÍR gunû 𒄉

et𒀉 it𒀉 ut=UD 𒌓,

út=ÁŠ 𒀾

-z az 𒊍 ez=GIŠ 𒄑,

éz=EŠ 𒂠

iz= GIŠ 𒄑,

íz=IŠ 𒅖

uz Cuneiform UZ.png,

úz=UŠ 𒍑,
ùz 𒍚

Sign inventories

Cuneiform writing in Ur, southern Iraq

The Sumerian cuneiform script had of the order of 1,000 unique signs (or about 1,500 if variants are included). This number was reduced to about 600 by the 24th century BC and the beginning of Akkadian records. Not all Sumerian signs are used in Akkadian texts, and not all Akkadian signs are used in Hittite.

Falkenstein (1936) lists 939 signs used in the earliest period (late Uruk, 34th to 31st centuries) With an emphasis on Sumerian forms, Deimel (1922) lists 870 signs used in the Early Dynastic II period (28th century, "LAK") and for the Early Dynastic IIIa period (26th century, "ŠL"). Rosengarten (1967) lists 468 signs used in Sumerian (pre-Sargonian) Lagash and Mittermayer ("aBZL", 2006) list 480 Sumerian forms, written in Isin-Larsa and Old Babylonian times. Regarding Akkadian forms, the standard handbook for many years was Borger ("ABZ", 1981) with 598 signs used in Assyrian/Babylonian writing, recetly superseded by Borger ("MesZL", 2004) with an expansion to 907 signs, an extension of their Sumerian readings and a new numbering scheme.

Signs used in Hittite cuneiform are listed by Forrer (1922), Friedrich (1960) and the HZL (Rüster and Neu 1989). The HZL lists a total of 375 signs, many with variants (for example, 12 variants are given for number 123 EGIR)


The Sumerians used a numerical system based on 1, 10 and 60. The way of writing a number like 70 would be the sign for 60 and the sign for 10 right after. This way of counting is still used today in the form of measuring time. 60 seconds, 60 minutes.[7]


Unicode (as of version 5.0) assigns to the Cuneiform script the following ranges:

U+12000–U+1236E (879 characters) "Sumero-Akkadian Cuneiform"
U+12400–U+12473 (103 characters) "Cuneiform Numbers"

The final proposal for Unicode encoding of the script was submitted by two cuneiform scholars working with an experienced Unicode proposal writer in June 2004.[17] The base character inventory is derived from the list of Ur III signs compiled by the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative of UCLA based on the inventories of Miguel Civil, Rykle Borger (2003), and Robert Englund. Rather than opting for a direct ordering by glyph shape and complexity, according to the numbering of an existing catalogue, the Unicode order of glyphs was based on the Latin alphabetic order of their "last" Sumerian transliteration as a practical approximation.

See also


  1. ^ Although Grotefend's Memoir was presented to the Gottingen Academy on September 4, 1802, the Academy refused to publish it; it was subsequently published in Heeren's work in 1815.
  2. ^ It seems that various parts of Rawlisons' paper formed Vol X of this journal. The final part III comprised chapters IV (Analysis of the Persian Inscriptions of Behistunand) and V (Copies and Translations of the Persian Cuneiform Inscriptions of Persepolis, Hamadan, and Van), pp. 187–349.


  1. ^ Cuneiform is the earliest known form of writing
  2. ^ Watson E. Mills, Roger Aubrey Bullard. Mercer dictionary of the Bible, Edition 2. Mercer University Press, 1990. P.975.
  3. ^ Cuneiform was the most widespread and historically significant writing system in the Ancient Near East.
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^
  6. ^ Adkins 2003, p. 47.
  7. ^ a b c d e Lo 2007.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h Sayce 1908.
  9. ^ El Daly, Okasha (2004), Egyptology: The Missing Millennium : Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings, Routledge, p. 39-40 & 65, ISBN 1844720632 
  10. ^ Heeren 1815.
  11. ^ Burnouf 1836
  12. ^ a b Pritchard 1844, p. 30–31
  13. ^ Lassen.
  14. ^ Adkins 2003.
  15. ^ Rawlinson 1847.
  16. ^ Daniels 1996.
  17. ^


  • Adkins, Lesley, Empires of the Plain: Henry Rawlinson and the Lost Languages of Babylon, New York, St. Martin's Press (2003) ISBN 0-312-33002-2
  • R. Borger, Assyrisch-Babylonische Zeichenliste, 2nd ed., Neukirchen-Vluyn (1981)
  • Borger, Rykle (2004). Dietrich, M. Loretz, O.. ed. Mesopotamisches Zeichenlexikon. Alter Orient und Altes Testament. 305. Münster: Ugarit Verlag. ISBN 3-927120-82-0. 
  • Burnouf, E. (1836). "Mémoire sur deux Inscriptions Cunéiformes trouvées près d'Hamadan et qui font partie des papiers du Dr Schulz", Impr. Roy, Paris.
  • Daniels, Peter; Bright, William (1996). The World's Writing Systems. Oxford University Press. p. 146. ISBN 0-19-507993-0. 
  • A. Deimel (1922) , Liste der archaischen Keilschriftzeichen ("LAK"), WVDOG 40, Berlin.
  • A. Deimel (1925–1950), Šumerisches Lexikon, Pontificum Institutum Biblicum.
  • F. Ellermeier, M. Studt, Sumerisches Glossar
    • vol. 1: 1979–1980, ISBN 3-921747-08-2, ISBN 3-921747-10-4
    • vol. 3.2: 1998–2005, A-B ISBN 3-921747-24-4, D-E ISBN 3-921747-25-2, G ISBN 3-921747-29-5
    • vol. 3.3: ISBN 3-921747-22-8 (font CD ISBN 3-921747-23-6)
    • vol. 3.5: ISBN 3-921747-26-0
    • vol 3.6: 2003, Handbuch Assur ISBN 3-921747-28-7
  • A. Falkenstein, Archaische Texte aus Uruk, Berlin-Leipzig (1936)
  • E. Forrer, Die Keilschrift von Boghazköi, Leipzig (1922)
  • J. Friedrich, Hethitisches Keilschrift-Lesebuch, Heidelberg (1960)
  • Jean-Jacques Glassner, The Invention of Cuneiform, English translation, Johns Hopkins University Press (2003), ISBN 0-8018-7389-4.
  • Hayes, John L. (2000). A Manual of Sumerian Grammar and Texts. Aids and Research Tools in Ancient Near Eastern Studies. 5 (2d ed.). Malibu: Undena Publications. 
  • Heeren (1815) "Ideen über die Politik, den Verkehr und den Handel der vornehmsten Volker der alten Welt", vol. i. pp. 563 seq., translated into English in 1833.
  • Kramer, Samuel Noah (1981). "Appendix B: The Origin of the Cuneiform Writing System". History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Man's Recorded History (3d revised ed.). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 381–383. ISBN 0-8122-7812-7. 
  • René Labat, Manuel d'epigraphie Akkadienne, Geuthner, Paris (1959); 6th ed., extended by Florence Malbran-Labat (1999), ISBN 2-7053-3583-8.
  • Lo, Lawrence (2007). "Sumerian". Retrieved 2009-06-05. 
  • Lassen, Christian. "Die Altpersischen Keil-Inschriften von Persepolis"
  • Mittermayer, Catherine; Attinger, Pascal (2006). Altbabylonische Zeichenliste der Sumerisch-Literarischen Texte. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis. Special Edition. Academic Press Fribourg. ISBN 978-3-7278-1551-5. 
  • O. Neugebauer, A. Sachs (eds.), Mathematical Cuneiform Texts, New Haven (1945).
  • Patri, Sylvain (2009). L’adaptation des consonnes hittites dans certaines langues du XIIIe siècle. Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und vorderasiatische Archäologie 99(1): 87-126.
  • Pritchard, James Cowles (1844). "Researches Into the Physical History of Mankind", 3rd Ed., Vol IV, Sherwood, Gilbert and Piper, London
  • Rawlinson, Henry (1847) "The Persian Cuneiform Inscription at Behistun, decyphered and translated; with a Memoir on Persian Cuneiform Inscriptions in general, and on that of Behistun in Particular", The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol X.
  • Y. Rosengarten, Répertoire commenté des signes présargoniques sumériens de Lagash, Paris (1967)
  • Chr. Rüster, E. Neu, Hethitisches Zeichenlexikon (HZL), Wiesbaden (1989)
  • Sayce, Rev. A. H. (1908). "The Archaeology of the Cuneiform Inscriptions", Second Edition-revised, 1908, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, Brighton, New York; at pp 9–16 Not in copyright
  • Nikolaus Schneider, Die Keilschriftzeichen der Wirtschaftsurkunden von Ur III nebst ihren charakteristischsten Schreibvarianten, Keilschrift-Paläographie; Heft 2, Rom: Päpstliches Bibelinstitut (1935).
  • Wolfgang Schramm, Akkadische Logogramme, Goettinger Arbeitshefte zur Altorientalischen Literatur (GAAL) Heft 4, Goettingen (2003), ISBN 3-936297-01-0.
  • F. Thureau-Dangin, Recherches sur l'origine de l'écriture cunéiforme, Paris (1898).
  • Ronald Herbert Sack, Cuneiform Documents from the Chaldean and Persian Periods, (1994) ISBN 0945636679

External links

Digital encoding and rendering

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

CUNEIFORM (from Lat. cuneus, a wedge), a form of writing, extensively used in the ancient world, especially by the Babylonians and Assyrians. The word " cuneiform " was first applied in 1700 by Thomas Hyde, professor of Hebrew in the university of Oxford, in the expression " dactuli pyramidales seu cuneifoimes," and it has found general acceptance, though efforts have been made to introduce the expression " arrowheaded " writing. The name " cuneiform " is fitting, for each character or sign is composed of a wedge (1 or -), or a combination of wedges (, '.7), written from left to right. The wedge is always pointed towards the right (s -) or downwards (T) or aslant(), or two may be so combined as to form an angle (<) called by German Assyriologists a Winkelhaken, a word now sometimes adopted by English writers on the subject. The word cuneiform has passed into most modern languages, but the Germans use Keilschrift (i.e. wedge-script) and the Arabs mismari (L.5) 4 - 0 ) or nail-writing.

In Persia, 40 m. N.E. of Shiraz, is a range of hills, Mount Rachmet, in front of which, in a semicircular form, rises a vast terrace-like platform. It is partly natural, but was walled up in front, levelled off and used as the base of great temples and palaces. The earliest European, at present known to us, who visited the site was a wandering friar Odoricus (about A.D. 1320), who does not seem to have noticed the inscriptions cut in the stone. These were first observed by Josaphat Barbaro, a Venetian traveller, about 1472. In 1621 the ruins were visited by Pietro della Valle, who was the first to copy a few of the signs, which he sent in a letter to a friend in Naples. His copy was not well made, but it served the useful purpose of directing attention to an unknown script which was certain to attract scholars to the problem of its decipherment. To this end it was necessary that complete inscriptions and not merely separate signs should be made accessible to European scholars. The first man to attempt to satisfy this need was Sir John Chardin, in whose volumes of travels published at Amsterdam in 1711 one of the small inscriptions found at the ruins of Persepolis was carefully and accurately reproduced. It was now plainly to be seen, as indeed others had surmised, that these inscriptions at Persepolis had been written in three languages, distinguished each from other by an increasing complexity in the signs with which they were written. The three languages have since been determined as Persian, Susian and Babylonian. But before the decipherment could begin it was necessary that all the available material should be copied and published. The honour of performing this great task fell to Carsten Niebuhr, who visited Persepolis in March 1765, and in three weeks and a half copied all the texts, so well that little improvement has been made in them since. When Niebuhr returned to Denmark he studied carefully the little inscriptions and convinced himself that the guesses of some of his predecessors were correct, and that the inscriptions were to be read from left to right. He observed that three systems of writing were discernible, and that these were always kept distinct in the inscriptions. He did not, however, draw the natural conclusion that they represented three languages, but supposed that the proud builders of Persepolis had written their inscriptions in threefold form. He divided the little inscriptions into three classes, according to the manner of their writing, calling them classes I., II. and III. He then arranged all those he had copied that belonged to class I., and by careful comparison decided that in them there were employed altogether but fortytwo signs. These he copied out and set in order in one of his plates. This list of signs was so nearly complete and accurate that later study has made but slight changes in it. When Discovery Niebuhr had made his list of signs he naturally enough decided that this language, whatever it might be, was written in alphabetic characters, a conclusion which later investigation has not overthrown. Beyond this Niebuhr was not able to go, and not even one sign revealed its secret to his inquiry. When, however, he had published his copies (in 1777) there were other scholars ready to take up the difficult task. Two scholars independently, Olav Tychsen of Rostock and Friedrich Miinter of Copenhagen, began work upon the problem. Tychsen first observed that there occurred at irregular intervals in the inscriptions of the first class a wedge that pointed neither directly to the right nor downward, but inclined diagonally. This he suggested was the dividing sign used to separate words. This very simple discovery later became of great importance in the hands of Miinter. Tychsen also correctly identified the alphabetic signs for " a," " d," " u " and" s," but he failed to decipher an entire inscription, chiefly perhaps because, through an error in history, he supposed that they were written during the Parthian dynasty (246 B.C. - A.D. 227). 'VI-Linter was more fortunate than Tychsen in his historical researches, and this made him also more successful in linguistic attempts. He rightly identified the builders of Persepolis with the Achaemenian dynasty, and so located in time the authors of the inscriptions (538-465 B.e.). Independently of Tychsen he identified the oblique wedge as a divider between words, and found the meaning of the sign for " b." These may appear to be small matters, but it must be remembered that they were made without the assistance of any bilingual text, and were indeed taken bodily out of the gloom which had settled upon these languages centuries before. They did not, however, bring us much nearer to the desired goal of a reading of any portion of the inscriptions. The whole case indeed seemed now perilously near a stalemate. New methods must be found, and a new worker, with patience, persistence, power of combination, insight, the historical sense and the feeling for archaeological indications.

In 1802 Georg Friedrich Grotefend was persuaded by the librarian of Göttingen University to essay the task. He began with the assumption that there were three languages, and that of these the first was ancient Persian, the language of the Achaemenians, who had erected these palaces and caused these inscriptions to be written. For his first attempts at decipherment he chose two of these old Persian inscriptions and laid them side by side. They were of moderate length, and the frequent recurrence of the same signs in them seemed to indicate that their contents were similar. The method which he now pursued was so simple, yet so sure, as he advanced step by step, that there seemed scarcely a chance of error. Miinter had observed in all the Persian texts a word which occurred in two forms, a short and a longer form. This word appeared in Grotefend's two texts in both long and short forms. Miinter had suggested that it meant " king " in the short form and " kings " in the longer, and that when the two words occurred together the expression meant " king of kings." But further, this word occurred in both inscriptions in the first line, and in both cases was followed by the same word. This second word Grotefend supposed to mean " great," the combined expression being " king great," that is, " great king." All this found support in the phraseology of the lately deciphered Sassanian inscriptions, and it was plausible in itself. It must, however, be supported by definite facts, and furthermore each word must be separated into its alphabetic parts, every one of them identified, and the words themselves be shown to be philologically possible by the production of similar words in related languages. In other words, the archaeological method must find support in a philological method. To this Grotefend now devoted himself with equal energy. His method was as simple as before. He had made out to his own satisfaction the titles " great king, king of kings." Now, in the Sassanian inscriptions, the first word was always the king's name, followed immediately by " great king, king of kings," and Grotefend reasoned that this was probably true in his texts. But if true, then these two texts were set up by two different kings, for the names were not the same at the beginning. Furthermore the name with which his text No. I. began appears in the third line of text No. II., but in a somewhat. longer form, which Grotefend thought was a genitive and meant " of N." It followed the word previously supposed to be " king " and another which might mean son (N king son), so that the whole expression would be " son of N king." From these facts. Grotefend surmised that in these two inscriptions he had the names of three rulers, grandfather, father and son. It was now easy to search the list of the Achaemenian dynasty and to find three names which would suit the conditions, and the three which he ventured to select were Hystaspes, Darius, Xerxes. According to his hypothesis the name at the beginning of inscription I. was Darius, and he was ready to translate his texts in _ part as follows: I. Darius, great king, king of kings ... son of Hystaspes.. .

II. Xerxes, great king, king of kings ... son of Darius king. The form which he provisionally adopted for Darius was Darheush; later investigation has shown that it ought really to be read as Daryavush, but the error was not serious, and he had safely secured at least the letters D, A, R, SH. It was a. most wonderful achievement, the importance of which he did not realize, for in it was the key to the decipherment of three ancient languages. To very few men has it been given to make: discoveries so important both for history and for philology. To Grotefend it was, however, not given to translate a whole text, or even to work out all the words whose meaning he had. surmised. Rasmus Christian Rask (1787-1832), who followed. him, found the plural ending in Persian, which had baffled him; and Eugene Burnouf (1801-1852), by the study of a list of Persian geographical names found at Naksh-i-Rustam, discovered at a single stroke almost all the characters of the Persian _ alphabet, and incidentally confirmed the values already determined by his predecessors.

At the same time as Burnouf, the eminent Sanskrit scholar Professor Christian Lassen (1800-1876), of Bonn, was studying the same list of names; and his results were published at the. same time. The controversy which resulted as to priority of discovery may be here passed over while we sum up the results. in general conclusions. Lassen may certainly claim in the final court of history that he discovered independently of Burnouf the values of at least six and possibly of eight signs. But in another respect he made very definite progress over Burnouf. He discovered that, if the system of Grotefend were rigidly followed, and to every sign were given the value Grotefend had assigned, some words would be left wholly or almost wholly without vowels; and therefore unpronounceable. As instances. of such words he mentioned Cprd, Thtgus, Ktptuk,, Fraisjm. This situation led Lassen to a very important discovery, towards which his knowledge of the Sanskrit alphabet did much to bring him. He came, in short, to the conclusion that the ancient Persian signs were not entirely alphabetic, but were at least partially syllabic, that is, that certain signs. were used to represent not merely an alphabetic character like " b," but also a syllable such as " ba, " bi " or " bu." He claimed that he had successfully demonstrated that. the sign for " a " was only used at the beginning of a word, or before a consonant, or before another vowel, and that in every other case it was included in the consonant sign. Thus in the inscription No I. in the second line the signs should be read. VA-ZA-RA-KA. This was a most important discovery, and may be said to have revolutionized the study of these long puzzling texts.

During the entire time of this slow process of decipherment, from the first essays of Grotefend in 1802 until the publication of Lassen's book in 1836, there were more sceptics than believers in the results of the deciphering process. Indeed the history of all forms of decipherment of unknown languages shows that. scepticism concerning them is far more prevalent than credulity or even a too ready acceptance. There was need for a man of another people, of different training and a fresh and unbiased mind, to put the capstone upon the decipherment, and he was already at work when Lassen's important researches appeared.

Major (afterward Sir) Henry Rawlinson had gone out to India, in the service of the East India Company, while still a boy. There he had learned Persian and several of the Indian vernaculars. That was not the sort of training that had prepared Grotefend, Burnouf or Lassen, but it was the kind that the early travellers and copyists had enjoyed. In 1833 young Rawlinson went to Persia, to work with other British officers in the reorganization of the Persian army. While engaged in this service his attention was drawn to the ancient Persian cuneiform inscriptions. In 1835 he copied with great care the texts at Hamadan., and began their decipherment. Of all the eager work which had been going on in Europe he knew little. It is no longer possible to ascertain when he gained his first information of Grotefend's work, for Norris, the secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society, has left us no record of when he began to send notices of the German's work. Whenever it was, there seems to be no doubt that Rawlinson worked independently for a time. His method was strikingly like Grotefend's. He had copied two trilingual inscriptions, and recognized at once that he had three languages before him. In 1839 (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, x. pp. 5, 6) he thus wrote of his method: " When I proceeded. .. to compare and interline the two inscriptions (or rather the Persian columns of the two inscriptions, for, as the compartments exhibiting the inscription in the Persian language occupied the principal place in the tablets, and were engraved in the least complicated of the three classes of cuneiform writing, they were naturally first submitted to examination) I found that the characters coincided throughout, except in certain particular groups, and it was only reasonable to suppose that the grounds which were thus brought out and individualized must represent proper names. I further remarked that there were but three of these distinct groups in the two inscriptions; for the group which occupied the second place in one inscription, and which, from its position, suggested the idea of its representing the name of the father of the king who was there commemorated, corresponded with the group which occupied the first place in the other inscription, and thus not only served determinately to connect the two inscriptions together, but, assuming the groups to represent proper names, appeared also to indicate a genealogical succession. The natural inference was that in these three groups of characters I had obtained the proper names belonging to three consecutive generations of the Persian monarchy; and it so happened that the first three names of Hystaspes, Darius and Xerxes, which I applied at hazard to the three groups, according to the succession, proved to answer in all respects satisfactorily and were, in fact, the true identification." Rawlinson's next work was the copying of the great inscription of Darius on the rocks at Behistun. He had first seen it in 1835, and as it was high up on the rocky face, and apparently inaccessible, he had studied it by means of a field-glass. He was not able to copy the whole of the Persian text, but in 1837, when he was more skilled in the script, he secured more of it. In the next year he forwarded to the Royal Asiatic Society of London his translation of the first two paragraphs of the Persian text, containing the name, titles and genealogy of Darius. This was little less than a tour de force, for it must be remembered that this had been accomplished without the knowledge of other ancient languages which his European competitors had enjoyed. The translation, received in London on the 14th of March, made a sensation, and a transcript sent in April to the Asiatic Society of Paris secured him an honorary membership in that distinguished body. He was now known, and many made haste to send him copies of everything important which had been published in Europe. The works of Burnouf, Niebuhr, le Brun and Porter came to his hands, and with such assistance he made rapid progress, and in the winter of 1838-1839 his alphabet of ancient Persian was almost complete. In 1839 he was in Bagdad, his work written out and almost ready for publication. But he delayed, hoping for more light, and revising sign by sign with exhaustless patience. He expected to publish his preliminary memoir in the spring of 1840, when he was suddenly sent to Afghanistan as political agent at Kandahar. Here he was too busily engaged in war administration to attend to his favourite studies, which were not renewed until 1843 when he returned to Bagdad. There he received fresh copies and corrections of the Persepolis inscriptions which had been made by Westergaard, and later made a journey to Behistun to perfect his own copies of the texts which had formed the basis of his own first study. At last, after many delays and discouragements, he published, in 1846, in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, his memoir, or series of memoirs, on the ancient Persian inscriptions, in which for the first time he gave a nearly complete translation of the Persian text of Behistun. In this one publication Rawlinson attained imperishable fame in Oriental research. His work had been carried on under greater difficulties than those in the path of his European colleagues, but he had surpassed them all in the making of an intelligible and connected translation of a long inscription. He had indeed not done it without assistance from the work of Burnouf, Grotefend and Lassen, but when all allowance is made for these influences his fame is not diminished nor the extent of his services curtailed. His method was adopted before he knew of Lassen's work. That two men of such different training and of such opposite types of mind should have lighted upon the same method, and by it have attained the same results, confirmed in the eyes of many the truth of the decipherment.

The work of the decipherment of the old Persian texts was now complete for all practical purposes. But in 1846 there appeared a paper read before the Royal Irish Academy by the Rev. Edward Hincks of Killyleagh, County Down, Ireland, whose keen criticisms of Lassen's work, and original contributions to the definite settlement of syllabic values, may be regarded as closing the period of decipherment of Persian cuneiform writing, The next problem in the study of cuneiform was the decipherment of the second language in each of the trilingual groups. The first essay in this difficult task was made in 1844 by Niels Louis Westergaard. His method was very similar to that used by Grotefend in the decipherment of Persian. He selected the names of Darius, Hystaspes, Persians and others, and compared them with their equivalents in the Persian texts. By this means he learned a number of signs, and sought by their use in other words to spell out syllables or words whose meanings were then ascertained by conjecture or by comparison. He estimated the number of characters at eighty-two or eighty-seven, and judged the writing to be partly alphabetic and partly syllabic. The language he called Median, and classified it in " the Scythian, rather than in the Japhetic family." The results of Westergaard were subjected to incisive criticism by Hincks, who made a distinct gain in the problem. It next passed to the hands of de Saulcy, who was able to see further than either. But the matter moved with difficulty because the copied texts were not accurate. By the generosity of Sir Henry Rawlinson his superb copies of the Behistun text, second column, were placed in the hands of Mr Edwin Norris, who was able in 1852 to present a paper to the Royal Asiatic Society deciphering nearly all of it. Mordtmann followed him, naming the language Susian, which was met with general acceptance and was not displaced by the name Amardian, suggested by A. H. Sayce in two papers which otherwise made important contributions to the subject. With his contributions the problem of decipherment of Susian may be considered as closed. The latter workers could only be builders on foundations already laid.

The decipherment of the third of the three languages found at Persepolis and Behistun followed quickly on the success with Susian. The first worker was Isadore Lowenstern, who made out the words for " king " and " great " and the sign for the plural, but little more. The first really great advance was made by Hincks in 1846 and 1847. In these he determined successfully the values of several signs, settled the numerals, and was apparently on the high-road toward the translation of an entire Assyrian text. He was, however, too cautious to proceed so far, and the credit of first translating a short Assyrian text belongs to Longperier, who in 1847 published the following as the translation of an entire text: "Glorious is Sargon, the great king, the (.. .) king, king of kings, king of the land of Assyria." It was nearly all correct, but it advanced our knowledge but slightly because it did not give the forms of the words - because (to put it in another way) he was not able to transliterate the Assyrian words. This was the great problem. In the Persian texts there were but forty-four signs, but in the third column of the Persepolis texts Grotefend had counted one hundred and thirty different characters, and estimated that in all the Babylonian texts known to him there were about three hundred different signs, while Botta discovered six hundred and forty-two in the texts found by him at Khorsabad. That was enough to make the stoutest heart quail, for a meaning must be found for every one of these signs. There could not be so many syllables, and it was, therefore, quite plain that the Babylonian language must have been written in part at least in ideograms. But in 1851 Rawlinson published one hundred and twelve lines of the Babylonian column from Behistun, accompanied by an interlinear transcription into Roman characters, and a translation into Latin. That paper, added to Hinck's still more acute detail studies, brought to an end the preliminary decipherment of Babylonian. There were still enormous difficulties to be surmounted in the full appreciation of the complicated script, but these would be solved by the combined labours of many workers.

The cuneiform script had its origin in Babylonia and its inventors were a people whom we call the Sumerians. Before the Semitic Babylonians conquered the land it was Origin. inhabited by a people of unknown origin variously classified, by different scholars, with the Ural-altaic or even with the Indo-European family, or as having blood relationship with both. This people is known to us from thousands of cuneiform inscriptions written entirely in their language, though our chief knowledge of them was for a long time derived from Sumerian inscriptions with interlinear translations in Assyrian. Their language is called Sumerian (li-ša-an Su-me-ri) by the Assyrians (Br. Mus. 81-7-27, 130), and. its characteristics are being slowly developed by the elaborate study of the immense literature which has come down to us. In 1884 Halevy denied the existence of the Sumerian language, and claimed that it was merely a cabalistic script invented by the priests of the Semites. His early success has not been sustained, and the vast majority of scholars have ceased to doubt the existence of the language.

The Sumerians developed their script from a rude picturewriting, some early forms of which have come down to us. In course of time they used the pictures to represent sounds, apart from ideas. They wrote first on stone, and when clay was adopted soon found that straight lines in soft clay when made by a single pressure of the stylus tend to become wedges, and the pictures therefore lost their character and came to be mere conventional groups of wedges. Some of these wedge-shaped signs are of such character that we are still able to recognize or re-construct the original picture from which they came. The Assyrian sign *-+, which means heaven, appears in early texts in the form ? in which its star-like form is quite evident (star = heaven) and from which the linear form. may be not improbably pre-supposed. A number of other cases were enumerated by the Assyrians themselves (see Cuneiform Texts from Bab. Tab. in Brit. Museum, vol. v., 1898), and there can be no reasonable doubt that this is the origin of the script.

The number of the original picture-signs cannot have been great, but the development of new signs never ceased till the Develop- cuneiform script passed wholly from use. The simplest ment and form of development was doubling, to express plurality character- or intensity. After this came the working of two ,sties. signs into one; thus Ti "water," when placed " mouth " gave the new sign " to drink," and many others. Other signs were formed by the .addition of four lines, either vertically or horizontally, to intensify the original meaning.

Thus, for instance, the old linear sign means dwelling, but with four additional signs, thus, it means " great house." This sign gradually changed in form until it came to be << 1. This method of development was called by the Sumerians gunu, and signs thus formed are now commonly called by us, gunu signs. They number hundreds and must be reckoned with in our study of the script development, though perhaps recent scholars have somewhat exaggerated their importance. The process of development is obscure and must always remain so.

The script as finally developed and used by the Assyrians is cumbrous and complicated, and very ill adapted to the sounds of the Semitic alphabet. It has (I) simple syllables, consisting of one vowel and a consonant, or a vowel by itself, thus j; " a," C: T ab, ib, ub, ba, bi, bu. In addition to these the Assyrian had also (2) compound syllables, such as ?f bit, - 7 bal, and (3) ideograms, or signs which express an entire word, such as f"-- r .:7 beltu, lady, CST abu, father. The difficulty of reading this script is enormously increased by the fact that many signs are polyphonous, i.e. they may have more than one syllabic value and also be used as an ideogram. Thus the sign has the ideographic values of matu, land, shadu, mountain, kashadu, to conquer, napachu, to arise (of the sun), and also the syllabic values kur, mad, mat, shad, shat, lat, nad, nat, kin and gin. This method of writing must lead to ambiguity, and this difficulty is helped somewhat by (4) determinatives, which are signs intended to indicate the class to which the word belongs. Thus, the is placed before names of persons, and '-:` (the ideogram for matu, country, and shadu, mountain) is placed before names of countries and mountains, and i-4-- (ilu, god) before the names of gods.

The cuneiform writing, begun by the Sumerians in a period so remote that it is idle to speculate concerning it, had a long and very extensive history. It was first adopted by the Semitic Babylonians, and as we have seen was History. modified, developed, nay almost made over. Their inscriptions are written in it from circa 4500 B.C. to the 1st century B.C. From their hands it passed to the Assyrians, who simplified some characters and conventionalized many more, and used the script during the entire period of their national existence from 150o B.C. to 607 B.C. From the Babylonian by a slow process of evolution the much simplified Persian script was developed, and with the Babylonian is also to be connected the Susian, less complicated than the Babylonian, but less simple than the Persian. The Chaldians (not Chaldaeans), who lived about Lake Van, also adopted the cuneiform script with values of their own, and expressed a considerable literature in it. The discovery in 1887 of the Tell-el-Amarna tablets in upper Egypt showed that the same script was in use in the 15th century B.C., from Elam to the Mediterranean and from Armenia to the Persian Gulf for purposes of correspondence. There is good reason to expect the discovery of its use by yet other peoples. It was one of the most widely used of all the forms of ancient writing.

BIBLIOGRAPHY. - The history of the decipherment may be further studied in R. W. Rogers, History of Babylonia and Assyria, vol. i. (N.Y. and London, 1900); and in A. J. Booth, The Discovery and Decipherment of the Trilingual Cuneiform Inscriptions (London, 1902), which is very exhaustive and accurate. The Sumerian question may best be studied in F. H. Weissbach, Die Sumerische Frage (Leipzig, 1898), and Charles Fossey, Manuel d'Assyriologie, tome i. (Paris, 1904). For development and characteristics, see Friedrich Delitzsch, Die Entstehung des eiltesten Schriftsystems (Leipzig, 1897); Paul Toscanne, Les Signes sume'riens derives (Paris, 1905). (R. W. R.)

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Simple English

Cuneiform is the oldest kind of writing that we know of. It was first used by the Sumerians around 3000 BC. It was written on clay with a tool made from a reed called a stylus. Cuneiform is a wedge-shaped character made with a reed stylus and were used in writing several ancient languages. They are quite similar to pictography.

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