Thursday, June 8, 2017

Sumerian cuneiform: Around the World from 80 Countries

I became interested in these two objects when I noticed that the museum's files list them as dating from over 2000 years BCE. At first, they didn't look like much more than insignificant rocks or globs of clay but when I began to research them it became clear that they tell the story of one of man's more significant accomplishments. 

The first object is an example of cuneiform writing which the Sumerians of Uruk (in southern Iraq) invented between 3500 and 3000 BCE.  The need to coordinate the development and operation of irrigation to for agriculture spurred the development of civil government and cities.  As trade and commerce increased, people needed to keep track of exchanges of goods, pay due workers, inventories, and taxes.  People began drawing in damp clay with reeds or sticks of wood symbols to represent what was exchanged or stored. But drawing takes time and is difficult in clay so they simplified the signs to use straight line and wedges which could be quickly pressed into the clay with a triangular-shaped reed stylus.  Joan Oates (page 17  in her Babylon) gives the following example of the evolution of the sign for ox from around 3100 BCE to 600 BCE.

 You can see some of the wedge-shaped indentations on the first photo.  We don't know the subject of the writing but the object has a whole through it so it's possible that it was attached to a cord closing some container.  The tablet would then list the contents or be a bill of sale.

"clay tablet"

 We don't know much about the second object -- it's just listed as “clay tablet.” You can see some marks on it but they are not the deeper wedge shapes of the later cuneiform.  I think it could have been made early on in the first stages of simplification (like the second drawing above). But that's just a guess.  If anyone reading this knows more, we hope you'll tell us.

Overall, the Sumerians developed about 600 signs with the typical sign using five to ten wedge impressions.  These could be combined to create additional meanings as when the signs for mouth and bowl were used together to mean “eat.”  Cuneiform made use of homophones, using a sign for a physical object to stand in for a similar-sounding word with a different meaning (such as using the sign for reed to stand for the “read.”) For more abstract concepts, they also used symbol for a word to represent that same sound when it occurred in a different word.  For example, we might use the symbol for an eye and that for land to make up the word island.

With these innovations, the use of cuneiform  writing expanded beyond commercial use to legal documents, literature, hymns, and astrological records. It was the first writing and was adapted for use with other languages such as Akkadian (which evolved into Babylonian and Assyrian), and Hittite. It was used continuously until the second century CE by which time it had been replaced by alphabetic systems. 


The Spurlock Museum at the University of Illinois has some very clear pictures of cuneiform documents on its website.

By Martha Fraundorf, Volunteer for Benton County Historical Society, Philomath, Oregon

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