How to write cuneiform
Originating in what is now Iraq before 3,200 BC, cuneiform script is, as far as we know, the oldest form of writing in the world.
First developed by scribes as a bookkeeping tool to keep track of bread and beer rations in ancient cities like Uruk (in the south east of modern-day Iraq), the system soon spread across the Middle East and was used continuously for more than 3,000 years, up until the first century AD.
Cuneiform is not a language but a proper way of writing distinct from the alphabet. It doesn’t have ‘letters’ – instead it uses between 600 and 1,000 characters impressed on clay to spell words by dividing them up into syllables, like ‘ca-at’ for cat, or ‘mu-zi-um’ for museum. Other signs stood for whole words, like our ‘£’ standing for pound sterling.
You can see how words can be written in syllables in the handy chart below, from cuneiform (available to buy here), by curators Irving Finkel and Jonathan Taylor.
The two main languages written in cuneiform are Sumerian and Akkadian, although more than a dozen others are recorded, including Hittite, cousin to Latin.
Texts were written by pressing a cut, straight reed into slightly moist clay. The characteristic wedge-shaped strokes that make up the signs give the writing its modern name – cuneiform means ‘wedge-shaped’ (from the Latin cuneus for ‘wedge’).
In this video, Irving Finkel, curator in the Department of the Middle East, teaches us how to write cuneiform using just a lolly (popsicle) stick and some clay.
Keen to read more about cuneiform? You might like our blog on the Library of Ashurbanipal – a collection of more than 20,000 clay tablets and fragments inscribed with cuneiform dating to about 2,700 years ago, covering all kinds of topics from magic to medicine, and politics to palaces.