Cuneiform is the ancient writing system created by the Sumerians about 3000 B.C.E. Cuneiform was used in commerce by many ancient civilizations and was valued for its practical use. The Sumerian writing system was a very important and influential factor in the early eastern world.
About 3500 B.C.E the Sumerians settled in a small part of southern Mesopotamia (now Iraq) between the Euphrates and Tigres Rivers. This land was calledSumer(or land of Shi-nar according to the Bible).Scholars do not know the exact origin of the Sumerian people, but they believe they probably came from present-day Turkey, Iran, or other areas near central Asia. Some scholars believe that Genesis 11:2 may be a record of the coming of the Sumerians:
And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shi-nar[Sumer]; and they dwelt there.(Bible, King James Version) (Genesis 11:2)
The Sumerians became good farmers and used a complex system of canals and dikes for irrigation which enabled them to sustain a large population. The Sumerians developed a thriving civilization in which small villages eventually grew into large city-states. The steadily advancing Sumerian society included traders, soldiers, slaves, and priests. By 3000 B.C.E prosperous cities existed, such as Ur, Uruk(Erech in the Bible), Nippur, and Kish.
The Sumerian economy was based on farming. They raised things such as wheat, barley, date palms, and various vegetables. They also used domestic animals including donkeys, sheep, and goats. Many skilled workers made objects of copper, gold, stone, and silver. Others wove cloth, made army supplies, and built temples.
The land of Sumer was virtually treeless, stoneless, and consisted of many marshes and swamps. Because of this, the Sumerian's main natural resource was mud. Mud brick was used for writing tablets and to constuct buildings, including step- pyramids called Ziggurats.
Guinness(1988) described the Sumerians as being very skilled in art, especially sculpture.They sculpted excellent images of their gods and rulers. According to Frank(1981), the Sumerians, who were also very inventive, were the first to use the arch and wheel, and developed a skillful number system based on 10's and 6's(the modern way we tell time and divide a circle into 360 degrees). The Sumerians also had advanced knowledge of mathematics, medicine, and astronomy. Cuneiform, which is the earliest known system of writing, was the Sumerians most important and useful contribution.(from the Latin word cuneus, meaning "wedge"). Cuneiform, which is the earliest known system of writing, began the first written history. Many clay tablets and inscriptions have been found which reveal facts about the Sumerian government and religion, including the earliest known law code(the Code of Hammurabi). In Uruk, about one thousand clay tablets have been discovered which explain the development of Sumerian writing.
Sumerians also kept records of much literature including hymns, epic tales, and myths. For instance, Sumerians wrote about a flood destroying the earth long before the story of Noah was written in the Bible. According to Firmage(1993) the legendary Sumerian Noah(Xisiathros) buried written documents to be preserved after the flood. This and other writings reveal the Sumerian feeling of insecurity and helplessness against the forces of nature. Sumerians also wrote the first epic poem, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which enabled scholars to learn about many aspects of Sumerian society.
|Fairbank(1970) described the Sumerians as using mud as their main writing material, but they also used metal and stone. At first, they scratched the surface of the clay to make signs. Later, they used the end of a triangular reed (or other stylus) to press down in wet clay creating wedge shapes which were broad at one end and pointed at the other. The clay tablets were then baked or dried in the sun.|
The Sumerians' writing system later evolved into ideograms, which are symbols representing an idea without expressing a certain word or phrase for it. Ideograms greatly simplified the Sumerian writing system by allowing one sign to represent several different things. For example, a star symbol could mean sky, heaven, or god. Eventually the Sumerian system involved the phonetic use of signs, which made it possible to convey abstract ideas. Scribes began using signs to represent sounds. For instance, the symbol for water could be used to represent the word "in" (which is hard to express as a picture) because the two words sounded alike. In short, Cuneiform evolved as a shortened form of picture writing. The Cuneiform system of writing developed over a period of 500 years and evolved into about 2000 word symbols. By 3000 B.C.E, the Sumerians had developed a full system of writing.
According to Lehmann(1973), Cuneiform was a combination of logographic and syllabic systems. Cuneiform included some phonograms and logograms(symbols representing an entire word), and other symbols that represent a syllable or sound. The earliest Uruk writings contain logographic symbols which represented numbers, objects, and names. Cuneiform writing also included determinatives, which were symbols used to indicate which to class of words a word belonged to:plurals, men rivers, gods, wooden objects, etc.
Sumerian writing began because of its need in the economy. Canal and irrigation systems greatly increased the productivity and agricultural surplus of Sumerian city-states. Sumerians used writing to keep track of imports and exports in an orderly way. According to Gelb(1952), most Sumerian merchants attached tags or labels to objects to organize and identify goods. Sumerians used cylinder seals(their own personal property mark)which they included on the tags. Phonetization, which is the use of signs to represent sounds, later enabled Sumerians to replace cylinder seals with their own personal names.
|Sumerians felt it was essential to have written records. They wrote various things such as accounts of legal disputes, lists of objects, economic activities, and temple records. Fairbank(1970) reported that cuneiform tablets have been found containing simple exercises which were probably used in scribal schools.|
According to Firmage(1993), the knowledge of writing in the Sumerian civilization was mostly used by merchants and the elite priestly class. Libraries and scribal schools were established and flourishing by 2500 B.C.E. Most scribal students were males and came from wealthy families. Literacy was very precious and highly honored in Sumerian society. Scribal school teachers were very critical and strict; students were caned for doing disorganized and sloppy work. According to McKay(1995), Cuneiform was so complicated that only professional scribes actually mastered the system by studying it for many years. Scribes were very important in the Sumerian economy because they held administrative positions in temples and kept records of buisness transactions and accounts.
The Sumerians were very involved in commerce and traded with several other civilizations. The Sumerians' interaction with other cultures through trade caused the Cuneiform system of writing to spread throughout the Near East. Cuneiform was adaptable to differant languages. So several ancient societies developed their own versions of Cuneiform and used the system in their civilization because of its convenience to commerce. According to Naveh(1975), several Eastern non-Semetic and Semetic people including Elamites , Babylonians, Assyrians, Hitties, Persians,Akkadians, and Hurrians all used Cuneiform.( The Sumerians and Babylonians had about 600 complex signs, A single sign could include up to 30 different wedges. The Hittites used 350 different Cuneiform signs, the Elamites used 200, and the Persians used 39. The Cuneiform writing system was widely accepted in the ancient Eastern world and became one of the most significant and influential systems of writing.
In conclusion, the Sumerians' most important contribution in history is the development of the Cuneiform writing system. Cuneiform was used by many ancient people in commerce and was valued for its adaptability. Many religious, mathematical, economic, and literary Cuneiform texts survive today. Studying the sophisticated ancient clay tablets of Cuneiform teach the modern world about the spiritual, intellectual, and everyday lives of the Sumerian people.
This web page was was written by T.N.and T.D.H., March 19,1998, for History & Thought of Western Man, Rich East High School.
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