What is Cuneiform

The history of art of writing can be traced back to the times of the 4th millennium BC when people in the Middle East made use of forms of writing like the cuneiform, to represent their ideas to the rest of the world. It is to be noted that cuneiform is not a language, but a method of writing wherein certain symbols are made use of to represent various situations and express them with clarity. Though a number of languages were known to the people of this period, the use of a uniform written script, helped people from different regions communicate better.

The term ‘cuneiform’ literally means ‘wedge shaped’. The script was written from left to right, like most languages of the present times. Written records of all aspects of the society were noted down on clay tablets and it is owing to this unique method of writing that we know a great deal about the Sumerians and the Mesopotamians. It is to be noted that as time passed by, there was an evolution in the script, leading to the reduction in the number of signs made use of in cuneiform. Some of the signs that were made use of during the times of the Akkadian empire were not found in the scripts of the later empires.

With time, cuneiform began to lose its significance owing to the fact that the symbols and signs made use of in it were non alphabetic, thereby, making people shift towards the ‘easier to use’ scripts that developed in the modern times. The last known records of texts written in cuneiform; date back to the first century AD. The tablets that were made use of for writing were fired in kilns to ensure that they remained intact even when the empires were attacked by enemies.

The decipherment of the script took a long time and the credit in this regard goes to the officer of the English East India Company, Henry Rawlinson who successfully deciphered the unique script in the year 1837. However, they could decipher and read only about 200 signs from cuneiform and the remaining sings were left unconquered. The use of numeral system in cuneiform is interesting, as it made use of just three numbers 1, 10 and 60 to represent any other number. The innovative thinking of the Sumerians and their expertise can be gauged from the fact that they came up with a script 40 centuries ago, when the rest of the world led a nomadic life. Studies with regard to the symbols used in cuneiform are still in progress and decipherment of more symbols can provide better information about the life of the Sumerians and Babylonians.