Cuneiform is a system of writing first developed by the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia c. 3500-3000 BCE. It is considered the most significant among the many cultural contributions of the Sumerians and the greatest among those of the Sumerian city of Uruk which advanced the writing of cuneiform c. 3200 BCE.
The name comes from the Latin word cuneus for 'wedge' owing to the wedge-shaped style of writing. In cuneiform, a carefully cut writing implement known as a stylus is pressed into soft clay to produce wedge-like impressions that represent word-signs (pictographs) and, later, phonograms or `word-concepts' (closer to a modern-day understanding of a `word'). All of the great Mesopotamian civilizations used cuneiform until it was abandoned in favour of the alphabetic script at some point after 100 BCE, including:
When the ancient cuneiform tablets of Mesopotamia were discovered and deciphered in the late 19th century CE, they would literally transform human understanding of history. Prior to their discovery, the Bible was considered the oldest and most authoritative book in the world. The brilliant scholar and translator George Smith (l.1840-1876 CE) changed the understanding of history with his translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh in 1872 CE. This translation allowed other cuneiform tablets to be interpreted which overturned the traditional understanding of the biblical version of history and made room for scholarly, objective explorations of history to move forward.
The earliest cuneiform tablets, known as proto-cuneiform, were pictorial, as the subjects they addressed were more concrete and visible (a king, a battle, a flood) but developed in complexity as the subject matter became more intangible (the will of the gods, the quest for immortality). By 3000 BCE the representations were more simplified and the strokes of the stylus conveyed word-concepts (honour) rather than word-signs (an honourable man). The written language was further refined through the rebus which isolated the phonetic value of a certain sign so as to express grammatical relationships and syntax to determine meaning. In clarifying this, the scholar Ira Spar writes:
This new way of interpreting signs is called the rebus principle. Only a few examples of its use exist in the earliest stages of cuneiform from between 3200 and 3000 B.C. The consistent use of this type of phonetic writing only becomes apparent after 2600 B.C. It constitutes the beginning of a true writing system characterized by a complex combination of word-signs and phonograms—signs for vowels and syllables—that allowed the scribe to express ideas. By the middle of the Third Millennium B.C., cuneiform primarily written on clay tablets was used for a vast array of economic, religious, political, literary, and scholarly documents. (1)
Development of Cuneiform
One no longer had to struggle with the meaning of a pictograph; one now read a word-concept which more clearly conveyed the meaning of the writer. The number of characters used in writing was also reduced from over 1,000 to 600 in order to simplify and clarify the written word. The best example of this is given by the historian Paul Kriwaczek who notes that, in the time of proto-cuneiform:
All that had been devised thus far was a technique for noting down things, items and objects, not a writing system. A record of `Two Sheep Temple God Inanna’ tells us nothing about whether the sheep are being delivered to, or received from, the temple, whether they are carcasses, beasts on the hoof, or anything else about them. (63)
Cuneiform developed to the point where it could be made clear, to use Kriwaczek's example, whether the sheep were coming or going to the temple, for what purpose, and whether they were living or dead. By the time of the priestess-poet Enheduanna (l.2285-2250 BCE), who wrote her famous hymns to Inanna in the Sumerian city of Ur, cuneiform was sophisticated enough to convey emotional states such as love and adoration, betrayal and fear, longing and hope, as well as the precise reasons behind the writer experiencing such states.
The great literary works of Mesopotamia such as the Atrahasis, The Descent of Inanna, The Myth of Etana, The Enuma Elish and the famous Epic of Gilgamesh were all written in cuneiform and were completely unknown until the mid 19th century CE, when men like George Smith, the Reverend Edward Hincks (l. 1792-1866 CE), Jules Oppert (l. 1825-1905 CE), and Henry Creswicke Rawlinson (l.1810-1895 CE) deciphered the language and translated it into English.
Rawlinson's translations of Mesopotamian texts were first presented to the Royal Asiatic Society of London in 1837 CE and again in 1839 CE. In 1846 CE he worked with the archaeologist Austin Henry Layard in his excavation of Nineveh and was responsible for the earliest translations from the library of Ashurbanipal discovered at that site. Edward Hincks focused on Persian cuneiform, establishing its patterns and identifying vowels among his other contributions. Jules Oppert identified cuneiform's origins and established the grammar of Assyrian cuneiform. George Smith was responsible for deciphering The Epic of Gilgamesh and in 1872 CE, famously, the Mesopotamian version of the Flood Story, which until then was thought to be original to the biblical Book of Genesis.
Many biblical texts were thought to be original until cuneiform was deciphered. The Fall of Man and the Great Flood were understood as literal events in human history dictated by God to the author (or authors) of Genesis but were now recognized as Mesopotamian myths which Hebrew scribes had embellished on in The Myth of Etana and the Atrahasis. The biblical story of the Garden of Eden could now be understood as a myth derived from The Enuma Elish and other Mesopotamian works. The Book of Job, far from being an actual historical account of an individual's unjust suffering, could now be recognized as a literary piece belonging to a Mesopotamian tradition following the discovery of the earlier Ludlul-Bel-Nimeqi text which relates a similar story.
The concept of a dying and reviving god who goes down into the underworld and then returns, presented as a novel concept in the gospels of the New Testament, was now understood as an ancient paradigm first expressed in Mesopotamian literature in the poem The Descent of Inanna. The very model of many of the narratives of the Bible, including the gospels, could now be read in light of the discovery of Mesopotamian Naru Literature which took a figure from history and embellished upon his achievements in order to relay an important moral and cultural message.
Prior to this time, as noted, the Bible was considered the oldest book in the world, the Song of Solomon was thought to be the oldest love poem; but all of that changed with the discovery and decipherment of cuneiform. The oldest love poem in the world is now recognized as The Love Song of Shu-Sin dated to 2000 BCE, long before The Song of Solomon was written. These advances in understanding were all made by the 19th century CE archaeologists and scholars sent to Mesopotamia to substantiate biblical stories through physical evidence.
Along with other Assyriologists (among them, T. G. Pinches and Edwin Norris), Rawlinson spearheaded the development of Mesopotamian language studies, and his Cuneiform Inscriptions of Ancient Babylon and Assyria, along with his other works, became the standard reference on the subject following their publication in the 1860's CE and remain respected scholarly works into the modern day.
George Smith, regarded as an intellect of the first rank, died on a field expedition to Nineveh in 1876 CE at the age of 36. Smith, a self-taught translator of cuneiform, made his first contributions to deciphering the ancient writing in his early twenties, and his death at such a young age has long been regarded a significant loss to the advancement in translations of cuneiform in the 19th century CE.
The literature of Mesopotamia informed all the written works which came after. Mesopotamian motifs can be detected in the works of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman works and still resonate in the present day through the biblical narratives which they inform. When George Smith deciphered cuneiform he dramatically changed the way human beings would understand their history.
The accepted version of the creation of the world, original sin, and many of the other precepts by which people had been living their lives were all challenged by the revelation of Mesopotamian - largely Sumerian - literature. Since the discovery and decipherment of cuneiform, the history of civilization has never been the same.