Cuneiform script,[a] one of the earliest systems of writing, was
invented by the Sumerians. It is distinguished by its wedge-shaped
marks on clay tablets, made by means of a blunt reed for a stylus. The
name cuneiform itself simply means "wedge shaped".
Sumer in the late fourth millennium BC (the
period) to convey the Sumerian language, which was a language isolate
, cuneiform writing began as a system of pictograms, stemming from an
earlier system of shaped tokens used for accounting. In the third
millennium, the pictorial representations became simplified and more
abstract as the number of characters in use grew smaller (Hittite
cuneiform). The system consists of a combination of logophonetic,
consonantal alphabetic and syllabic signs.
The original Sumerian script was adapted for the writing of the
Akkadian (Assyrian/Babylonian), Eblaite and Amorite languages,
the language isolate
Elamite and the language isolates Hattic, Hurrian
and Urartian languages, as well as
Indo-European languages Hittite and
Luwian; it inspired the later Semitic
Ugaritic alphabet as well as Old
Cuneiform writing was gradually replaced by the
Phoenician alphabet during the
Neo-Assyrian Empire (911–612 BC). By
the second century AD, the script had become extinct, its last traces
being found in
Assyria and Babylonia, and all knowledge of how to read
it was lost until it began to be deciphered in the 19th century.
Between half a million and two million cuneiform tablets are
estimated to have been excavated in modern times, of which only
approximately 30,000–100,000 have been read or published. The
British Museum holds the largest collection (c. 130,000), followed by
the Vorderasiatisches Museum Berlin, the Louvre, the Istanbul
Archaeology Museums, the National Museum of Iraq, the Yale Babylonian
Collection (c. 40,000) and Penn Museum. Most of these have "lain in
these collections for a century without being translated, studied or
published," as there are only a few hundred qualified cuneiformists
in the world.
1.1 Proto-literate period
1.2 Archaic cuneiform
1.4 Assyrian cuneiform
1.5 Derived scripts
2.1 Proper names
5 Sign inventories
8 List of major
Cuneiform tablet discoveries
9 See also
13 External links
The cuneiform writing system was in use for more than three millennia,
through several stages of development, from the 34th century BC down
to the second century AD. Ultimately, it was completely replaced by
alphabetic writing (in the general sense) in the course of the Roman
era, and there are no cuneiform systems in current use. It had to be
deciphered as a completely unknown writing system in 19th-century
Assyriology. Successful completion of its deciphering is dated to
The cuneiform script underwent considerable changes over a period of
more than two millennia. The image below shows the development of the
sign SAG "head" (Borger nr. 184, U+12295 𒊕).
shows the pictogram as it was drawn around 3000 BC
shows the rotated pictogram as written around 2800 BC
shows the abstracted glyph in archaic monumental inscriptions, from c.
is the sign as written in clay, contemporary to stage 3
represents the late 3rd millennium
represents Old Assyrian ductus of the early 2nd millennium, as adopted
is the simplified sign as written by Assyrian scribes in the early 1st
millennium and until the script's extinction.
See also: Kish tablet
Sumerian inscription in monumental archaic style, c. 26th century BC
The cuneiform script was developed from pictographic proto-writing in
the late 4th millennium BC, stemming from the near eastern token
system used for accounting. Mesopotamia's "proto-literate" period
spans roughly the 35th to 32nd centuries. The first documents
unequivocally written in Sumerian date to the 31st century BC at
Originally, pictographs were either drawn on clay tablets in vertical
columns with a sharpened reed stylus or incised in stone. This early
style lacked the characteristic wedge shape of the strokes.
Certain signs to indicate names of gods, countries, cities, vessels,
birds, trees, etc., are known as determinatives and were the Sumerian
signs of the terms in question, added as a guide for the reader.
Proper names continued to be usually written in purely "logographic"
The earliest known Sumerian king whose name appears on contemporary
cuneiform tablets is
Enmebaragesi of Kish. Surviving records only very
gradually become less fragmentary and more complete for the following
reigns, but by the end of the pre-Sargonic period, it had become
standard practice for each major city-state to date documents by
year-names commemorating the exploits of its lugal (king).
From about 2900 BC, many pictographs began to lose their original
function, and a given sign could have various meanings depending on
context. The sign inventory was reduced from some 1,500 signs to some
600 signs, and writing became increasingly phonological. Determinative
signs were re-introduced to avoid ambiguity.
Cuneiform writing proper
thus arises from the more primitive system of pictographs at about
that time (Early Bronze Age II).
Liste der archaischen Keilschriftzeichen
Liste der archaischen Keilschriftzeichen and
Early Dynastic Cuneiform
Letter sent by the high-priest Luenna to the king of
Urukagina), informing him of his son's death in combat,
Girsu c. 2400
In the mid-3rd millennium BC, the direction of writing was changed to
left-to-right in horizontal rows (rotating all of the pictographs 90°
counter-clockwise in the process) and a new wedge-tipped stylus was
introduced which was pushed into the clay, producing wedge-shaped
("cuneiform") signs; these two developments made writing quicker and
easier. By adjusting the relative position of the tablet to the
stylus, the writer could use a single tool to make a variety of
Cuneiform inscriptions, Stela of Iddi-Sin, king of Simurrum
Cuneiform tablets could be fired in kilns to bake them hard, and so
provide a permanent record, or they could be left moist and recycled,
if permanence was not needed. Many of the clay tablets found by
archaeologists have been preserved by chance, baked when attacking
armies burned the buildings in which they were kept.
An inscribed stand's head, early dynastic period
The script was also widely used on commemorative stelae and carved
reliefs to record the achievements of the ruler in whose honour the
monument had been erected.
The spoken language included many homophones and near-homophones, and
in the beginning similar-sounding words such as "life" [til] and
"arrow" [ti] were written with the same symbol. After the Semites
conquered Southern Mesopotamia, some signs gradually changed from
being pictograms to syllabograms, most likely to make things clearer
in writing. In that way the sign for the word "arrow" would become the
sign for the sound "ti". Words that sounded alike would have different
signs; for instance the syllable "gu" had fourteen different symbols.
When the words had similar meaning but very different sounds they were
written with the same symbol. For instance "tooth" [zu], "mouth" [ka]
and "voice" [gu] were all written with the symbol for "voice". To be
more accurate, scribes started adding to signs or combining two signs
to define the meaning. They used either geometrical patterns or
another cuneiform sign. As time went by, the cuneiform got very
complex and the distinction between a pictogram and syllabogram became
vague. Several symbols had too many meanings to permit clarity.
Therefore, symbols were put together to indicate both the sound and
the meaning of a compound. The word "Raven" [UGA] had the same
logogram as the word "soap" [NAGA], name of a city [EREŠ] and the
patron goddess of Eresh [NISABA]. Two phonetic complements were used
to define the word [u] in front of the symbol and [gu] behind. Finally
the symbol for "bird" [MUŠEN] was added to ensure proper
Written Sumerian was used as a scribal language until the first
century AD. The spoken language died out around the 18th century BC.
The archaic cuneiform script was adopted by the
Akkadian Empire from
the 23rd century BC (short chronology), and by the beginning of the
Middle Bronze Age (20th century BC), it had evolved into Old Assyrian
cuneiform, with many modifications to Sumerian orthography. The
Semitic languages employed equivalents for many signs that were
distorted or abbreviated to represent new values because the syllabic
nature of the script as refined by the Sumerians was not intuitive to
Semitic speakers. At this stage, the former pictograms were reduced to
a high level of abstraction, and were composed of only five basic
wedge shapes: horizontal, vertical, two diagonals and the Winkelhaken
impressed vertically by the tip of the stylus. The signs exemplary of
these basic wedges are
AŠ (B001, U+12038) 𒀸: horizontal;
DIŠ (B748, U+12079) 𒁹: vertical;
GE23, DIŠ tenû (B575, U+12039) 𒀹: downward diagonal;
GE22 (B647, U+1203A) 𒀺: upward diagonal;
U (B661, U+1230B) 𒌋: the Winkelhaken.
Except for the
Winkelhaken which has no tail, the length of the
wedges' tails could vary as required for sign composition.
Signs tilted by about 45 degrees are called tenû in Akkadian, thus
DIŠ is a vertical wedge and DIŠ tenû a diagonal one. If a sign is
modified with additional wedges, this is called gunû or
"gunification;" if signs are crosshatched with additional Winkelhaken,
they are called šešig; if signs are modified by the removal of a
wedge or wedges, they are called nutillu.
Cuneiform tablet from the Kirkor Minassian collection in the US
Library of Congress, c. 24th century BC
One of the Amarna letters, 14th century BC
Neo-Assyrian ligature KAxGUR7 (𒅬); the KA sign (𒅗) was a
Sumerian compound marker, and appears frequently in ligatures
enclosing other signs. GUR7 is itself a ligature of SÍG.AḪ.ME.U,
meaning "to pile up; grain-heap" (
Akkadian kamāru; karû).
"Typical" signs have about five to ten wedges, while complex ligatures
can consist of twenty or more (although it is not always clear if a
ligature should be considered a single sign or two collated, but
distinct signs); the ligature KAxGUR7 consists of 31 strokes.
Most later adaptations of
Sumerian cuneiform preserved at least some
aspects of the Sumerian script. Written
Akkadian included phonetic
symbols from the Sumerian syllabary, together with logograms that were
read as whole words. Many signs in the script were polyvalent, having
both a syllabic and logographic meaning. The complexity of the system
bears a resemblance to Old Japanese, written in a Chinese-derived
script, where some of these Sinograms were used as logograms and
others as phonetic characters.
This "mixed" method of writing continued through the end of the
Babylonian and Assyrian empires, although there were periods when
"purism" was in fashion and there was a more marked tendency to spell
out the words laboriously, in preference to using signs with a
phonetic complement. Yet even in those days, the Babylonian syllabary
remained a mixture of logographic and phonemic writing.
Hittite cuneiform is an adaptation of the Old
Assyrian cuneiform of c.
1800 BC to the Hittite language. When the cuneiform script was adapted
to writing Hittite, a layer of
Akkadian logographic spellings was
added to the script, thus the pronunciations of many Hittite words
which were conventionally written by logograms are now unknown.
In the Iron Age (c. 10th to 6th centuries BC),
Assyrian cuneiform was
further simplified. From the 6th century, the
Akkadian language was
marginalized by Aramaic, written in the Aramaean alphabet, but
Assyrian cuneiform remained in use in literary tradition well into
Parthian Empire (250 BC – AD 226). The last known cuneiform
inscription, an astronomical text, was written in 75 AD.
The complexity of the system prompted the development of a number of
simplified versions of the script.
Old Persian was written in a subset
of simplified cuneiform characters known today as Old Persian
cuneiform. It formed a semi-alphabetic syllabary, using far fewer
wedge strokes than Assyrian used, together with a handful of logograms
for frequently occurring words like "god" and "king".
written using the
Ugaritic alphabet, a standard Semitic style alphabet
(an abjad) written using the cuneiform method.
For centuries, travellers to Persepolis, in modern-day Iran, had
noticed carved cuneiform inscriptions and were intrigued. Attempts
at deciphering these
Old Persian writings date back to Arabo-Persian
historians of the medieval Islamic world, though these early attempts
at decipherment were largely unsuccessful.
In the 15th century, the Venetian
Giosafat Barbaro explored ancient
ruins in the Middle East and came back with news of a very odd writing
he had found carved on the stones in the temples of
Shiraz and on many
Antonio de Gouvea, a professor of theology, noted in 1602 the strange
writing he had had occasion to observe during his travels a year
Persia which took in visits to ruins. In 1625,
the Roman traveler Pietro Della Valle, who had sojourned in
Mesopotamia between 1616 and 1621, brought to Europe copies of
characters he had seen in
Persepolis and inscribed bricks from Ur and
the ruins of Babylon. The copies he made, the first that
reached circulation within Europe, were not quite accurate but Della
Valle understood that the writing had to be read from left to right,
following the direction of wedges, but did not attempt to decipher the
Englishman Sir Thomas Herbert, in the 1638 edition of his travel book
Some Yeares Travels into Africa & Asia the Great. … , reported
Persepolis carved on the wall "a dozen lines of strange
characters…consisting of figures, obelisk, triangular, and
pyramidal" and thought they resembled Greek. In the 1677 edition
he reproduced some and thought they were 'legible and intelligible'
and therefore decipherable. He also guessed, correctly, that they
represented not letters or hieroglyphics but words and syllables, and
were to be read from left to right. Herbert is rarely mentioned in
standard histories of the decipherment of cuneiform.
Carsten Niebuhr brought the first reasonably complete and accurate
copies of the inscriptions at
Persepolis to Europe in 1767.:9
Friedrich Münter of Copenhagen discovered that the words in
the Persian inscriptions were divided from one another by an oblique
wedge and that the monuments must belong to the age of Cyrus and his
successors. One word, which occurs without any variation towards the
beginning of each inscription, he correctly inferred to signify
"king".:10 By 1802
Georg Friedrich Grotefend
Georg Friedrich Grotefend had determined
that two kings' names mentioned were Darius and Xerxes (but in their
Old Persian forms, which were unknown at the time and therefore
had to be conjectured), and had been able to assign correct alphabetic
values to the cuneiform characters which composed the two names.
Although Grotefend's Memoir was presented to the Göttingen Academy of
Sciences and Humanities on September 4, 1802, the Academy refused to
publish it; it was subsequently published in Heeren's work in 1815,
but was overlooked by most researchers at the time.
In 1836, the eminent French scholar
Eugène Burnouf discovered that
the first of the inscriptions published by Niebuhr contained a list of
the satrapies of Darius. With this clue in his hand, he identified and
published an alphabet of thirty letters, most of which he had
A month earlier, a friend and pupil of Burnouf's, Professor Christian
Lassen of Bonn, had also published his own work on The Old Persian
Cuneiform Inscriptions of Persepolis. He and Burnouf had been
in frequent correspondence, and his claim to have independently
detected the names of the satrapies, and thereby to have fixed the
values of the Persian characters, was consequently fiercely attacked.
According to Sayce, whatever his obligations to Burnouf may have been,
...contributions to the decipherment of the inscriptions were numerous
and important. He succeeded in fixing the true values of nearly all
the letters in the Persian alphabet, in translating the texts, and in
proving that the language of them was not Zend, but stood to both Zend
Sanskrit in the relation of a sister.
Meanwhile, in 1835 Henry Rawlinson, a British East India Company army
officer, visited the Behistun Inscriptions in Persia. Carved in the
reign of King Darius of
Persia (522–486 BC), they consisted of
identical texts in the three official languages of the empire: Old
Persian, Assyrian and Elamite. The Behistun inscription was to the
decipherment of cuneiform what the
Rosetta Stone was to the
decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Rawlinson correctly deduced that the
Old Persian was a phonetic script
and he successfully deciphered it. In 1837 he finished his copy of the
Behistun inscription, and sent a translation of its opening paragraphs
to the Royal Asiatic Society. Before his article could be published,
however, the works of Lassen and Burnouf reached him, necessitating a
revision of his article and the postponement of its publication. Then
came other causes of delay. In 1847 the first part of the Rawlinson's
Memoir was published; the second part did not appear until
1849.[b] The task of deciphering the Persian cuneiform texts was
After translating the Persian, Rawlinson and, working independently of
him, the Irish
Assyriologist Edward Hincks, began to decipher the
others. (The actual techniques used to decipher the
have never been fully published; Hincks described how he sought the
proper names already legible in the deciphered Persian while Rawlinson
never said anything at all, leading some to speculate that he was
secretly copying Hincks.) They were greatly helped by the
excavations of the French naturalist
Paul Émile Botta
Paul Émile Botta and English
traveler and diplomat
Austen Henry Layard
Austen Henry Layard of the city of
1842. Among the treasures uncovered by Layard and his successor
Hormuzd Rassam were, in 1849 and 1851, the remains of two libraries,
now mixed up, usually called the Library of Ashurbanipal, a royal
archive containing tens of thousands of baked clay tablets covered
with cuneiform inscriptions.
By 1851, Hincks and Rawlinson could read 200 Babylonian signs. They
were soon joined by two other decipherers: young German-born scholar
Julius Oppert, and versatile British Orientalist William Henry Fox
Talbot. In 1857 the four men met in London and took part in a famous
experiment to test the accuracy of their decipherments. Edwin Norris,
the secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society, gave each of them a copy
of a recently discovered inscription from the reign of the Assyrian
emperor Tiglath-Pileser I. A jury of experts was empanelled to examine
the resulting translations and assess their accuracy. In all essential
points the translations produced by the four scholars were found to be
in close agreement with one another. There were of course some slight
discrepancies. The inexperienced Talbot had made a number of mistakes,
and Oppert's translation contained a few doubtful passages which the
jury politely ascribed to his unfamiliarity with the English language.
But Hincks' and Rawlinson's versions corresponded remarkably closely
in many respects. The jury declared itself satisfied, and the
Akkadian cuneiform was adjudged a fait accompli.
In the early days of cuneiform decipherment, the reading of proper
names presented the greatest difficulties. However, there is now a
better understanding of the principles behind the formation and the
pronunciation of the thousands of names found in historical records,
business documents, votive inscriptions, literary productions and
legal documents. The primary challenge was posed by the characteristic
use of old Sumerian non-phonetic logograms in other languages that had
different pronunciations for the same symbols. Until the exact
phonetic reading of many names was determined through parallel
passages or explanatory lists, scholars remained in doubt, or had
recourse to conjectural or provisional readings. Fortunately, in many
cases, there are variant readings, the same name being written
phonetically (in whole or in part) in one instance and logographically
Extract from the
Cyrus Cylinder (lines 15–21), giving the genealogy
Cyrus the Great
Cyrus the Great and an account of his capture of
Babylon in 539 BC
Cuneiform has a specific format for transliteration. Because of the
script's polyvalence, transliteration requires certain choices of the
transliterating scholar, who must decide in the case of each sign
which of its several possible meanings is intended in the original
document. For example, the sign DINGIR in a Hittite text may represent
either the Hittite syllable an or may be part of an
representing the syllable il, it may be a Sumerogram, representing the
original Sumerian meaning, 'god' or the determinative for a deity. In
transliteration, a different rendition of the same glyph is chosen
depending on its role in the present context.
Therefore, a text containing DINGIR and MU in succession could be
construed to represent the words "ana", "ila", god + "a" (the
accusative case ending), god + water, or a divine name "A" or Water.
Someone transcribing the signs would make the decision how the signs
should be read and assemble the signs as "ana", "ila", "Ila"
("god"+accusative case), etc. A transliteration of these signs,
however, would separate the signs with dashes "il-a", "an-a",
"DINGIR-a" or "Da". This is still easier to read than the original
cuneiform, but now the reader is able to trace the sounds back to the
original signs and determine if the correct decision was made on how
to read them. A transliterated document thus presents the reading
preferred by the transliterating scholar as well as an opportunity to
reconstruct the original text.
There are differing conventions for transliterating Sumerian, Akkadian
(Babylonian) and Hittite (and Luwian) cuneiform texts. One convention
that sees wide use across the different fields is the use of acute and
grave accents as an abbreviation for homophone disambiguation. Thus, u
is equivalent to u1, the first glyph expressing phonetic u. An acute
accent, ú, is equivalent to the second, u2, and a grave accent ù to
the third, u3 glyph in the series (while the sequence of numbering is
conventional but essentially arbitrary and subject to the history of
decipherment). In Sumerian transliteration, a multiplication sign 'x'
is used to indicate typographic ligatures. As shown above, signs as
such are represented in capital letters, while the specific reading
selected in the transliteration is represented in small letters. Thus,
capital letters can be used to indicate a so-called Diri compound –
a sign sequence that has, in combination, a reading different from the
sum of the individual constituent signs (for example, the compound
IGI.A – "water" + "eye" – has the reading imhur, meaning "foam").
In a Diri compound, the individual signs are separated with dots in
transliteration. Capital letters may also be used to indicate a
Sumerogram (for example, KÙ.BABBAR – Sumerian for "silver" –
being used with the intended
Akkadian reading kaspum, "silver"), an
Akkadogram, or simply a sign sequence of whose reading the editor is
uncertain. Naturally, the "real" reading, if it is clear, will be
presented in small letters in the transliteration: IGI.A will be
rendered as imhur4.
Sumerian language has only been widely known and studied by
scholars for approximately a century, changes in the accepted reading
of Sumerian names have occurred from time to time. Thus the name of a
king of Ur, read Ur-Bau at one time, was later read as Ur-Engur, and
is now read as
Ur-Nammu or Ur-Namma; for Lugal-zage-si, a king of
Uruk, some scholars continued to read Ungal-zaggisi; and so forth.
Also, with some names of the older period, there was often uncertainty
whether their bearers were Sumerians or Semites. If the former, then
their names could be assumed to be read as Sumerian, while, if they
were Semites, the signs for writing their names were probably to be
read according to their Semitic equivalents, though occasionally
Semites might be encountered bearing genuine Sumerian names. There was
also doubt whether the signs composing a Semite's name represented a
phonetic reading or a logographic compound. Thus, e.g. when
inscriptions of a Semitic ruler of Kish, whose name was written
Uru-mu-ush, were first deciphered, that name was first taken to be
logographic because uru mu-ush could be read as "he founded a city" in
Sumerian, and scholars accordingly retranslated it back to the
original Semitic as Alu-usharshid. It was later recognized that the
URU sign can also be read as rí and that the name is that of the
Akkadian king Rimush.
The tables below show signs used for simple syllables of the form CV
or VC. As used for the Sumerian language, the cuneiform script was in
principle capable of distinguishing at least 16 consonants,
b, d, g, g̃, ḫ, k, l, m, n, p, r, ř, s, š, t, z
as well as four vowel qualities, a, e, i, u. The
Akkadian language had
no use for g̃ or ř but needed to distinguish its emphatic series, q,
ṣ, ṭ, adopting various "superfluous" Sumerian signs for the
purpose (e.g. qe=KIN, qu=KUM, qi=KIN, ṣa=ZA, ṣe=ZÍ, ṭur=DUR
etc.[clarification needed]) Hittite as it adopted the Akkadian
cuneiform further introduced signs such as wi5=GEŠTIN.
na4 ("NI.UD") 𒉌𒌓
sa4 ("ḪU.NÁ") 𒄷𒈾
át=GÍR gunû 𒄉
iz= GIŠ 𒄑,
See also: List of cuneiform signs
Cuneiform writing in Ur, southern Iraq
Sumerian cuneiform script had on the order of 1,000 distinct signs
(or about 1,500 if variants are included). This number was reduced to
about 600 by the 24th century BC and the beginning of Akkadian
records. Not all Sumerian signs are used in
Akkadian texts, and not
Akkadian signs are used in Hittite.
Falkenstein (1936) lists 939 signs used in the earliest period (late
Uruk, 34th to 31st centuries). With an emphasis on Sumerian forms,
Deimel (1922) lists 870 signs used in the Early Dynastic II period
(28th century, "LAK") and for the Early Dynastic IIIa period (26th
century, "ŠL"). Rosengarten (1967) lists 468 signs used in Sumerian
Lagash and Mittermayer ("aBZL", 2006) list 480
Sumerian forms, written in Isin-Larsa and Old Babylonian times.
Akkadian forms, the standard handbook for many years was
Borger ("ABZ", 1981) with 598 signs used in Assyrian/Babylonian
writing, recently superseded by Borger ("MesZL", 2004) with an
expansion to 907 signs, an extension of their Sumerian readings and a
new numbering scheme.
Signs used in
Hittite cuneiform are listed by Forrer (1922), Friedrich
(1960) and the HZL (Rüster and Neu 1989). The HZL lists a total of
375 signs, many with variants (for example, 12 variants are given for
number 123 EGIR).
Main article: Babylonian numerals
The Sumerians used a numerical system based on 1, 10 and 60. The way
of writing a number like 70 would be the sign for 60 and the sign for
10 right after. This way of counting is still used today for measuring
time as 60 seconds per minute and 60 minutes per hour.
Cuneiform script was used in many ways in ancient Mesopotamia. It was
used to record laws, like the Code of Hammurabi. It was also used for
recording maps, compiling medical manuals, and documenting religious
stories and beliefs, among other uses. Studies by Assyriologists
like Claus Wilcke and Dominique Charpin suggest that cuneiform
literacy was not reserved solely for the elite but was common for
According to the Oxford Handbook of
Cuneiform Culture, cuneiform
script was used at a variety of literacy levels:
Average citizens needed only a basic, functional knowledge of
cuneiform script to write personal letters and business documents.
More highly literate citizens put the script to more technical use,
listing medicines and diagnoses and writing mathematical equations.
Scholars held the highest literacy level of cuneiform and mostly
focused on writing as a complex skill and an art form.
Cuneiform Numbers and
Unicode block), and
Early Dynastic Cuneiform (Unicode
As of version 8.0, the following ranges are assigned to the
Cuneiform script in the
U+12000–U+123FF (922 assigned characters) "Cuneiform"
U+12400–U+1247F (116 assigned characters) "
Cuneiform Numbers and
U+12480–U+1254F (196 assigned characters) "Early Dynastic Cuneiform"
The final proposal for
Unicode encoding of the script was submitted by
two cuneiform scholars working with an experienced
writer in June 2004. The base character inventory is derived from
the list of
Ur III signs compiled by the
Cuneiform Digital Library
UCLA based on the inventories of Miguel Civil, Rykle
Borger (2003) and Robert Englund. Rather than opting for a direct
ordering by glyph shape and complexity, according to the numbering of
an existing catalogue, the
Unicode order of glyphs was based on the
Latin alphabetic order of their "last" Sumerian transliteration as a
List of major
Cuneiform tablet discoveries
This list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it.
Number of tablets
Kuyunkjik hill on
Tigris River, Outside of Mosul, now in Iraq
Khorsabad hill on
Tigris River, Outside of Mosul, now in Iraq
Library of Ashurbanipal
Tens of thousands
Sumerian and Eblaite
Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh
Ancient Near East portal
Babylonokia: a 21st-century cuneiform artwork
List of cuneiform signs
List of museums of ancient Near Eastern art
Old Persian cuneiform
^ /kjuːˈniːɪfɔːrm/ kew-NEE-i-form or
/kjuːˈneɪ.ɪfɔːrm/ kew-NAY-i-form or /ˈkjuːnɪfɔːrm/
^ It seems that various parts of Rawlisons' paper formed Vol X of this
journal. The final part III comprised chapters IV (Analysis of the
Persian Inscriptions of Behistunand) and V (Copies and Translations of
Cuneiform Inscriptions of Persepolis, Hamadan, and Van),
^ a b "Definition of cuneiform in English". Oxford Dictionaries.
Archived from the original on September 25, 2016. Retrieved July 30,
^ Cuneiform: Irving Finkel & Jonathan Taylor bring ancient
inscriptions to life. The British Museum. June 4, 2014. Archived from
the original on October 17, 2015. Retrieved July 30, 2017.
Egyptian hieroglyphs date to about the same period, and it is
unsettled which system began first. See Visible Language. Inventions
Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond Archived May 11,
2013, at the Wayback Machine., Oriental Institute Museum Publications,
32, Chicago: University of Chicago, p. 13, ISBN 978-1-885923-76-9
^ from a
New Latin cuneiformis, composed of cuneus "wedge" and forma
"shape" (17th century) of the script in the 19th century (Henry
Creswicke Rawlinson, The Persian
Cuneiform Inscription at Behistun,
Decyphered and Tr.; with a Memoir on Persian
Cuneiform Inscriptions in
General, and on that of Behistun in Particular (1846). Different
shape-derived names occur in several other languages, such as Finnish
nuolenpääkirjoitus "arrowhead script", Hebrew כתב יתדות
"stake script", and Persian میخی and Dutch spijkerschrift, both
meaning "nail script".
^ The word "cuneiform" was coined in 1700 by the English orientalist
Thomas Hyde (1663–1703):
Thomas Hyde, Historia Religionis Veterum Persarum, … [History of
religion of the ancient Persians … ] (Oxford, England: Sheldonian
Theater, 1700), p. 526. [in Latin] On pages 526–527, Hyde discusses
the cuneiform found at Persepolis. From p. 526: "Istiusmodi enim
ductuli pyramidales seu Cuneiformes non veniunt in Gavrorum literis,
nec in Telesmaticis, nec in Hieroglyphicis Ægypti; sed tales ductus
(tam inter seinvicem juxta positi quam per seinvicem transmissi) sunt
peculiares Persepoli, … " (Because such thin pyramidal or wedge
forms do not occur in the letters of the Gavres [variously spelled
Gabres, Guebers, Ghebers, or Chebers, was an old English name for
Zoroastrians, an ancient cult of fire worshippers; the word Gavres was
derived from the Persian word gaur for "infidel"], nor in talismans,
nor in Egyptian hieroglyphs; but such drawings (so closely placed
among each other as [intended to] be conveyed by means of each other)
are peculiar to Persepolis, … )
(Meade, 1974), p. 5. Archived December 19, 2016, at the Wayback
According to (Meade, 1974), p. 5, the German naturalist, physician,
Engelbert Kaempfer (1651–1716) is often credited with
having coined the word "cuneiform"; see:
Kaempfer, Engelbert, Amoenitatum Exoticarum … [Of Foreign Charms …
] (Lippe (Lemgoviae), (Germany): Heinrich Wilhelm Meyer, 1712), p.
331. On p. 331 Kaempfer describes cuneiform as: " … formam
habentibus cuneolorum; … " ( … having the form of wedges; … ).
[Note: A sample of the cuneiform from
Persepolis appears on the plate
following p. 332.]
However, on pp. 317–318, Kaempfer states that he had read Thomas
Hyde's book Historia Religionis Veterum Persarum:
From pp. 317–318: "Cl. Thomas Hyde, Anglus, Vir in linguis &
rebus exoticis præclare doctus, in Hist. Relig. vet. Pers. & Med.
… " (The famous Thomas Hyde, an Englishman, a man well trained in
languages and in exotic things, in [his] Historia Religionis Veterum
Persarum … )
^ a b "
Cuneiform Tablets: Who's Got What?", Biblical Archaeology
Review, 31 (2), 2005, archived from the original on July 15,
^ a b Watkins, Lee; Snyder, Dean (2003), The Digital Hammurabi Project
(PDF), The Johns Hopkins University, archived (PDF) from the original
on July 14, 2014, Since the decipherment of Babylonian cuneiform some
150 years ago museums have accumulated perhaps 300,000 tablets written
in most of the major languages of the Ancient Near East – Sumerian,
Akkadian (Babylonian and Assyrian), Eblaite, Hittite, Persian,
Hurrian, Elamite, and Ugaritic. These texts include genres as
variegated as mythology and mathematics, law codes and beer recipes.
In most cases these documents are the earliest exemplars of their
genres, and cuneiformists have made unique and valuable contributions
to the study of such moderns disciplines as history, law, religion,
linguistics, mathematics, and science. In spite of continued great
interest in mankind's earliest documents it has been estimated that
only about 1/10 of the extant cuneiform texts have been read even once
in modern times. There are various reasons for this: the complex
Akkadian script system is inherently difficult to learn; there
is, as yet, no standard computer encoding for cuneiform; there are
only a few hundred qualified cuneiformists in the world; the
pedagogical tools are, in many cases, non-optimal; and access to the
widely distributed tablets is expensive, time-consuming, and, due to
the vagaries of politics, becoming increasingly difficult.
^ Adkins 2003, p. 47.
^ Geller, Marckham (1997). "The Last Wedge". Zeitschrift für
Assyriologie und vorderasiatische Archäologie. 87 (1): 43–95.
doi:10.1515/zava.19126.96.36.199. Archived from the original on July 21,
^ a b c d e f Sayce 1908.
^ El Daly, Okasha (2004). Egyptology: The Missing Millennium :
Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings. Routledge. pp. 39–40
& 65. ISBN 1-84472-063-2.
^ C. Wade Meade, Road to Babylon: Development of U.S. Assyriology,
Archived December 19, 2016, at the Wayback Machine. Brill Archive,
Gouvea, Antonio de, Relaçam em que se tratam as guerras e grandes
vitórias que alcançou o grande Rey de
Persia Xá Abbas, do grão
Turco Mahometo, e seu filho Amethe … [An account in which are
treated the wars and great victories that were attained by the great
Persia Shah Abbas against the great Turk Mehmed and his son,
Ahmed … ] (Lisbon, Portugal: Pedro Crasbeeck, 1611), p. 32. Archived
March 20, 2018, at the Wayback Machine. [in Portuguese]
French translation: Gouvea, Antonio de, with Alexis de Meneses,
trans., Relation des grandes guerres et victoires obtenues par le roy
de Perse Cha Abbas contre les empereurs de Turquie Mahomet et Achmet
son fils, … (Rouen, France: Nicolas Loyselet, 1646), pp. 81–82.
Archived March 20, 2018, at the Wayback Machine. [in French] From pp.
81–82: "Peu esloigné de là estoit la sepulture de la Royne, qui
estoit fort peu differente. L'escriture qui donnoit cognoissance par
qui, pourquoy, & en quel temps cest grande masse avoit esté
bastie est fort distincte en plusieurs endroits du bastiment: mais il
n'y a personne qui y entende rien, parce que les carracteres ne sont
Persiens, Arabes, Armeniens ny Hebreux, qui sont les langages
aujourd'hui en usage en ces quartiers là, … " (Not far from there
Persepolis or "Chelminira"] was the sepulchre of the queen,
which wasn't much different. The writing that announced by whom, why,
and at what time this great mass had been built, is very distinct in
several locations in the building: but there wasn't anyone who
understood it, because the characters were neither Persian, Arabic,
Armenian, nor Hebrew, which are the languages in use today in those
quarters … )
^ In 1619, Spain's ambassador to Persia, García de Silva Figueroa
(1550–1624), sent a letter to the Marquesse of Bedmar, discussing
various subjects regarding Persia, including his observations on the
cuneiform inscriptions at Persepolis. This letter was originally
printed in 1620:
Figueroa, Garciae Silva, Garciae Silva Figueroa de Rebus Persarum
epistola v. Kal. an. M.DC.XIX Spahani exarat ad Marchionem Bedmarii
(Antwerp, (Belgium): 1620), 16 pages. [in Latin].
It was translated into English and reprinted in 1625 by Samuel
Purchas, who included it in a collection of letters and other writings
concerning travel and exploration:
"Letter from Don Garcia Silva Figueroa Embassador from Philip the
Third King of Spaine, to the Persian, Written at Spahan, or Hispahan
Anno 1619 to the Marquese Bedmar Touching Matters of Persia," Archived
March 20, 2018, at the Wayback Machine. in: Purchas, Samuel, Purchas
His Pilgrimes (London, England: William Stansby, 1625), vol. 2, book
IX, Chap. XI, pp. 1533–1535.
That English translation was reprinted in 1905:
Figueroa, Don Garcia Silva, "Chap. XI. Letter from Don Garcia Silva
Figueroa Embassador from Philip the Third King of Spaine, to the
Persian, Written at Spahan, or Hispahan Anno 1619 to the Marquese
Bedmar Touching Matters of Persia," in: Purchas, Samuel, Hakluytus
Posthumus or Purchas His Pilgrimes, … (Glasgow, Scotland: James
MacLehose and Sons, 1905), vol. 9, pp. 190–196. On pp. 192–193,
Figueroa describes the cuneiform at Persepolis: "The Letters
themselves are neither Chaldæan, nor Hebrew, nor Greeke, nor Arabike,
nor of any other Nation, which was ever found of old, or at this day,
to be extant. They are all three-cornered, but somewhat long, of the
forme of a Pyramide, or such a little Obeliske, as I have set in the
margine: so that in nothing doe they differ one from another, but in
their placing and situation, yet so conformed that they are wondrous
plaine distinct and perspicuous."
^ Hilprecht, Hermann Vollrat (1904). The Excavations in
Babylonia. Cambridge University Press. p. 17.
^ Pallis, Svend Aage, "Early exploration in Mesopotamia, with a list
of the Assyro-Babylonian cuneiform texts published before 1851," Det
Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab: Historisk-filologiske
Meddelelser (Writings of the Royal Danish Society of Science:
Historical-philological Communications), 33 (6) : 1–58 ;
see p. 10. Available at: Royal Danish Society of Science Archived
October 6, 2017, at the Wayback Machine.
^ Valle, Pietro della, Viaggi di Pietro della Valle, Il Pellegrino
[The journeys of Pietro della Valle, the pilgrim] (Brighton, England:
G. Gancia, 1843), vol. 2, pp. 252–253. From p. 253: "Mi da indizio
che possa scriversi dalla sinistra alla destra al modo nostro, … "
(It indicates to me that it [i.e., cuneiform] might be written from
left to right in our way, … )
^ Herbert, Thomas, Some Yeares Travels into Africa & Asia the
Great. … (London, England: R. Bishop, 1638), pp. 145–146. From
pages 145–146: "In part of this great roome [i.e., in the palace at
Persepolis] (not farre from the portall) in a mirrour of polisht
marble, wee noted above a dozen lynes of strange characters, very
faire and apparent to the eye, but so mysticall, so odly framed, as no
Hierogliphick, no other deep conceit can be more difficultly fancied,
more adverse to the intellect. These consisting of Figures, obelisk,
triangular, and pyramidall, yet in such Simmetry and order as cannot
well be called barbarous. Some resemblance, I thought some words had
of the Antick Greek, shadowing out Ahashuerus Theos. And though it
have small concordance with the Hebrew, Greek, or Latine letter, yet
questionless to the Inventer it was well knowne; and peradventure may
conceale some excellent matter, though to this day wrapt up in the dim
leafes of envious obscuritie."
^ Herbert, Sir Thomas, Some Years Travels into Divers Parts of Africa
and Asia the Great. … , 4th ed. (London, England: R. Everingham,
1677), pp. 141–142. From p. 141: " … albeit I rather incline to
the first [possibility], and that they comprehended words or
syllables, as in Brachyography or Short-writing we familiarly
practise: … Nevertheless, by the posture and tendency of some of the
Characters (which consist of several magnitudes) it may be supposed
that this writing was rather from the left hand to the right, … "
Page 142 shows an illustration of some cuneiform.
^ Niebuhr, Carsten, Reisebeschreibung nach Arabien und andern
umliegender Ländern (Account of travels to Arabia and other
surrounding lands), vol. 2 (Kopenhagen, Denmark: Nicolaus Möller,
1778), p. 150; see also the fold-out plate (Tabelle XXXI) after p.
152. From p. 150: "Ich will auf der Tabelle XXXI, noch eine, oder
vielmehr vier Inschriften H, I, K, L beyfügen, die ich etwa in der
Mitte an der Hauptmauer nach Süden, alle neben einander, angetroffen
habe. Der Stein worauf sie stehen, ist 26 Fuß lang, und 6 Fuß hoch,
und dieser ist ganz damit bedeckt. Man kann also daraus die Größe
der Buchstaben beurtheilen. Auch hier sind drey verschiedene
Alphabete." (I want to include in Plate XXXI another, or rather four
inscriptions H, I, K, L, which I found approximately in the middle of
the main wall to the south [in the ruined palace at Persepolis], all
side by side. The stone on which they appear, is 26 feet long and 6
feet high, and it's completely covered with them. One can thus judge
therefrom the size of the letters. Also here, [there] are three
Münter, Frederik (1800a) "Undersögelser om de Persepolitanske
Inscriptioner. Förste Afhandling." (Investigations of the
inscriptions of Persepolis. First part.), Det Kongelige Danske
Videnskabers-Selskabs Skrivter (Writings of the Royal Danish Society
of Science), 3rd series, 1 (1) : 253–292. [in Danish]
Münter, Frederik (1800b) "Undersögelser om de Persepolitanske
Inscriptioner. Anden Afhandling." (Investigations of the inscriptions
of Persepolis. Second part.), Det Kongelige Danske
Videnskabers-Selskabs Skrivter (Writings of the Royal Danish Society
of Science), 3rd series, 1 (2) : 291–348. [in Danish] On p.
339, Münter presents the
Old Persian word for "king" written in
Reprinted in German as: Münter, Friederich, Versuch über die
keilförmigen Inschriften zu
Persepolis [Attempt at the cuneiform
inscription at Persepolis] (Kopenhagen, Denmark: C. G. Prost, 1802).
^ Heeren 1815.
^ Ceram, C.W., Gods, Graves and Scholars, 1954
Grotefend, G. F., "Ueber die Erklärung der Keilschriften, und
besonders der Inschriften von Persepolis" [On the explanation of
cuneiform, and especially of the inscriptions of Persepolis] in:
Heeren, Arnold Hermann Ludwig, Ideen über die Politik, den Verkehr
und den Handel der vornehmsten Völker der alten Welt [Ideas about the
politics, commerce, and trade of the most distinguished peoples of the
ancient world], part 1, section 1, (Göttingen, (Germany): Bandelhoel
und Ruprecht, 1815), 563–609. [in German]
English translation: Grotefend, G.F., "Appendix II: On the cuneiform
character, and particularly the inscriptions at Persepolis" in:
Heeren, Arnold Hermann Ludwig, with David Alphonso Talboys, trans.,
Historical Researches into the Politics, Intercourse, and Trade of the
Principal Nations of Antiquity, vol. 2, (Oxford, England: D.A.
Talboys, 1833), pp. 313–360. Grotefend's determinations of the
values of several characters in cuneiform are also briefly mentioned
in vol. 1, p. 196.
^ Burnouf 1836
^ a b Prichard 1844, pp. 30–31
^ Adkins 2003.[full citation needed]
^ Rawlinson 1847.
^ Daniels 1996.
^ Rawlinson, Henry; Fox Talbot, William Henry; Hincks, Edward; and
Oppert, Julius, Inscription of Tiglath-Pileser I., King of Assyria,
B.C. 1150, … (London, England: J. W. Parker and Son, 1857). For a
description of the "experiment" in the translation of cuneiform, see
^ Foxvog, Daniel A. Introduction to Sumerian grammar (PDF).
pp. 16–17, 20–21. Archived (PDF) from the original on January
3, 2017 (about phonemes g̃ and ř and their representation
using cuneiform signs).
^ Jagersma, A. H. A descriptive grammar of Sumerian (PDF) (Thesis).
pp. 43–45, 50–51. Archived (PDF) from the original on
November 25, 2015 (about phonemes g̃ and ř and their
representation using cuneiform signs).
^ "The World's Oldest Writing". Archaeology. 69 (3). May 2016.
Retrieved September 18, 2016 – via Virtual Library of
^ Wilcke, Claus (2000). Wer las und schrieb in Babylonien und
Assyrien. München: Verlag der Bayerischen Akademie der
Wissenschaften. ISBN 978-3-7696-1612-5.
^ Charpin, Dominique. 2004. "Lire et écrire en Mésopotamie: une
affaire dé spécialistes?" Comptes rendus de l'Académie des
Inscriptions et Belles Lettres: 481–501.
^ Veldhuis, Niek (2011). "Levels of Literacy". The Oxford Handbook of
Cuneiform Culture. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199557301.001.0001.
^ Everson, Michael; Feuerherm, Karljürgen; Tinney, Steve (June 8,
2004). "Final proposal to encode the
Cuneiform script in the SMP of
the UCS Archived October 17, 2016, at the Wayback Machine.."
^ a b c d "
Persepolis Fortification Archive The Oriental Institute
of the University of Chicago". oi.uchicago.edu. Archived from the
original on September 29, 2016. Retrieved September 18, 2016.
^ a b c d e f g h i Bertman, Stephen (2005). Handbook to Life in
Ancient Mesopotamia. Oxford University Press.
^ Ellermeier, Friedrich., and Margret. Studt. Sumerisches Glossar. Bd.
3, T. 6, Handbuch
Assur / Friedrich Ellmermeier ; Margret
Studt.Hardegsen bei Göttingen: Selbstverl. Ellermeier, 2003. Print.
Theologische und orientalistische Arbeiten aus Göttingen, 4;
Theologische und orientalistische Arbeiten aus Göttingen, 4.
Hittite cuneiform tablets from Bogazköy United Nations
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization". www.unesco.org.
Archived from the original on September 19, 2016. Retrieved September
^ Michel, Cecile, Old Assyrian Bibliography, 2001.
^ Tablets from the site surfaced on the market as early as 1880, when
three tablets made their way to European museums. By the early 1920s,
the number of tablets sold from the site exceeded 4,000. While the
site of Kültepe was suspected as the source of the tablets, and the
site was visited several times, it was not until 1925 when Bedrich
Hrozny corroborated this identification by excavating tablets from the
fields next to the tell that were related to tablets already
^ Lauinger, Jacob (January 1, 2007). Archival practices at Old
Babylonian/Middle Bronze Age
Alalakh (Level VII) (Thesis). THE
UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO. Archived from the original on July 14,
^ Moorey, P.R.S. (1992). A Century of Biblical Archaeology.
Westminster Knox Press. ISBN 978-0664253929.
^ Amin, Osama S. M. (September 24, 2015). "The newly discovered tablet
V of the Epic of Gilgamesh". Ancient History et cetera. Archived from
the original on September 3, 2016. Retrieved September 18, 2016.
Adkins, Lesley, Empires of the Plain: Henry Rawlinson and the Lost
Languages of Babylon, New York, St. Martin's Press (2003)
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R. Borger, Assyrisch-Babylonische Zeichenliste, 2nd ed.,
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trouvées près d'Hamadan et qui font partie des papiers du Dr
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Hamadan and that form part of the papers of Dr. Schulz], Imprimerie
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vol. 3.5: ISBN 3-921747-26-0
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William Bell Wait
Braille Institute of America
Braille Without Borders
Schools for the blind
American Printing House for the Blind
Other tactile alphabets
New York Point
Electronic writing systems
Internet slang dialects
Lolspeak / LOLspeak / Kitteh
Martian language (Chinese)
Padonkaffsky jargon (Russian)
See also English internet slang (at Wiktionary)