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Cuneiform writing



Cuneiform inscription.
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Photo: Procsilas Moscas.

Cuneiform inscription.
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Photo: Lindsay Holmwood.

Cuneiform inscription.
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Cuneiform inscription in gold, from the royal palace at Dur-Sharrukin. Photo: Groume.

Writing style, that is made from wedge-shaped strokes, inscribed on clay, stone, metal, wax or other materials. Cuneiform writing has been used in several languages, and was in use for about 3,000 years, from about 3100 BCE until about year 0.
Cuneiform writing originated in southern Mesopotamia, and was created in the Sumerian culture, in order to write in the Sumerian language. Later it was used for Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian. Cuneiform developed into the dominant writing style of the Middle East, and even spread to Egypt, where hieroglyphic writing was normally preferred.
Cuneiform writing was also applied to several local languages, like Hurrian in northern Mesopotamia, Syria and Asia Minor; Eblaite in Syria;, Hittite, Luwian, Palaic and Hattic in Asia Minor; and Urartian in Armenia. Later developments of cuneiform writing came to be used in Syria, along with Ugaritic, and, in Persia, along with Old Persian symbols.

Structure and Use
In its first stages, cuneiform writing was based on pictographs, but for practical reasons, a system based on straight lines came to prevail. As the pictographs changed into symbols made from straight lines, they lost their original resemblance to the objects they represented. Numbers were represented by repeated strokes or circles. In order to write in cuneiform, a stylus was used to make tapered impressions in clay.
At first every character represented one word, but many words lacked their own symbols. For these, symbols of related objects were used (a foot could mean both "to go" and "to stand", in addition to "foot").
In its early stages, cuneiform was written from top to bottom. During the 3rd millennium BCE, this changed into writing from left to right. The signs also took on new form, being turned on their sides.
Cuneiform writing developed into a mixture between logograms and syllables. Logograms allowed that one sign could be read as more than one sound, and, therefore, having more than one meaning. The method of signage allowed for various syllables with differing sounds, but, confusingly enough the syllabic symbols could also be logograms. Cuneiform writing mixed these two symbol types in order to make the content clear, according to what is called the rebus-system.
There were 600 signs in the fully developed cuneiform system. Half were logograms/syllables, and the other half only logograms. Only in its latest stages, with Ugaritic and Old Persian, did cuneiform signs become alphabetic signs. In Old Persian there were 36 characters, including a word-divider.
When Aramaic spread as the lingua franca in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE, Phoenician script was introduced, and with this cuneiform writing became gradually replaced. The last example of cuneiform writing dates to 75 CE.

Deciphering and Translation
It was the Behistun inscription that allowed Western scholars to decipher the cuneiform systems. In this inscription, there were 3 similar texts in 3 languages: Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. Old Persian was the first system to be deciphered in the 1840's, partly, thanks to existing knowledge of Pahlavi, which was a later Persian language.
The next system to be translated, even if only in part, was the Elamite text, also in the 1840's. The Babylonian part of the Behistun was the last to be translated, and occurred through the efforts of scholars in different European countries.





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By Tore Kjeilen