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The ancient secrets revealed by deciphered cuneiform clay tablets

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“The earliest known form of writing is called cuneiform. First used over 5,000 years ago, it’s believed to predate Egyptian hieroglyphs. Cuneiform was used by civilisations that lived in Mesopotamia. Several societies used cuneiform as their writing system including the Sumerians and the Akkadians.

“Pressed onto clay, cuneiform tablets are incredibly durableβ€”they’re literally fireproofβ€”but for thousands of years, no one was able to translate them. After much trial and error, cuneiform script was finally deciphered in the Victorian era. What they revealed was extraordinary.”

cuneiform examples
Learn about how cuneiform was used and what it revealed about the cultures and the day-to-day lives of the people who communicated with it. This informative BBC Ideas history short was created by Jist Studios in partnership with The Open University.

Dr. Christina Tsouparopoulou of Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology, Dr. Irving Finkel, British Museum curator in the Department of the Middle East, and Dr. Selena Wisnom from the University of Leicester’s Archaeology and Ancient History department all tell the story of this ancient logo-syllabic script.

cuneiform letter and envelope
Plus, more from The British Museum:

“Originating in what is now Iraq before 3,200 BC, cuneiform script is, as far as we know, the oldest form of writing in the world.

“First developed by scribes as a bookkeeping tool to keep track of bread and beer rations in ancient cities like Uruk (in the south east of modern-day Iraq), the system soon spread across the Middle East and was used continuously for more than 3,000 years, up until the first century AD.”

how cuneiform was used

“Cuneiform is not a language but a proper way of writing distinct from the alphabet. It doesn’t have β€˜letters’ – instead it uses between 600 and 1,000 characters impressed on clay to spell words by dividing them up into syllables, like β€˜ca-at’ for cat, or β€˜mu-zi-um’ for museum. Other signs stood for whole words, like our β€˜Β£β€™ standing for pound sterling.”

“You can see how words can be written in syllables in the handy chart below, from cuneiform (available to buy here), by curators Irving Finkel and Jonathan Taylor:

cuneiform chart by the British Museum

“The two main languages written in cuneiform are Sumerian and Akkadian, although more than a dozen others are recorded, including Hittite, cousin to Latin.

“Texts were written by pressing a cut, straight reed into slightly moist clay. The characteristic wedge-shaped strokes that make up the signs give the writing its modern name – cuneiform means β€˜wedge-shaped’ (from the Latin cuneus for β€˜wedge’).”

studying cuneiform with technology

β€’Β How to write cuneiform with British Museum curators Dr. Irving Finkel and Jonathan Taylor.
β€’Β Cuneiform facts for kids at
β€’Β Cuneiform examples at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
β€’Β Ancient Mesopotamiaβ€”Literacy, Now and Then, a Met Museum lesson for grades 9-12.
β€’Β The historical study of cuneiform in Open University’s free Babylonian mathematics course.

Watch these related videos next:
β€’Β Pictographs, cuneiform, and the history of writing, a Getty 2-Minute Time Machine
β€’Β Decoding the mysterious language dubbed Linear B
β€’ How to Write in Elian Script, a video tutorial
β€’Β The Writer, a drawing machine automaton by Pierre Jaquet-Droz
β€’Β How zip codes helped organize America
β€’Β Museum of Obsolete Objects: The Quill, The Cassette Tape, and more

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