How The Discovery Of Cuneiform Changed Our History

Cuneiform is a writing method designed by the ancient Sumerians c. 3500-3000 BCE. It has a crucial benefaction on the culture of the Sumerians, especially of those who belonged to the ancient city of Uruk.

Its name originates from the Latin word ‘cuneus’ which translates as ‘wedge’, signifying the wedge-shaped form of writing.

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In cuneiform, there is a delicate writing tool called stylus which is smoothed towards a soft mud in order to create characters that represent word-signs (pictographs) and word-concepts (phonograms).

Many admirable Mesopotamian cultures used cuneiform. Among them were the: Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Elamites, Hatti, Hittites, Assyrians and the Hurrians.

At some point after 100 BCE, it dropped out of use because of the appearance of the alphabetic script.

Cuneiform tablet.

Following the discovery of many ancient cuneiform tablets in the 19th century, the whole history of humankind changed.

Before they were found, the Bible was considered to be the oldest authoritative book in the world.

However, when the English Assyriologist George Smith managed to translate The Epic of Gilgamesh in 1872 CE, along the way he also managed to alter our whole knowledge of written history.

His translation was the first in a row of the many translations that followed. This resulted in an alternation of a biblical aspect of our history to a more modernistic, scholarly one.

George Smith.

The beginning of the cuneiform.

The first tablets were more scenic since the subjects they included were strong and visible (e.g a flood or a king). They later grew to be more complex with the subjects becoming vague and immaterial (e.g the will of the gods).

In 3000 BCE, the subjects became simpler and the stylus transmitted word-concepts instead of word-signs.

Cuneiform Tablets Display.

How the cuneiform further developed?

One no longer had to cope with the meaning of a pictograph. Now they could simply read a word-concept which communicated the aim more precisely. Moreover, the number of characters in a texting also declined from over 1,000 to 600.

Paul Kriwaczek, a prominent historian, gave the best illustration:

“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.”

Cuneiform further improved reaching a point where it was clear whether, for instance, the sheep were coming or going to the temple.

By the era of the priestess-poet Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE), cuneiform became very advanced. It was able to express emotions such as love, betrayal, fear, hope etc.

Cuneiform literature.

Many amazing literary pieces of Mesopotamia were written in cuneiform. Until the middle of the 19th century, the public wasn’t aware of their existence.

Famous translators like George Smith and Henry Rawlinson, however, managed to interpret the language and translated it into English.

Among the most popular are: the Epic of Gilgamesh, The Myth of Etana, The Enuma Elish, Atrahasis.

The Epic of Gilgamesh.

As we said, everyone thought the Bible was the oldest book in the world while the Song of Solomon the oldest love poem. Then again, with the discovery of the cuneiform, everything changed.

The oldest love poem now is The Love Song of Shu-Sin from 2000 BCE, long before The Song of Solomon appeared.

Mesopotamian literary subjects were also the base of all the kinds of literature that followed. For example, they are visible in the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman literary works.

Therefore we conclude that the religious angle of how the world emerged is largely denied with the decryption
of cuneiform. Since its discovery and translation, the history of civilization has never been the same.