The Sumerian Writing System
Whether the Sumerians were the first to develop writing is uncertain, but theirs is the oldest known writing system. The clay tablets on which they wrote were very durable when baked. Archaeologists have dug up many thousands of them–some dated earlier than 3000 BC.
The earliest writing of the Sumerians was picture writing similar in some ways to Egyptian hieroglyphs. They began to develop their special style when they found that on soft, wet clay it was easier to impress a line than to scratch it. To draw the pictures they used a stylus–probably a straight piece of reed with a three-cornered end.
An unexpected result came about: the stylus could best produce triangular forms (wedges) and straight lines. Curved lines therefore had to be broken up into a series of straight strokes. Pictures lost their form and became stylized symbols. This kind of writing on clay is called cuneiform, from the Latin cuneus, meaning “wedge.”
A tremendous step forward was accomplished when the symbols came to be associated with the sound of the thing shown rather than with the idea of the thing itself. Each sign then represented a syllable. Although cuneiform writing was still used long after the alphabet appeared, it never fully developed an alphabet.
As we have noted, the symbols on the oldest Sumerian clay tablets, the world’s first writing, were pictures of concrete things such as a person, a sheep, a star, or a measure of grain. Some of these pictographs also represented ideas; for example, the picture of a foot was used to represent the idea of walking, and a picture of a mouth joined to that for water meant “to drink.” This early pictograph writing gave way to phonetic (or syllabic) writing when the scribes realized that a sign could represent a sound as well as an object or idea. Thus, the personal name “Kuraka” could be written by combining the pictographs for mountain (pronounced kur), water (pronounced a), and mouth (pronounced ka). By 2800 B.C., the use of syllabic writing had reduced the number of signs from nearly two thousand to six hundred.
In writing, a scribe used a reed stylus to make impressions in soft clay tablets. The impressions took on a wedge shape, hence the term cuneiform (Latin cuneus, “wedge”). The cuneiform system of writing was adopted by many other peoples of the Near East, including the Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, and Persians.
Cuneiform was difficult to learn. To master it children usually went to a temple school. Using a clay tablet as a textbook, the teacher wrote on the left-hand side, and the pupil copied the model on the right. Any mistakes could be smoothed out. The pupil began by making single wedges in various positions and then went on to groups of wedges. Thousands of groups had to be mastered. Finally the pupil was assigned a book to copy, but the work was slow and laborious. Many first chapters of all the important Sumerian works have been handed down from students’ tablets, but only fragments of the rest of the books survive.
The pupils also studied arithmetic. The Sumerians based their number system on 10, but they multiplied 10 by 6 to get the next unit. They multiplied 60 by 10, then multiplied 600 by 6, and so on. (The number 60 has the advantage of being divisible by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, and 30.) The Sumerians also divided the circle into 360 degrees. From these early people came the word dozen (a fifth of 60) and the division of the clock to measure hours, minutes, and seconds.
The Sumerians had standard measures, with units of length, area, and capacity. Their standard weight was the mina, made up of 60 shekels–about the same weight as a pound. There was no coined money. Standard weights of silver served as measures of value and as a means of exchange.
From the earliest times the Sumerians had a strong sense of private property. After they learned to write and figure, they kept documents about every acquired object, including such small items as shoes. Every business transaction had to be recorded. Near the gates of the cities, scribes would sit ready to sell their services. Their hands would move fast over a lump of clay, turning the stylus. Then the contracting parties added their signatures by means of seals. The usual seal was an engraved cylinder of stone or metal that could be rolled over wet clay.
In the course of time cuneiform was used for every purpose, just as writing is today–for letters, narratives, prayers and incantations, dictionaries, even mathematical and astronomical treatises. The Babylonians and Assyrians adapted cuneiform for their own Semitic languages and spread its use to neighboring Syria, Anatolia, Armenia, and Iran.