Cuneiform was the system of writing used most extensively in the ancient Middle East. Cuneiform was employed for writing a number of languages from about the end of the 4th millennium BC until about the 1st century BC.

The most widely used and historically significant writing system of the ancient Middle East was called cuneiform. The term is from the Latin, meaning “wedge-shaped.” The writing system was in use at least by the end of the 4th millennium BC, and during the 3rd millennium the pictures that it used became fairly standardized linear drawings. Because they were pressed into soft clay tablets with the slanted edge of a stylus, they came to have a wedge-shaped appearance.


Cuneiform was not a language. It was, like Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Chinese system of ideographs, or ideograms, a picture-writing system that used symbols. As the symbols gained acceptance throughout the Middle East, they could be understood by all ethnic groups even though the groups spoke different languages and dialects.

The earliest known documents in cuneiform were written by the Sumerians of southern Mesopotamia, who assigned their own word-sounds to the symbols. Later, the Akkadians adopted the symbols but pronounced them as corresponding Akkadian words. Cuneiform thus passed successively from one people to another. The Akkadians were succeeded by the Babylonians, and they by the Assyrians.

The expansion of cuneiform writing outside Mesopotamia began during the 3rd millennium BC, when the country of Elam, in what is now southwestern Iran, adopted the system. The Hurrians of northern Mesopotamia adopted Akkadian cuneiform in about 2000 BC and passed it to the Hittites, who had invaded Asia Minor about that time. In the 2nd millennium cuneiform became the universal medium of written communication among the nations of the Middle East.

The Assyrian and Babylonian empires fell in the 7th and 6th centuries BC. By this time Aramaic was becoming the common language of the area, and Phoenician script came into general use. Cuneiform was used less and less, though many priests and scholars kept the writing form alive until the 1st century AD. Cuneiform owes its disappearance largely to the fact that it was a non-alphabetic way of writing. It could not compete successfully with the alphabetic systems being developed by the Phoenicians, Israelites, Greeks, and other peoples of the Mediterranean.

Spread and development of cuneiform

Although begun by the Sumerians, eventually,  the Sumerian writing system was adopted by the Akkadians, Semitic invaders who established themselves in Mesopotamia about the middle of the 3rd millennium. In adapting the script to their wholly different language, the Akkadians retained the Sumerian logograms and combinations of logograms for more complex notions but pronounced them as the corresponding Akkadian words. They also kept the phonetic values but extended them far beyond the original Sumerian inventory of simple types (open or closed syllables like ba or ab). Many more complex syllabic values of Sumerian logograms (of the type kan, mul, bat) were transferred to the phonetic level, and polyphony became an increasingly serious complication in Akkadian cuneiform (e.g., the original pictograph for “sun” may be read phonetically as ud, tam, tú, par, lah, his). The Akkadian readings of the logograms added new complicated values. Thus the sign for “land” or “mountain range” (originally a picture of three mountain tops) has the phonetic value kur on the basis of Sumerian but also mat and sad from Akkadian matu (“land”) and sadû (“mountain”). No effort was made until very late to alleviate the resulting confusion, and equivalent “graphies” like ta-am and tam continued to exist side by side throughout the long history of Akkadian cuneiform.The earliest type of Semitic cuneiform in Mesopotamia is called the Old Akkadian, seen for example in the inscriptions of the ruler Sargon of Akkad (died c. 2279 BC). Sumer, the southernmost part of the country, continued to be a loose agglomeration of independent city-states until it was united by Gudea of Lagash (died c. 2124 BC) in a last brief manifestation of specifically Sumerian culture. The political hegemony then passed decisively to the Akkadians, and King Hammurabi of Babylon (died 1750 BC) unified all of southern Mesopotamia. Babylonia thus became the great and influential center of Mesopotamian culture. The Code of Hammurabi is written in Old Babylonian cuneiform, which developed throughout the shifting and less brilliant later eras of Babylonian history into Middle and New Babylonian types. Farther north in Mesopotamia the beginnings of Assur were humbler. Specifically Old Assyrian cuneiform is attested mostly in the records of Assyrian trading colonists in central Asia Minor (c. 1950 BC; the so-called Cappadocian tablets) and Middle Assyrian in an extensive Law Code and other documents. The Neo-Assyrian period was the great era of Assyrian power, and the writing culminated in the extensive records from the library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh (c. 650 BC).The expansion of cuneiform writing outside Mesopotamia began in the 3rd millennium, when the country of Elam in southwestern Iran was in contact with Mesopotamian culture and adopted the system of writing. The Elamite sideline of cuneiform continued far into the 1st millennium BC, when it presumably provided the Indo-European Persians with the external model for creating a new simplified quasi-alphabetic cuneiform writing for the Old Persian language. The Hurrians in northern Mesopotamia and around the upper stretches of the Euphrates adopted Old Akkadian cuneiform around 2000 BC and passed it on to the Indo-European Hittites, who had invaded central Asia Minor at about that time.

In the 2nd millennium the Akkadian of Babylonia, frequently in somewhat distorted and barbarous varieties, became a lingua franca of international intercourse in the entire Middle East, and cuneiform writing thus became a universal medium of written communication. The political correspondence of the era was conducted almost exclusively in that language and writing. Cuneiform was sometimes adapted, as in the consonantal script of the Canaanite city of Ugarit on the Syrian coast (c. 1400 BC), or simply taken over, as in the inscriptions of the kingdom of Urartu or Haldi in the Armenian mountains from the 9th to 6th centuries BC; the language is remotely related to Hurrian, and the script is a borrowed variety of Neo-Assyrian cuneiform. Even after the fall of the Assyrian and Babylonian kingdoms in the 7th and 6th centuries BC, when Aramaic had become the general popular language, rather decadent varieties of Late Babylonian and Assyrian survived as written languages in cuneiform almost down to the time of Christ.

The earliest attested documents in cuneiform were written in Sumerian, the language of the inhabitants of southern Mesopotamia and Chaldea from the 4th until the 2nd millennium BC. Discovered at the site of the ancient city of Uruk (biblical Erech), they were in a pictographic type of cuneiform in which objects were represented by pictures, numbers were represented by the repetitional use of strokes or circles, and proper names were indicated by combinations of pictures used according to the rebus principle; i.e., the pictures were to be interpreted according to their usual pronunciations rather than according to the objects they depicted.

About the 3rd millennium BCE,  the pictographs gradually began to change to conventionalized linear drawings and because they were pressed into soft clay tablets with the slanted edge of a stylus, came to have a wedge-shaped appearance. Earlier cuneiform was written in columns from top to bottom but during the 3rd millennium came to be written from left to right with the cuneiform signs turned on their sides. At about the same time these changes in the cuneiform writing system were occurring, it was adopted by the Akkadians, Semitic invaders of Mesopotamia, for writing their language. The earliest Akkadian cuneiform inscriptions date from the Old Akkadian or Early Akkadian period (c. 2450 to c. 1850 BC), during which the inscriptions of Sargon, the great ruler of Akkad, were written. Cuneiform continued to be used for writing the Assyrian and Babylonian dialects descended from Akkadian.

Cuneiform was borrowed by the Elamites, the Kassites, the Persians, the Mitanni, and the Hurrians. The Hurrians passed the cuneiform writing system on to the Hittites, who spoke an Indo-European language; cuneiform was also used for the languages (e.g., Luwian, Hattian) spoken in areas under Hittite control.

With the spread of Aramaic as the lingua franca of the Near East in the 7th and 6th centuries BC, the increasing use of the Phoenician script, and the loss of political independence in Mesopotamia with the growth of the Persian Empire, cuneiform came to be used less and less, although it continued to be written by many conservative priests and scholars for several more centuries. The latest known tablet in cuneiform dates from c. AD 75.The Old Persian part of the trilingual royal inscriptions of the Achaemenid kings of Persia were the first cuneiform documents to be deciphered. The inscriptions were also written in Elamite, which still has not been completely deciphered and investigated, and Akkadian, which was deciphered as soon as scholars recognized it to be a Semitic language. Once Akkadian had been deciphered, the complete cuneiform system became intelligible and the other languages written in cuneiform could be read. Sumerian, at first believed to be a special way of writing Akkadian rather than a separate language, was among the last of the languages written in cuneiform to be deciphered.