Set in Clay: The Origins of Writing

Cuneifrom tablet record of barley distribution 3100-2900 B.C.E. | Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Cuneifrom tablet record of barley distribution 3100-2900 B.C.E. | Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Written language, which is perhaps taken for granted in the 21st century, was not common for early civilizations. Around 3,000 B.C.E. the first writing system was created by the Sumerians. The Sumerians developed their civilization in present day southern Iraq; they evolved into complex societies with large cities and centralized economies. The origin of their writing system developed to keep track of inventories of things produced, such as grain and livestock. From their records emerged the first written form of any language, called cuneiform.1

Literally meaning “wedged shaped,” cuneiform was written by using a stylist on a damp piece of clay. The clay was then baked to harden the inscription. Cuneiform developed from sounds of the Sumerian language. As time progressed, the writing became more and more complex. The forms went from being an inscription of an object, such as sheep, to more abstract representations of words, such as “the sheep walk to the temple.”2

Cuneiform is the oldest written language, but even the oldest language has its own origins. Recent archaeological research has found evidence for the origin of writing to be more complex than originally thought. Some recent discoveries of even older writing, called proto-cuneiform, were found in Syria and Turkey going back to the mid fourth millennium. These inscriptions are pictorial, much like hieroglyphs of Egypt. Many of them are decipherable, but most are so abstract that they cannot be identified with known objects. Some of these were even written on wood instead of clay. The tablets found from the Sumerian people are only a small fraction of the earliest writing. The Sumerian tablets are from the time when writing became standardized, as a result of rapidly growing Sumerian city-states. The need for a normalized way of writing with  standard symbols that people could recognize was apparent, so they shifted from pictographs to a standard script. The script became the writing we know today as cuneiform, and it also became a new way to record other things, such as stories and legal codes.3

Epic of Gilgamesh tablet courtesy of the British Museum
Epic of Gilgamesh tablet | Courtesy of the British Museum

With the development of more complex writing came the first pieces of real literature. The Epic of Gilgamesh, written between 2150-1400 BCE, is the oldest known work of literature. The story comes from a long oral tradition that was passed by word of mouth for centuries. The development of cuneiform allowed the story to enter history as a written record. In addition to literature, legal writing emerged in the form of legal codes, such as the Law Code of Hammurabi, created sometime between 1794-1750 BCE. The Code of Hammurabi has almost three hundred laws that applied to the daily life of the Babylonians. The range of the law code is broad, from family life to administrative laws. The Code of Hammurabi is the oldest extensive law code known.4

Cuneiform set the stage for subsequent written languages. Its origins came from pictures, but then became representations of sounds of spoken language. Now writing is something people use everyday. People read books, articles, text messages on smartphones; all these means of communicating have their origin in cuneiform.


  1.  Jerry Bentley, Herbert Ziegler, and Heather Streets Salter, Traditions & Encounters: A Brief Global History, Volume 1, 3 edition (McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2013), 16.
  2. Ancient History Encyclopedia, October 2010, s.v. “Cuneiform,” by Joshua J. Mark.
  3. Ira Spar, “The Origins of Writing,” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.) (October 2004).
  4. Bentley, Ziegler, and Salter, Traditions &; Encounters: A Brief Global History, 10-11.

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This Post Has 32 Comments

  1. Daniel Gimena
    Daniel Gimena

    Interesting article about one of the most important things in human history: the history of writing.
    It is always exciting to learn about how things that today we take for granted, emerged in a completely different form as we know today.
    This is the case of cuneiform writing. It is impressive how so many centuries ago the basics of all of our today’s languages were born. Cuneiform writing is one of those things that seem so meaningless for our eyes, but is so important for human history.

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    Juan Arceo

    Every little thing has their origin but I never really stopped to think about how writing came to be. It is interesting to see how cuneiform essentially brought about writing and evidently transformed not just that nation, but ultimately the whole world. By developing a style of writing, several advancements were made with one of the most important being the Code of Hammurabi.

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