At the end of February the Bloomsbury Summer School had a study day on cuneiform, presented by Irving Finkel called “The Wonder of Cuneiform: A Passionate Exploration of Some of Mesopotamia’s Most Important Ancient Records”. Finkel is a curator at the British Museum and has recently written a book (and presented a TV programme (post)) on a tablet containing a previous unknown version of the Ark myth including details of how to build an ark. As I’m learning Akkadian it sounded like an interesting day to go to. He’s a good speaker, managing to be entertaining as well as informative about a subject that could easily have been quite dry. There were four talks throughout the day, the first was an overview of the writing system and the other three each covered a text in cuneiform. I had intended to write a single post about all four talks, but after writing this first one I’ve decided to split it into four separate posts.
Cuneiform: The World’s Oldest and Most Marvellous Writing System
The title of this talk was definitely chosen to tweak the noses of the Egyptologists in the room (of which there were many as most of the BSS’s study days are Egypt related). It worked too – I was sat between J and Janet (who we know from the EEG) and they were both muttering about how hieroglphs are better than cuneiform 😉
Cuneiform writing originates sometime in the 4th Millennium BC in the geographical area that is now Iraq. Finkel told us about a couple of theories of its origin – the first one he talked about was the token theory, which he isn’t terribly convinced by. In this theory first small objects (stones, clay shapes) of particular forms were used to keep records, and later these were drawn onto clay and became pictographs. He thinks this theory requires being selective about the evidence, so isn’t very plausible. Instead he pointed out that cylinder seals exist at least as far back as evidence of writing so it’s not a big jump to think they started by drawing pictographs on clay to keep records.
The earliest writing in Mesopotamia is bureaucratic in nature. People were beginning to live in cities, which have a much higher administrative overhead and so record keeping began to be essential for the rulers of the population. Finkel said that mathematics begins at the same time as writing, for the same sorts of reasons, and the first examples found written down are quite complex so they must’ve been doing it for a while (I think by mathematics he means arithmetic and accountancy not algebra etc).
The first known language written in cuneiform (c.3300BC) was Sumerian, which is a language that has no known relatives. Obviously there were likely to’ve been some at the time, all the rest have just died out without trace. Akkadian, which I’m learning, was written in cuneiform later on and is a Semitic language.
The Big Idea of writing was the move from pictographs representing concrete things (sheep, cow, house etc) to using them to represent sounds, and also abstract grammatical necessities. An example of the first is that the word for “beer” is “kash”, so when you want to write down something about the Kashite King you use a beer pictograph for the first syllable of his country. And you know from context that this is kash-something not beer-something. An example of the second is that the beer pictograph is also used to represent the word for “its”, for no other reason that that this was decided to be so. Dictionaries are found from very early in the history of cuneiform listing these arbitrary designations.
The system (which signs mean what things) was clearly developed once – the only change in cuneiform writing over the 3,000 years that it is used is that the shapes of the signs become more cursive. The repertoire remains the same, and they represent the same syllable sounds or concepts throughout (even when writing a different language). Finkel believes that this was may even have been the work of a single individual who was both charismatic enough and important enough to enforce his (or her) ideas on the rest of the scribes. And once you have a functional system in place then bureaucratic inertia keeps it in place. The system that was developed isn’t necessarily the best or easiest system! Each sign has more than one value, so the system is inherently ambiguous. Also there are often multiple ways of writing the same sound, chosen mostly by whim of the scribe. Context is very important for working out what was being written about. And I’m discovering it gets worse when it starts being used to write Akkadian as not all features of the language are represented in the writing system – long and short vowels for instance. Context is all that tells you if you’re reading nārum (river) or narûm (stela).
Development of the sign for head
Made by wikipedia user Dbachmann
Prior to the standardisation the writing system had developed from plain pictographs in two ways. First the basic signs were modified to represent more words. For instance the sign for “head” could be turned into one representing “mouth” by adding a line for a mouth. And then you could add to that sign the one for “bowl”, and you represent “ration”. The next step (which continued long after standardisation of the sign repertoire) was to move from pictographs to more stylised & abstract signs. This began with a change in how the signs were drawn – at first a point was used to actually draw in the clay, but then they began to use wedges of reed to make impressions in the surface of the tablet (the shape this produces is what “cuneiform” as a word refers to). If you look at the diagram above you’ll also notice that they rotated the signs 90° at some point (I thought it was later in the process than that diagram suggests, however).
Finkel finished this introductory talk by giving us a brief overview of what the British Museum has in its collection of cuneiform tablets. There are around 130,000 of them in the museum, 25,000 of which came from a library in Nineveh. This is analogous to the much later Library of Alexandria in a couple of ways – first because it was supposed to be complete, and second because it got burnt to the ground. However unlike papyrus scrolls clay tablets are actually preserved by burning, and so it was dug up in modern times nearly intact. Apparently there’s going to be a new display relating to this in the British Museum soon.