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A cuneiform script from the 34th century BC Chr. Until at least the 1st century n. Chr.-Used system of writing , which in the Middle East was used for writing several languages. The name is based on the basic elements of cuneiform writing: horizontal, vertical and inclined wedges. Typical text carriers are clay tablets , which are written on by pressing a pen into the soft clay .

The cuneiform script was initially a picture script. It developed into a syllabary from which a phonetic consonant script (the Ugaritic script ) emerged. Cuneiform writing was invented by the Sumerians and later used by numerous peoples of the Ancient Near East : the Akkadians , Babylonians , Assyrians , Hittites , Persians, and others. Eventually it was superseded by other written forms (e.g. the Phoenician script ) and fell into oblivion. The last cuneiform texts were written in the Seleucid period.

History and dissemination

Sumerian cuneiform

The Sumerian cuneiform script is next to the Egyptian hieroglyphs the oldest known script today. It originated around 3300 BC. In Sumer in Mesopotamia and was able to maintain its supremacy until around 1800 BC. Hold. Initially, Sumerian cuneiform began as a picture script , consisting of around 900 pictograms and ideograms that were scratched into clay.

Limestone tablets with the oldest signs were found in Kiš . They were greatly simplified representations of a head, a threshing hammer, an arrow, a jug, a foot. Three mountain peaks stood for "mountains". Other signs came from counting stones and were abstract from the start, such as the cross for “sheep”.

Reconstruction of the development of writing (starting before 3500 BC to 1000 BC ). With the hypothesis that the Sumerian cuneiform script is the older form of writing compared to the
Egyptian hieroglyphs .

Many words were created - similarly to the Chinese characters today - by simply writing together such pictograms. “Weeping” was expressed with the characters “eye” and “water”, “princess” resulted from the drawings “woman” and “jewelry”. “Punishment” was expressed by “stick” and “meat”. “Mountains” and “woman” resulted in “mountain woman”, which meant slave, because the Sumerians probably appropriated slaves from the surrounding mountain peoples. “Grasshopper” stood as a pictogram for “grasshopper”, but also as an ideogram for “destruction”. One could see fields and gardens eroded by swarms of locusts. A “star” stood as a pictogram for “star”, as an ideogram for “heaven” (Sumerian “an”) and “God” (Sumerian: “dingir”). A bowl stood for food. A head and a bowl stood for "eat".

This pictogram writing did not stop at the simple and complex sign meanings. The pictogram of a river stood for "water" - Sumerian "a" - but the sound "a" also meant "in". Instead of inventing a new symbol for "in", the Sumerians used the pictogram "river" in its phonetic meaning "a" equal to "in". As this rapid procedure was used more and more often, the phonetic meaning of the signs finally predominated.

This typeface only got its typical cuneiform form around the year 2700 BC. BC, when the ancient Sumerian centers of power Uruk , Ur and Lagaš grew enormously and their central temple bureaucracies developed an increased need for writing, which called for a rationalization of the writing process. The new technology can be described as revolutionary, in which wedges were pressed into the still soft clay with a blunt pen, which was then dried or fired.

While the new cuneiform script was initially only used by the Sumerians, it quickly gained popularity among the other civilized peoples of the Ancient Near East.

Akkadian Empire

Around the year 2350 BC BC the Semitic people of the Akkadians advanced to Sumer and took control of the Sumerian city-states, including their script and culture. Under the Akkadian ruling dynasty of Sargon of Akkad , their territory and with it language, culture and writing continued to expand. Around the same time, knowledge of the cuneiform script reached as far as Syria in the Ebla Empire , where it was used for the native Semitic language, Eblaitic. Already from 2500 BC In the neighboring kingdom of Elam (modern-day Iran ) the proto-Elamite line script used there was replaced by cuneiform script; this lasted there until the Hellenistic period.

Zovinar inscription , Urartian cuneiform

Hittite and other adaptations

The Hittites , whose Indo-European language differed fundamentally from the Semitic Akkadian language, also adapted the cuneiform script and used it alongside the Hittite hieroglyphs . The cuneiform script spread in the north to Urartu (northeastern Turkey and Armenia) with Urartian as the national language and in the south to Palestine with Canaanite as the predominant language. The further developed form of cuneiform writing was so adaptable in the use of symbols as phonetic signs that the writing could be used equally for the languages ​​of the Akkadians , Babylonians and Assyrians .

Babylonian era

As Hammurapi in 1792 BC In BC ascended the Babylonian throne, Mesopotamia consisted only of a number of rival city-states. However, due to his campaigns, he succeeded in expanding the territory of Babylon to all of Mesopotamia and spreading the language and culture of his empire far beyond the national borders. With the fall of the Babylonian Empire and the rise of the Assyrian Empire, the writing and culture of Mesopotamia spread into the 7th century BC. From Babylonia and Assyria via Palestine to Egypt . During this period, cuneiform script developed into its final form. From the 8th century BC New writing systems, such as Phoenician or Greek phonetic transcription , slowly penetrated into Asia Minor. Little by little they replaced cuneiform writing.

Cuneiform inscription on the Gate of Nations in Persepolis

Special forms

The Persian cuneiform is a special form of cuneiform . At the beginning of Darius I's reign in 521 BC. The Persians did not yet have their own script. The administrative language of the Persian Empire was Elamite , and a translation into Babylonian was always added in reliefs . Dareios I ordered the creation of his own Persian script ( Old Persian ). The Persian cuneiform script was structured much more simply (34 characters) than the cuneiform scripts of the Elamites (approx. 200 characters) and Babylonians (approx. 600 characters) and had word separators for better legibility. The Persian cuneiform was later superseded (around 400 BC) by the introduction of Aramaic . The latest known cuneiform text, an astronomical table, is from AD 75.

Decoding and translation of the cuneiform script

Inscription from Persepolis as redrawn by Niebuhr

The Italian Pietro della Valle first correctly copied several cuneiform characters from a brick from Persepolis in a letter in 1621 and assumed in his travelogue that these letters “are written in our way from left to right hand”. The decryption of this simplified Persian cuneiform began on the basis of copies of inscriptions that the Orient researcher Carsten Niebuhr had also made in Persepolis in 1765. Their publication was based on the pioneering combinations of the German philologist Georg Friedrich Grotefend (Göttingen). Without having knowledge of writing and language, but above all a parallel text version in other languages, in the summer of 1802 he managed to decipher almost a third of the entire inventory of characters within a few weeks. However, this was only possible because it was a fairly monotonous material, which consisted largely of royal names with filiation and titles , to which historical knowledge could be applied. Accordingly, the - few - factual parts of these inscriptions remained closed to Grotefend.

The Behistun inscription shows the report of the victories of the great king Dareios I in three languages.

Progress was initially made through research into related languages ​​( Avestian and Sanskrit ), especially through the Norwegian philologist Christian Lassen . The insights in this area could be applied to Persian inscriptions. Here, too, names - this time peoples' names - helped. Above all, there was additional material, as the English officer Henry Creswicke Rawlinson was able to provide with the copying (1835–1837) and publication (1846/47 and 1851) of the Behistun inscription . Once again it was names whose knowledge the missing characters could be identified.

The inscription on the Behistun rock is a trilingue . The inscription of Behistun was synonymous for the decipherment of the cuneiform script with the discovery of the stone of Rosette for the decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphs . After the Persian text had been deciphered, the way was clear to decipher the more complex cuneiform scripts in the languages ​​of Elam and Babylon .

As a result of Paul-Émile Botta's excavations in Khorsabad, the Louvre and Austen Henry Layard in Nimrud, Kujundschik (Nineveh), Kalah Schergat (Assur), the British Museum had numerous inscriptions. So it is not surprising that there was great interest in deciphering it in France and England. In 1857 Edwin Norris, the secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society in London, sent an inscription from the reign of the Assyrian King Tiglath-pileser I , which had recently been discovered, to Dr. Edward Hincks , to Sir Henry Rawlinson, Julius Oppert , who was born in Germany, and the young British orientalist William Henry Fox Talbot . The translations that were sealed were examined by a commission, found to be consistent in all main points, and published (1857: An inscription of Tiglath Pileser, King of Assyria, as translated by Rawlinson, Talbot, Dr. Hincks, and Oppert ). The decipherment of the Akkadian cuneiform was now a fait accompli (fact).

At the beginning of the 20th century, Bedřich Hrozný deciphered the written language of the Hittites and laid the foundations for research into their language and history.

Written material

The early Sumerian written culture was initially only available to the temple administration, who knew how to use it as an instrument of state control for taxation and administration. It took a very long time before cuneiform writing was able to seize the entire functional spectrum that characterizes the use of writing in ancient advanced cultures. Scientific writings and entertaining literature only emerged after religious and political documents or private sales contracts. The surviving texts include royal inscriptions, epics, myths, hymns , divination and lamentations, including the Gilgamesh epic , one of the oldest surviving poems of mankind, and the most famous literary work of Old Babylon.

With the adaptation of cuneiform script by other ancient oriental cultures, a first exchange of letters arose between the peoples, a forerunner of today's postal service , whereby the clay tablets that were sent were provided with protective covers made of fired clay.

The privileged status of the writer emerged, who had the reputation of an aristocrat and, due to his direct access to important information, was sometimes more powerful than the mostly illiterate rulers. Writing schools were set up, the discipline and rigor of which is also documented by homework received.

Font development

The history of the development of cuneiform writing could be traced on clay tablets - with copies made by temple students from their teachers. Initially, the characters were pictograms , simplified pictorial representations of an object or being. For example, the stylized star stood for "star", "God" and "heaven". The cuneiform script later developed into ideograms that represented complex trains of thought. Then, for example, the stylized star also stood for "above".

From about 2900 BC. The pictograms lost more and more of their former function and their original reference. Now a single sign could have different meanings depending on the context. In the subsequent development step, only one meaning was associated with a sign. From the original 1500 pictograms, 600 characters were developed that were used regularly. Over time, these signs related more and more to the sound of the spoken words. The result was picture puzzles (rebus) in which a pictogram no longer stood for the object shown, but for a word with a similar sound . Similar to the hieroglyphs , the cuneiform script was phonetic over a long period of time . In order to be able to read clearly, the writers had to introduce determinants in order to be able to classify the characters according to the meaning of the object and the meaning of sound. As the font developed, the characters became more complicated, for example by repeating the same shapes.

Structure and transliteration

The Babylonian cuneiform, as it was used for Sumerian, Akkadian and Hittite and many other languages ​​(the Ugaritic cuneiform represents an alphabet and must be excluded here), essentially has logograms , phonograms and determinatives.


Logograms stand for a word, are at least in some cases derived from a picture of the object represented and are often identical for several languages. In modern Assyriology, logograms are transliterated with their Sumerian sound value. The character , originally the image of a person, stands for the Sumerian word / lu / "man". But it can also be used in Akkadian texts where it is to be read / awilum / (that's the Akkadian word for “man”), or in Hittite texts for / antuhšaš / “man”. The transliteration commonly used in Assyriology is in all cases , with logograms being rendered in non-italic minuscules. In Akkadian and Hittite texts, such logograms are usually referred to in somewhat skewed terminology as Sumerograms , because the Sumerian sound value is common for all languages ​​as a modern transliteration.

Certain logograms, the Sumerian reading of which is considered unknown or unsecured, are set in non-italic capital letters. There is a measure of length transliterated as , the reading of which is considered unsecured. The transliteration comes from the fact that the same sign in Akkadian is used as a phonogram for and therefore the length measure could at least have had the reading / uš /. Capitalization is also used to indicate the uncertainty between multiple possible paraphrases of ambiguous characters. For example, one and the same symbol (originally a picture of a foot) stands for the Sumerian verbs you “go” and gub “stand”, which are usually transliterated that way. A decision between the two readings includes, in addition to the pure naming of the cuneiform characters, also an interpretation of the content of the text. However, if a text editor does not want to choose one of the two readings in a given context, he transliterates YOU . The capitalization is a cipher here to name the character of the original, but it indicates that one does not want to specifically commit to one of the possible interpretations.


Phonograms usually stand for consonant + vowel, vowel + consonant or consonant + vowel + consonant connections. They are transliterated in the same way in all cuneiform languages ​​and at least in principle have the same pronunciation. The syllable da can be found as a syllable symbol for / da /, for example in grammatical endings, in Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite and other cuneiform languages. When transliterating Akkadian and Hittite (not Sumerian) it is common to put phonograms in italic minuscule. For example, the genitive of the Akkadian word for “man”, / awilim /, can be written with the combination of the logogram lú (= Akkadian / awilum /) and the phonogram lim , which specifies the grammatical form. This combination of two cuneiform characters to transliterated LU lim .


Determinatives are often formally identical to logograms, but do not stand alone for a word or a word core, but are added to a word that has already been written out completely phonographically or logographically. For example, the already mentioned character "man" in Sumerian, Akkadian or Hittite texts can be used to designate certain persons, e.g. B. job titles, precede without it being read aloud as such. Such a sign with semantic value but without direct phonetic realization is called a determinative; the usual transliteration is that of superscript minuscule. In this area many cases of doubt can arise, as in the Sumerian word lú-érim “enemy” (literally: man-hostile). It could be that / luerim / was actually spoken in Sumerian; in this case there would be two logograms. Or maybe only / erim / was spoken and lú would only have had the value of a determinative. Those who are of this opinion will transliterate the element lú superscript according to the convention. Since the pronunciation of words in cuneiform languages ​​often exhibits uncertainties of the type mentioned, the character classification remains uncertain to a certain extent and the practice of transliteration also fluctuates between the individual researchers.

Transliteration with accents and index numbers

The transliteration of a cuneiform character is in principle unambiguous; H. Apart from palaeographic details, the cuneiform characters used in the original can always be deduced from the transliterate. A character is always transliterated in the same way regardless of whether the text is written in Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite etc. In order to enable clarity, in the transliteration (1) all individual characters are separated from one another by hyphen or other typographical means (whitespace, superscript), and (2) characters for which an identical phonetic value is assumed are separated by accents and / or subscripts differed from each other. Today the system codified by the Assyriologists Borger, Civil and Ellermeier (BCE system) is decisive here. There is a sign lu (frequent phonogram e.g. in Akkadian). A second character, for which - in Sumerian - the sound value / lu / is also used, is rewritten with an acute or alternatively lu 2 with index number 2 (the above-mentioned word for "man"). Other characters with the phonetic value / lu / are noted as or lu 3 (including a Sumerian verb for “confuse”), then with 4 and higher index digits. It should therefore be noted in particular that the accents must not be misunderstood as stress or similar information.

Since the transliteration system is common to all cuneiform languages ​​and has to take homophones from all languages ​​into account at the same time, the result is a very large number of characters with the same reading and a correspondingly high density of accents and index numbers when describing related texts. In Sumerian, for example, the character gu 10 is quite common (including the possessive pronoun "my"), although in Sumerian itself most of the gu characters have a lower index (gu, gú, gù, gu 4 , gu 5 , ... gu 9 ) not or little use. A proposal was once made to develop a transliteration system that was restricted to Sumerian, which would relieve the transliteration of this language from additional characters, but would give up the advantage of being able to be used for all cuneiform languages.

Writing media

The preferred writing medium for cuneiform writing at the time of its spread (3000 to 500 BC) were tablets made of damp clay . The characters were embossed with a reed or wooden pen. The clay tablets then dried or were additionally hardened by firing. Assyrian royal inscriptions were mostly carved in stone. The Urartian cuneiform can be found almost exclusively on rocks. Cuneiform texts embossed with a burin in silver plates were also found.

See also


  • Hans Baumann: In the land of Ur. The discovery of ancient Mesopotamia. Ravensburger Taschenbücher 229. Maier, Ravensburg 1981 4 ; ISBN 3-473-39229-4 (= Gütersloh: Bertelsmann-Jugendbuchverlag, 1968), p. 105
  • Rykle Borger : Assyrian-Babylonian List of Characters ; Old Orient and Old Testament 33 / 33A. Neukirchener Verlag, Neukirchen-Vluyn 1988 4 , ISBN 3-7887-0668-6 ; and: Butzon and Bercker, Kevelaer 1988 4 , ISBN 3-7666-9206-2
  • Rykle Borger: Mesopotamian Sign Lexicon. Old Orient and Old Testament 305, Ugarit-Verlag, Münster 2004, ISBN 3-927120-82-0 .
  • Anton Deimel : The inscriptions from Fara. Volume 1: List of archaic cuneiform characters ; Excavations of the German Orient Society in Fara and Abu Hatab 1; Scientific publication of the German Orient Society 4. Zeller, Osnabrück 1970 (= JC Hinrichs, Leipzig 1922); Online at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
  • Adam Falkenstein : Archaic texts from Uruk. Excavations by the German Research Foundation in Uruk-Warka 2nd German Research Foundation, Berlin and Harrassowitz, Leipzig 1936; Online at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
  • E. Forrer: The cuneiform writing from Boghazköi . JC Hinrichs, Leipzig 1922 (= scientific publication of the German Orient Society 41. Zeller, Osnabrück 1969)
  • Johannes Friedrich : Hittite cuneiform reading book . Winter, Heidelberg 1960 (Volume 1: 1975 2 , ISBN 3-533-00594-1 ; Volume 2: 1978 2 , ISBN 3-533-00595-X )
  • Yvonne Rosengarten: Repertoire commenté des signes présargoniques sumériens de Lagash. Paris 1967 Online at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
  • Christel Rüster, Erich Neu: Hittite Sign Lexicon ( HZL ); Studies on the Boǧazköy texts: Supplement 2. Harrasowitz, Wiesbaden 1989, ISBN 3-447-02794-0
  • Jean-Jacques Glassner: Écrire à Sumer: l'invention du cunéiforme . Seuil, 2001
    • English edition: The Invention of Cuneiform. Writing in Sumer . Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003, ISBN 978-0-8018-7389-8 .
  • Karoly Földes-Papp: From rock art to alphabet. The history of writing from its earliest preliminary stages to modern Latin script. Chr.Belser, Stuttgart 1966, ISBN 3-8112-0007-0 .
  • Harald Haarmann : history of writing. CH Beck, Munich 2002, ISBN 3-406-47998-7 .
  • Harald Haarmann: Universal history of writing . Campus, Frankfurt am Main / New York 1990, ISBN 3-593-34346-0 .
  • Gebhard Selz : Old Sumerian administrative texts from Lagas . Parts 1–2, Steiner, Stuttgart 1989 ff., ISBN 3-515-05204-6 .
    • Part 3: The old Sumerian business documents from Berlin, together with an investigation. Old Sumerian business documents from Berlin as documents of a redistributive economy in transition (in preparation)
  • B. André-Leickman, C. Ziegler (Eds.): Naissance de l'écriture, cunéiformes et hiéroglyphes . Éditions de le Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris 1982.
  • Jean Bottéro : De l'aide-mémoire à l'écriture . In Mésopotamie, l'Écriture, la Raison et les Dieux . Gallimard, pp. 132-163
  • Bedřich Hrozný : cuneiform texts from Boghazköi , volume 5/6, autographs; Scientific publication of the German Orient Society 36. Hinrichs, Leipzig 1921 (= Zeller, Osnabrück 1970, ISBN 3-7861-1394-7 ).
  • Hans J. Nissen , Peter Damerow , Robert K. Englund: Early writing and techniques of economic administration in the ancient Middle East. Franzbecker, Berlin 1990, ISBN 3-88120-110-6 .
  • Karen Radner, Eleanor Robson (Eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture. Oxford University Press, Oxford u. a. 2011.

Web links

Wiktionary: Cuneiform script  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


  1. ^ AJ Sachs / DJ Wiseman: A Babylonian King List of the Hellenistic Period , in: Iraq 16, 1954, 202-212; MJ Geller: The Last Wedge , in: Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 87, 1997, 43-95.
  2. ^ Geoffrey Barraclough, Norman Stone: The Times Atlas of World History. Hammond Incorporated, Maplewood, New Jersey 1989, ISBN 978-0-7230-0304-5 , p. 53. ( [1] on
  3. Denise Schmandt-Besserat : An archaic recording system and the origin of writing . Malibu, Undena 1977.
  4. ^ Theodor Zachariae : Small writings on Indian philology, comparative literary history, comparative folklore , Bonn and Leipzig 1920, p. 12
  5. See Lassen's work The Old Persian Wedge Inscriptions from Persepolis , p. 15, z. B. at Google Books .
  6. cuneiform , Meyers Konversations-Lexikon 1888 on
  7. See for example the Borger, Mesopotamisches Zeichenlexikon mentioned under "Literature"
  8. S. Parpola: Transliteration of Sumerian: Problems and Prospects , in Festschrift Salonen (StOr 46), 1975, 239-257