Cuneiform Tablet (USCARC 6631)
In the late fourth and third milleniums B.C. a people called the Sumerians began to develop a writing system called "cuneiform" ("wedge-shaped"), written on wet clay with a sharpened stick, or stylus. At first the Sumerians used a series of pictures ("pictograms") to record information having to do with business and administration, but went on to develop a system of symbols that stood for ideas and later sounds (usually syllables). In the later stages of Sumerian writing there were about 600 signs that were used on a regular basis.
Cuneiform tablets have also been found in Eblaite (a Semitic language from northern Syria), Elamite (from the area of modern Iran), Hittite (an Indo-European language spoken in ancient Turkey), and other languages throughout the ancient Near East.
The tablet illustrated here is a business document with a seal impression. Seal impressions are somewhat like signatures, in that they identify the person involved in the business transaction recorded on the tablet. While most of the tablets that have been found are such things as contracts, sales receipts, and tax records, a number of very important literary texts have been found as well, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Code of Hammurabi.
Photograph by Kai Quinlan
Commentary by Marilyn J. Lundberg.