Tag Archives: cuneiform



Like Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics is a writing system which used pictograms (symbols that stand for things) ideograms (symbols that stand for ideas).

Remember with pictograms, a picture of the sun stands for the sun, and a picture of a foot stands for a foot. An ideogram could be a picture of a sun that stands for the idea of one day. Or a picture of a foot that stands for the idea of distance. Ideograms ask you to see a picture of one thing and figure out that it means something else—something you can’t draw a picture of.

Then there are logograms—symbols that stand for a word or even a phrase. Maybe logograms started out as pictograms but the scribes used them to save time. We use logograms all the time when we send text messages, because they’re fast, easy and save space. Like ‘&’ is a logogram for ‘and.’ ‘$’ is a logogram for ‘dollars.’ ‘>’ is a logogram for ‘more than.’ Emojis are logograms that express a feeling faster than writing those stumbling words that told you what my heart meant.

UPDATE: As I reread this post, I realize I’m wrong here. Emojis are ideograms, not logograms. Unless they stand in for specific words, they’re not logograms. A heart emoji as a response to a text is an ideogram: it means you love what you just read. ‘I(heart)NY’ is a logogram for ‘I love New York.’ I need to rewrite and redraw this one.


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Writing of the gods

Hieroglyphics are similar to cuneiform in one way: they’re a combination of pictograms and ideograms. Some symbols stand for entire syllables or words—logograms. Hieroglyphics are different from cuneiform in one big way: the images are recognizable to our modern eyes. Cuneiform is a bunch of wedge-shapes arranged in different configurations to make symbols. But with hieroglyphics, when you look at a symbol that represents an owl or a snake or a hand, you can tell right away what they’re supposed to be. There’s a good reason for that.


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“A cryptogram is a type of puzzle that consists of a short piece of encrypted text. Generally the cipher used to encrypt the text is simple enough that the cryptogram can be solved by hand. Substitution ciphers where each letter is replaced by a different letter or number are frequently used. To solve the puzzle, one must recover the original lettering. Though once used in more serious applications, they are now mainly printed for entertainment in newspapers and magazines.”

Have you ever solved a cryptogram puzzle? At first it looks pretty difficult. I’ll tell you the secret to solving them: look for the shortest words. Especially words of only one letter—that’ll be either ‘a’ or ‘I.’ Two-letter words will be ‘an, or, to, so, at, of, it, if, is…’ you get the idea. After you solve one or two short words you can more easily guess at the longer ones. If you find ‘a,’ then a 3-letter word ‘A_ _’ may be ‘and, any, are, all’. ‘E’ occurs most often in English, so look for the cypher (the substitute letter) in the puzzle that occurs most often.

If you were a 19th-century British cadet serving in Iran and you wanted to solve the riddle of cuneiform, you’d use that method. Rawlinson was solving a cryptogram. Rawlinson wanted to read the Persian version of Darius’ proclamation. He spoke modern Persian (Farsi). His first step was to look for commonly-used words. For instance, the inscription begins: ‘King Darius proclaims.’ Then Darius repeatedly offers thanks to the god Ahura Mazda. Rawlinson may have started there, and used symbols from those words to figure out the other ones.


Related side note: During World War II, the heroic Englishman Alan Turing cracked the Enigma code used by the Germans to send secret messages. In the biopic The Imitation Game, Turing looked for the words ‘Heil Hitler’ which appeared in every message.

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I, Darius, proclaim

And in what language were Darius’ messages written? The Persian Empire was a big place. By the time Darius was in charge, he ruled over different cultures that spoke/read different languages. To make sure everybody got the message when he made official announcements, Darius had them translated. For instance, there’s a royal proclamation carved in stone near Behistun, a village in Iran. It’s written 3 times, in 3 languages: Babylonian, Old Persian, and Elamite. To drive the message home, there are pictures helpfully carved into the stone for people who couldn’t read.

The proclamation at Behistun tells the story of how Darius’ throne was stolen while he was away, how Darius returned and killed the usurper, how Darius then conquered the nations that were now part of the Persian Empire, and how those nations would be overseen by Persian governors (satraps). When Darius took over he had these proclamations put up all over his empire.


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Darius the Great

As you look at those old, old clay tablets with the weird, impossible-to-read cuneiform inscriptions, you have to wonder: how do we know what’s written on them? None of those symbols seem to resemble anything we recognize today. Yet somehow we got the epic of Gilgamesh.

Who figured it out? Who cracked the code? How was cuneiform deciphered?

Good question. To be honest, it was only a hundred or so years ago that archæologists even found out there were Sumerians living in Mesopotamia. The land between the rivers was very desirable real estate—people who didn’t live there really wanted to live there. When a nation wants to take over a piece of land, its army usually straps on armor and makes war on the people who live there. It’s a bad old world we live in, gang. So the Sumerians were conquered by the Akkadians who were conquered by the Babylonians who were conquered by the Persians.

At one point, the Persians’ head guy—the emperor, the shahanshah (king of kings)—was Darius the Great. What made him so great? Well, for one thing, he was a monster for organization and standardization. In other words, he liked understandable systems for complicated things. He liked it when merchandise weighed and cost the same wherever he went. Darius made weights and measures standard throughout the empire. He instituted universal currency—coins—which made it a whole lot easier to do business, because everybody knew how much something cost.


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Learn to be a scribe! Earn big money!

A scribe is—or was—someone people hired to write and read cuneiform. As I mentioned, cuneiform wasn’t easy to read. You had to go to a special ‘tablet-school’ to learn how. Both boys and girls went to tablet-school. All you needed was lots of money to pay for it. Once you graduated, you were set for life in the scribe business. Scribes always had work and were at the top of Sumerian society.

Cuneiform was used to record several languages. Cuneiform symbols had different meanings in different contexts. A scribe had to know if he were reading an invoice or a royal decree or a poem. These symbols were pictograms and ideograms. Some symbols represented a sound, too, so cuneiform was sometimes a phonetic writing system. These sounds were syllables.

Wait a minute, how does that work? Well, it works like a rebus. You’ve seen rebus puzzles in kids’ magazines. For the word ‘syllable,’ you’d write this:

Sill + a + bull.

Most spoken languages have hundreds—if not thousands—of different syllables, so cuneiform needed a load of symbols.

Aaaaand, it’s important to realize that writing didn’t have much resemblance to how people spoke. That seems weird to us now, because we have an alphabet that’s designed to track the spoken word as closely as possible. The best way I can describe cuneiform is to compare it to coding, like for a website.

Here’s a very good post about scribes: https://allmesopotamia.wordpress.com/2015/06/26/the-lives-of-scribes-in-ancient-mesopotamia/
Here’s a nice character design of a lady scribe by artist Beth Hobbs: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/qqwOn

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Writing gets complicated

The Sumerians used a stylus to make symbols in soft clay. The symbols represented things they wanted to count, like stuff they were buying or selling. Think about sheaves of barley; poultry or livestock; pots of olive oil; baskets of dried fish. It was an accounting system for business. There were symbols for counting—numbers—and symbols to represent things—pictograms.

Over a long period of time, though, these symbols developed into a writing system that could record things people say. New meanings were introduced. Sometimes a symbol represented an idea—that’s called an ideogram. For instance, a symbol that looks like the sun may represent the sun (pictogram), or maybe a day or noon or the passage of time (ideogram). A foot symbol might mean a foot (pictogram), or walking or running or a distance (ideogram).

This writing system became pretty complicated. There were thousands of these symbols and more than one meaning for a lot of them. The ordinary shmoes who had used symbols to count their goods could no longer read or write in this system. You had to be trained to do it. You had to be a scribe.


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Stylin’ with the stylus

You hold it like a pencil.

The Sumerians didn’t have pencils to write with. Instead, they took a dry reed, stiff as a stick, and cut the end off at a 90° angle. Using a knife or by sanding it, they made the end of the reed rectangular. The corners needed to be sharp! They used the corners and the edges of the stylus to press triangles and lines into a soft clay tablet. This style of writing is called cuneiform (koo-NAY-i-form), from Latin words that mean triangle (cune-) and shape (form). The writing tool is called a stylus (STY-loos), plural styli (STY-lee).


By the way, up until I researched this post I thought that the reed’s cross-section was triangular. Can you see how red my face is? Research, gang. You’re never too old to learn!

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Gilgamesh subduing a lion who was probably minding its own business.

I decided Gilgamesh deserves his own post. It helps to get a handle on a culture by looking at its heroes and stories. Gilgamesh the king was an actual historical figure. Gilgamesh the hero of the epic was two-thirds divine and one-third mortal.

The story begins in Uruk, a city in Ancient Sumer (Mesopotamia) where Gilgamesh rules as king. Though Gilgamesh is known to be stronger than any other man, the people of Uruk complain that he abuses his power. The gods hear these complaints, and the god Aruru creates Enkidu, a man as strong as Gilgamesh. Aruru forms Enkidu out of water and clay, out in the wilderness. Enkidu lives in nature, in harmony with the wild animals.”

So Gilgamesh and Enkidu meet, wrestle, become best buds. They defeat the awful giant Humbaba. The goddess Ishtar proposes marriage to Gilgamesh—when he turns her down she sics the Bull of Heaven on him and Gilgamesh and Enkidu defeat him, too. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh works out his grief by searching for the meaning of life and the source of immortality.

I taught a unit on Gilgamesh to high-schoolers in Sunday school, just because there are so many echoes of Bible stories in Gilgamesh, particularly in Genesis. There’s a Great Flood; a guy who survives the flood by loading his family and animals into a big boat; a plant that holds the essence of Life (with a treacherous serpent hanging around nearby); Enkidu is a hairy strongman who is tamed by a seductress and loses his hair. My point in teaching Gilgamesh wasn’t to diminish the Bible stories, but to show how the Bible stories grew from a tradition of ancient MidEast literature into a narrative that tells the story of all us mortals, not just divine, semi-divine and immortal characters. The Bible is a radical departure from that tradition.

We get Gilgamesh from pieces of clay tablets that have survived through the ages. A library fire, which would mean a disastrous loss of literature today, actually preserved many ancient books by firing the clay they were written on. Gilgamesh is a fun read, although there are adults themes in there, so be warned.