The earliest writing in Mesopotamia was a picture writing invented by the Sumerians who wrote on clay tablets using long reeds. The script the Sumerians invented and handed down to the Semitic peoples who conquered Mesopotamia in later centuries, is called cuneiform, which is derived from two Latin words: cuneus , which means "wedge," and forma , which means "shape." This picture language, similar to but more abstract than Egyptian hieroglyphics, eventually developed into a syllabic alphabet under the Semites (Assyrians and Babylonians) who eventually came to dominate the area.


 In Sumer, the original writing was pictographic ("picture writing"); individual words were represented by crude pictorial symbols that resembled in some way the object being represented, as in the Sumerian word for king, lu-gal :



The first symbol pictures "gal," or "great," and the second pictures "lu," or "man." Eventually, this pictorial writing developed into a more abstract series of wedges and hooks. These wedges and hooks are the original cuneiform and represented in Sumerian entire words (this is called ideographic and the word symbols are called ideograms, which means "concept writing"); the Semites who adopted this writing, however, spoke an entirely different language, in fact, a language as different from Sumerian as English is different from Japanese. In order to adapt this foreign writing to a Semitic language, the Akkadians converted it in part to a syllabic writing system; individual signs represent entire syllables. However, in addition to syllable symbols, some cuneiform symbols are ideograms ("picture words") representing an entire word; these ideograms might also, in other contexts, be simply syllables. For instance, in Assyrian, the cuneiform for the syllable "ki" is written as follows:



However, as an ideogram, this cuneiform also stands for the Assyrian word irsitu , or "earth." So reading cuneiform involves mastering a large syllabic alphabet as well as a large number of ideograms, many of them identical to syllable symbols. This complicated writing system dominated Mesopotamia until the century before the birth of Christ; the Persians greatly simplified cuneiform until it represented something closer to an alphabet.



The Mesopotamians wrote on clay tablets with long reeds while the clay was still wet. The fresh clay then hardened and a permanent record was created. The original Mesopotamian writings were crude pictures of the objects being named, but the difficulty of drawing on fresh clay eventually produced the wedges and hooks unique to cuneiform. This writing would be formed by laying the length of the reed along the wet clay and moving the end nearest the hand from one side to another to form the hooks.

        As with all cultures, writing greatly changed Mesopotamian social structure and the civilization's relationship to its own history. Writing allowed laws to be written and so to assume a static and independent character; history became more detailed and incorporated much more of local cultures' histories. 


–Richard Hooker


from “Cuneiform” on the Mesopotamian Reader website at <>


Note: For the Sumerian cuneiform alphabet, see “Cuneiform – Alphabet” at





Excerpts from The Epic of Gilgamesh, trans. Benjamin R. Foster.


From Tablet XI, Column III:


When the seventh day arrived,

I brought out a dove and set it free.

The dove went off and returned,

No landing place came to its view, so it turned back.

I brought out a swallow and set it free,

The swallow went off and returned,

No landing place came to its view, so it turned back.

I brought out a raven and set it free,

The raven went off and saw the ebbing of the waters.

It ate, preened, left droppings, and did not turn back.

I released all to the four directions,

I brought out an offering and offered it to the four directions.

I set up an incense offering on the summit of the mountain,

I arranged seven and seven cult vessels,

I heaped reeds, cedar, and myrtle in their bowls.

The gods smelled the savor,

The gods smelled the sweet savor,

The gods crowded round the sacrificer like flies.





From Tablet XI, Column V:


Utanapishtim said to her, to his wife:


            Since the human race is duplicitous, he’ll endeavor to dupe you.

            Come, come, bake his daily loaves, put them on after another by his head,

            Then mark the wall for each day he has slept.

She baked his daily loaves for him, put them one after another by his head,

Then dated the wall for each day he slept.

The first loaf was dried hard,

The second was leathery, the third soggy,

The crust of the fourth turned white,

The fifth was gray with mold, the sixth was fresh,

The seventh was still on the coals when he touched him, the man woke up….


Gilgamesh said to him, to Utanaphistim the Distant One:


            Scarcely had sleep stolen over me,

            When straightaway you touched me and roused me.


Utanapishtim said to him, to Gilgamesh:


            [Up with you], Gilgamesh, count your daily loaves,

[That the days you have slept] may be known to you.

The first loaf is dried hard,

The second is leathery, the third soggy,

The crust of the fourth has turned white,

The fifth is gray with mold,

The sixth is fresh,

The seventh was still in the coals when I touched you and you woke up.



Foster, Benjamin R., trans. and ed. The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: Norton, 2001.