In the late fourth and third millenniums 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.
The language that the Sumerians used is not related to any other language we know about, and it gradually ceased to be a spoken language. The writing system, however, was adopted by people speaking a Semitic language called Akkadian and continued to be used by a number of peoples up until the 1st-century B.C.E. Both the Babylonians and Assyrians, who spoke dialects of Akkadian, used the cuneiform signs, writing not only in their own languages but sometimes in Sumerian as well. Sumerian had become the language of literature and scholarship, somewhat like Latin up until fairly recently.
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 West Semitic Research. Courtesy the USC Archaeological Research Collections and West Semitic Research.