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Ancient Mesopotamia

Writing

History for Kids >> Ancient Mesopotamia for Kids

The Sumerians developed the first form of writing. As Sumerian towns grew into cities, the people needed a way to keep track of business transactions, ownership rights, and government records. Around 3300 BC the Sumerians began to use picture symbols marked into clay tablets to keep their records.

Writing example of Sumerian cuneiform
Symbols were made with wedge shaped marks on clay tablets


Clay Tablets

Writing was inscribed on clay tablets. Scribes would take a stylus (a stick made from a reed) and press the lines and symbols into soft, moist clay. Once they were done, they would let the clay harden and they had a permanent record.

Cuneiform

The initial writing of the Sumerians utilized simple pictures or pictograms. For example, a drawing of a person's head, meant the word "head". Over time, however, the writing of the Sumerians further developed to include sounds and meanings. Scribes would use the stylus to make wedge shaped marks in the clay. This type of writing is called cuneiform writing, which means "wedge-shaped".

Translating

Translating Mesopotamian writing is difficult for archeologists today. This is because there were over 700 different symbols and the symbols' meaning and shapes could change between different cities and regions. The symbols often changed over time as well. However, many Sumerian tablets have been deciphered. This is how we know so much about Mesopotamian culture, government, and history.

Literature

While most of the tablets discovered have been government and financial records, some of the writings are literature. This literature includes mythology of the Mesopotamian gods, tales of their heroes, poetry, and songs. Some of the writings include sayings of wisdom. The most famous and epic of all the Mesopotamian literature is the story Gilgamesh. Go here to learn more about the Epic Tale of Gilgamesh.

Interesting Facts About Sumerian Writing
  • People signed items with personal seals made of stone, metal, or wood.
  • Later Mesopotamian civilizations such as the Assyrians and the Babylonians used Sumerian writing.
  • Cuneiform writing was around for thousands of years until it was replaced by the Phoenician alphabet near the end of the neo-Assyrian Empire.
  • Hieroglyphics was invented in Ancient Egypt about the same time as cuneiform in Mesopotamia, but scientists believe that cuneiform came first.
  • As far as archeologists can tell, the Sumerian language is not related to any other language on Earth.
  • Cuneiform refers to the way a language is written, not necessarily a particular language. It was initially used in Mesopotamia to write Sumerian, but later was used for Akkadian which the Sumerians, the Akkadians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians all spoke.
Go here to see how to write like a Babylonian:

http://www.penn.museum/cgi/cuneiform.cgi

Take a ten question quiz at the Sumerian writing questions page.

Learn More about Ancient Mesopotamia:

Overview
Timeline of Mesopotamia
Great Cities of Mesopotamia
The Ziggurat
Science, Inventions, and Technology
Assyrian Army
Persian Wars
Glossary and Terms

Civilizations
Sumerians
Akkadian Empire
Babylonian Empire
Assyrian Empire
Persian Empire
Culture
Daily Life of Mesopotamia
Art and Artisans
Religion and Gods
Code of Hammurabi
Sumerian Writing and Cuneiform
Epic of Gilgamesh

People
Famous Kings of Mesopotamia
Cyrus the Great
Darius I
Hammurabi
Nebuchadnezzar II


History for Kids >> Ancient Mesopotamia for Kids

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