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.
Sumerian Writing by Unknown
Symbols were made with wedge shaped marks on 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.
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 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.
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.