How to Write in Cuneiform, the Oldest Writing System in the World: A Short, Charming Introduction

Teach­ing child vis­i­tors how to write their names using an unfa­mil­iar or antique alpha­bet is a favorite activ­i­ty of muse­um edu­ca­tors, but Dr. Irv­ing Finkel, a cuneiform expert who spe­cial­izes in ancient Mesopotami­an med­i­cine and mag­ic, has grander designs.

His employ­er, the British Muse­um, has over 130,000 tablets span­ning Mesopotamia’s Ear­ly Dynas­tic peri­od to the Neo-Baby­lon­ian Empire “just wait­ing for young schol­ars to come devote them­selves to (the) monk­ish work” of deci­pher­ing them.

Writ­ing one’s name might well prove to be a gate­way, and Dr. Finkel has a vest­ed inter­est in lin­ing up some new recruits.

The museum’s Depart­ment of the Mid­dle East has an open access pol­i­cy, with a study room where researchers can get up close and per­son­al with a vast col­lec­tion of cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia and sur­round­ing regions.

But let’s not put the ox before the cart.

As the extreme­ly per­son­able Dr. Finkel shows Matt Gray and Tom Scott of Matt and Tom’s Park Bench, above, cuneiform con­sists of three components—upright, hor­i­zon­tal and diagonal—made by press­ing the edge of a reed sty­lus, or pop­si­cle stick if you pre­fer, into a clay tablet.

The mechan­i­cal process seems fair­ly easy to get the hang of, but mas­ter­ing the old­est writ­ing sys­tem in the world will take you around six years of ded­i­cat­ed study. Like Japan’s kan­ji alpha­bet, the old­est writ­ing sys­tem in the world is syl­lab­ic. Prop­er­ly writ­ten out, these syl­la­bles join up into a flow­ing cal­lig­ra­phy that your aver­age, edu­cat­ed Baby­lon­ian would be able to read at a glance.

Even if you have no plans to rus­tle up a pop­si­cle stick and some Play-Doh, it’s worth stick­ing with the video to the end to hear Dr. Finkel tell how a chance encounter with some nat­u­ral­ly occur­ring cuneiform inspired him to write a hor­ror nov­el, which is now avail­able for pur­chase, fol­low­ing a suc­cess­ful Kick­starter cam­paign.

Begin your cuneiform stud­ies with Irv­ing Finkel’s Cuneiform: Ancient Scripts.

via Men­tal Floss

Relat­ed Con­tent:

You Could Soon Be Able to Text with 2,000 Ancient Egypt­ian Hiero­glyphs

Hear The Epic of Gil­gamesh Read in its Orig­i­nal Ancient Lan­guage, Akka­di­an

Hear the “Seik­i­los Epi­taph,” the Old­est Com­plete Song in the World: An Inspir­ing Tune from 100 BC

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Her solo show Nurse!, in which one of Shakespeare’s best loved female char­ac­ters hits the lec­ture cir­cuit to set the record straight pre­mieres in June at The Tank in New York City. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (8)
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  • Colin Smith says:

    Devout Open Cul­ture read­er in Japan here.
    I feel com­pelled to point out that Japan­ese kan­ji are not syl­lab­ic, as it says in the arti­cle on cuneiform. Theyre ideo­graph­ic. The syl­lab­ic ones are kana (hira­gana and katakana).
    I am extreme­ly grate­ful for the site, and it is pre­cise­ly because I con­sid­er it just as wor­thy and rig­or­ous as, say, the New York­er that I feel the need to point this out.
    Thank you!

  • Br says:

    Col­in Smith, I’m afraid you are incor­rect in your asser­tion that Japan­ese Kan­ji are not syl­lab­ic. You are cor­rect when you state that the kana are syl­lab­ic, but all Japan­ese Kan­ji, and every Japan­ese read­ing of every Japan­ese kan­ji, are always pro­nounced con­sis­tent with the Japan­ese syl­lab­ic sys­tem. Although almost all of the cur­rent­ly com­mon­ly used Japan­ese Kan­ji are con­sid­ered by some to be used ideo­graph­i­cal­ly, many Japan­ese words are writ­ten with spe­cif­ic kan­ji based on that kan­ji’s pro­nun­ci­a­tion and not on it’s mean­ing. But no mat­ter which way they are used in any giv­en con­text, the read­ing (pro­nun­ci­a­tion) is always syl­lab­ic.

  • Mustafa Abbas says:

    Thank you

  • ava says:

    could you add how to write, “school projects are fun!”, ?

  • John M Davis says:

    I can­not find a key for pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the phonemes in the graph­ic image. Is there such a thing?

  • NumaS says:

    Numa Fer­nan­do Solano

  • julius says:

    bye bye.

  • Diana Knowles says:

    Fas­ci­nat­ing, Thanky­ou!

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