The Invention of Writing

The Invention of Writing

It has been claimed, “while [ancient Iraq’s] true singularity may lie in the complexity of social organization, the two most striking characteristics of early Mesopotamia are its literacy and urbanization” (Postgate 1994, 73). In or about 3300 B.C.E., and at Uruk itself, the Sumerians invented writing.

At fi rst, writing was a specialist’s art, and not everyone was qualifi ed in its use. Before the invention of cuneiform, scribes “wrote” the fi rst tablets by using pictographs or primitive art to represent objects and people, which were then inscribed on fi red clay tablets with a reed “pen,” or stylus.

Because there were more than 700 signs used in the pictograph system, writing remained a cumbersome project until a new script, cuneiform, was invented. Basically, cuneiform used wedge-shaped signs and symbols, as well as sounds, to convey ideas and meaning, speeding up the process of communication and making it much more of a fl exible medium. Cuneiform was used for thousands of years, infl uencing many different civilizations, such as the Assyrians and the Persians.

Although writing originated as a means to record commercial transactions, it quickly became a tool for less offi cial communication. For instance, religious lore pertaining to the later Sumerians was noted down for posterity; among the thousands of clay tablets that survive are also funerary orations, which Oppenheim calls “ceremonial writing,” in reference to the often private messages written by Sumerian and Babylonian kings to gods and goddesses.

The personal letter, considered to be the archetypal modern communication, was also widely used in the post-Sumerian world. For example, it is known that other than the letters describing offi cial business sent by royal families or merchants or ambassadors, private communication on health issues, communal welfare, and even gossip made the rounds in the ancient world.

In the second millennium, cuneiform became a commonly used script, used by many different language groups. Other than Sumerian, which underwent a period of renaissance in Babylonia, the language most often used in the region “can now be identifi ed as a separate dialect of Akkadian; [it] was used almost everywhere by native speakers of other languages (Amorite, Hurrian, Elamite) who also adopted the southern writing style and spellings” (Van de Mieroop 2004, 81). Only in Ashur, the heartland of what was to become the Assyrian Empire, was Old Assyrian, another dialect of Akkadian, used.