Do you remember back when you first learned your ABCs? You probably sang a little tune to help you memorize the order of the letters. Once you had them down pat, you then started on the adventure of writing those letters for yourself and eventually combining them together into all sorts of words.
For many, writing is a form of self-expression better than any other. With the written word, you can create imaginative stories or even share your innermost feelings in ways that you might not feel comfortable vocalizing.
The same was true for ancient peoples thousands and thousands of years ago. The urge and need to communicate with others in writing, to leave behind your thoughts, hopes, and dreams in a way more permanent than spoken words, have existed since people first walked on Earth.
Of course, way back when, letters didn't look exactly like they do today. If you've ever seen any archeological finds in a museum, you know that much early writing took the form of pictures and symbols. Before letters were invented, the easiest way to communicate thoughts in writing was to use symbols and pictures that visually represented the things they were about.
One of the earliest known writing systems is known as cuneiform script. The name cuneiform comes from the Latin words cuneus and forma, which mean “wedge" and “shape," respectively. Cuneiform can thus be thought of as wedge-shaped script.
Cuneiform was first developed by the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia around 3,500 B.C. The first cuneiform writings were pictographs created by making wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets with blunt reeds used as a stylus.
Cuneiform isn't a single writing system, however. The term actually encompasses several different kinds of writing systems that developed over time, all of which consisted of individual signs made up of wedge shapes.
Over time, pictographs gave way to syllabic and alphabetic signs. Cuneiform as created by the Sumerians adapted and evolved through the writings of many other peoples, including the Akkadians, Babylonians, Hittites, Assyrians, and Hurrians. Cuneiform inspired the Old Persian alphabet, but was eventually replaced by the Phoenician alphabet.
By 1,000 A.D., cuneiform had become extinct. No one knew how to read it. It was essentially a lost writing system until researchers began to decipher it in the 19th century. In fact, the great literary works of Mesopotamia, such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, were written in cuneiform but remained unknown until they were deciphered and translated into English in the mid-1800s.
Perhaps you could be the next great cuneiformist! Today, there are only a few hundred qualified cuneiformists in the world. This explains why only a fraction of the approximately two million cuneiform tablets that have been excavated have ever been deciphered and translated. Who knows what ancient stories are out there still to be told?