Ever wanted to learn cuneiform?

As you’ve probably guessed from how often I talk about it, the main focus of my research is cuneiform—the world’s oldest writing system, invented in ancient Mesopotamia around 3000 BCE. It’s infamously difficult to learn, and both instructional materials and formal publications on Mesopotamian languages try to avoid it as much as possible, using transliterations instead unless it’s absolutely necessary to hand-draw one or two specific signs.

I think this is really a shame, because it’s a fascinating writing system, and people studying e.g. Japanese academically don’t avoid kana and kanji just because they’re complicated. So I’ve put together my own introduction to the topic, which also gives me a chance to show off some of my new technologies. The cuneiform fonts on that page were all automatically generated with a tool I developed, intended to be cleaner and more readable at small sizes than the traditional hand-drawn ones, and the ability to hover over a sign and see its reading is all new.

So if you’ve ever thought about learning cuneiform, please, check it out!

(And yes, it does include the famous Complaint Tablet to Ea-Nāṣir as an exercise!)

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Fascinating read, still going over the site. Two observations/questions arose right after reading couple of sections:

  • Since the wedge points never point to the left, left-handed scribes were possibly quite rare, right?
  • On the plus side, 3-dimensional nature of the writing system seems to lend itself well suited for blind people. Blind literate persons might be more common in ancient Mesopotamia and Anatolia compared to other cultures that wrote on parchment/paper.

My high school was just a couple of blocks away from Istanbul Archaeology Museums. I used to frequent them and wonder at those ants crawling over the clay tablets of Hittites .

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The cuneiform page made me want to know more about Mesopotamia. And I found out it’s really fascinating when it comes to the culture.

The Christian/Judaistic mythology actually is much rooted in the Mesopotamian which I was not aware of. Like Ishtar an Baal and more. (I guess Mammon, too.)

Also the sagas and tales seem cool and don’t have to hide behind Greek or Nordish.

And there seem to be a lot of stuff that we think is rather new. Like the famous customer-complaint. Concrete seems to have existed then already, too.

And the writing is interesting, too. Your main interest.

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I have to imagine so! Since becoming a scribe was a full career, though, learning to write with their non-dominant hand might have just been par for the course.

It’s very possible! I’m sure someone’s done research on that; I’ll see if I can find anything. I’ve been messing around with 3D printing cuneiform (like the seals for last year’s IFComp prizes), and maybe I could make some replica tablets and try to read them by touch…

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Oh absolutely! A lot of aspects of the Torah were modelled structurally after Mesopotamian mythological epics, which makes a lot of historical sense: when it was getting compiled and redacted into its current form, the Jews were in exile in Babylon, so those compilers were intimately familiar with the Babylonian stories and wanted to make it very clear where and how their cosmology was different.

From the start of Genesis 1, “darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”, we’re seeing a contrast drawn to the Mesopotamian creation epic (known as “Enuma Elish” after its first couple words)—the deep waters were the first thing to exist, but they weren’t the primordial goddess Tiamat, they were passive and formless and didn’t do much of anything until God split them apart to make the world. The Hebrew word used for “the deep” here, təhōm, is actually the Hebrew cognate of Akkadian Tiamat (from Proto-Semitic *tiham(-at) “ocean”).

We know a shocking amount about ancient Mesopotamian culture through pretty much a complete accident of history—clay tablets are incredibly durable compared to anything else you could choose to write on, durable enough to survive five thousand years—so we have this amazing window into Bronze Age history that we otherwise would know basically nothing about.

My favorite part is we have a lot of complaints from ancient scribes getting frustrated learning cuneiform. There’s one that goes, roughly, “once you’ve studied the entire dictionary of signs from cover to cover, after that, you’ll hate writing!”

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Beautiful and fascinating work!

I just worked through lesson 1.
Very clear theoretical explanation, great practical excercises.

Cuneiform is fun!

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I have just realized that this form of writing not only has a better chance of surviving a fire, it might in fact get more durable by it.

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Fascinating!

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Very much so! One of our best sources for information on Mesopotamia is the Library of Ashurbanipal; the last great ruler of the Neo-Assyrian empire was very interested in magic, and built a royal library where every tablet he looted from conquered cities could be stored. (The core of a lot of Mesopotamian magic was looking for omens in the world to understand what’s going on and how it can be changed; they invented incredibly complex timekeeping and astrology systems to look for omens in the night sky, for example. So if you want to be good at magic, you need lots and lots of books about omens.)

Unfortunately, he was also an incredibly cruel ruler, even by the standards of the Bronze Age, and his empire started falling apart almost immediately as a result. He liked making examples of leaders who disobeyed him, but this caused the collapse of the buffer states around Assyria that were protecting him from outside forces. Eventually the capital at Assur was sacked, and the royal library was burned.

…so thousands of years later, archaeologists found it and uncovered a vast treasure trove of ancient books! Many tablets were never fired, leaving them vulnerable to water…but when the library burned, it made its contents practically indestructible in the process.

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Interesting… the Library of Alexandria might be the most famous library fire of all time, and possibly the biggest tragedy in the history of scholarship… but it feels like the Library of Ashurbanipal should be better known, especially since it is a fire that helped preserve ancient knowledge… And it’s a sobering thought that, when the present is as old as the bronze age, future archeologists might know less of us than we know of the ancients for common fire can burn our books to ash even as it makes clay tablets stronger, we increasingly store our knowledge digitally rather than physically and we already face issues of data rot and proprietary formats that need to be reverse engineered to be used on modern machines…

I wonder how much it would cost to convert all the text in the Library of Congress to jumbo print embossed plaques machined from Tungsten, build a bunker to store them, and store them in an Argon atmosphere… and if there’s a better way to preserve said text(I picked Tungsten because it has the highest melting point of any metal(so as close to absolutely fireproof as practical), is notoriously hard to machine(so presumably, minimal risk of damage from mechanical stress, and has a low reactivity(minimizing risk of damage from chemical reactions) and I picked Argon because if I’m not mistaken, it’s the most abundant noble gas(so almost completely chemically inert) that’s heavier than air(so it won’t just float away if the bunker is breached)… Not sure how to preserve images beyond line art and diagrams for millenia in a way that will be accessible(well, ignoring millenia of linguistic drift), much less music or video.

Do kind of wish there was an accessible way of learning non-Latin writing systems… Sadly, it seems to be too much to ask that a TTS engine be able to properly handle modern languages(The TTS I’m using can read Greek, Cyrillic, Hebrew, and Arabic letters, but it can’t string them into words, and all it can do with Kanji and Kana is read them as “Chinese Letter” and “Japanese Letter” respectively and there’s a ton of unicode symbols it can’t identify at all.

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Tungsten “vinyl” disks?

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The most amazing thing is that people from ancient times tried to communicate so they invented codes to do so. Cuneiform, hieroglyfics, Linear A and B later on, are early examples of people’ s trying to convey a message. It would be really interesting to have access in these different written systems and to decipher them as essential parts of ancient civilizations.

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I feel like, even if the substrate was Tungsten(or whatever the best option for something that will resist as many forms of aging as possible) a grooved record has the disadvantage that it needs a playback mechanism(kind of the same issue we have with the potential artifaction of digital media. Of course, such a hypothetical grand archive could include copies of all the sheet music and all the books on how to read sheet music, and all the alternative musical notations that lend themselves to being embossed on metal plates, but of course, the map is not the territory and there are limitations to what can be notated.

Inconel 750 - the nickel alloy used for the engine nozzles of the Saturn V is not quite as temp resistant as Tungsten, but probably easier to use. It’s an impressive material with very high corrosion and oxidation resistance. Alloys involving gold and platinum would be good too. You could also laser etch quartz or synthetic sapphire.

Edit: Inconel is a nickel alloy. It’s tough, and it’s melting point is high enough to survive immersion in lava. Tungsten is overkill I think.

Holograms embedded in glass?

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How about gold anodized aluminum like the plaque on Voyager 1? Probably not, aluminum melts readily.

Since they were written on stone tablets, typos must have been very irritating…

Depends on the material used for writing I think. Typos in stone incisions had to be difficult to correct, but I am presum[e]ing that fixing a typo on a soft clay tablet is as easy as filling the notch with ersatz clay and smoothing it with an instrument (maybe a spatula like implement with a tiny head).

Edit: Fixing typos is easier with forum software compared to clay tablets, though. :sweat_smile:

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Risky business, writing on stone tablets…

You are holding a stone tablet.
> engrave "Clepatra is the greatest"
You engrave "Clepatra is the greatest"
A palace guard notices the error in your spelling,
and before you can hide the tablet, cuts off your head,
saying "We need another scribe!"
*** YOU HAVE DIED BECAUSE OF A TYPO ***

Aren’t they in fact clay tablets, which are baked afterwards?

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Generally yes! The wedges aren’t very deep, so you can smooth over a mistake—we see scribes do this a lot. (Though it generally doesn’t erase what’s underneath it completely, and we can often still tell that something was erased. For less-important tablets they’d often just remove the bad sign and keep writing after it.)

Usually they weren’t even baked! Many of the tablets we have that were fired got fired by accident, when the building they were in burned down. But you could also fire it if you wanted it to be really durable, e.g. if you needed to transport it a long distance.

They did sometimes engrave into stone, though—if you’re a really important king and want to make sure your fancy new Code of Hammurabi is seen by everyone, you can pay stonemasons to chisel little wedges into stone for you. When this happened, it was probably written out first by a scribe with ink, and then the masons carved based on that. (We know this was how it was done with Egyptian hieroglyphs, for example.)

Old Persian writing, which you might recognize if you’re a big fan of Studio Ghibli…

…was in fact never written on clay, only carved into stone. So why is it made of wedges? Well, because the Old Persian rulers got the idea of writing from Mesopotamia, and what they took away from it is “you can represent words in a physical form if you make lots of little wedge shapes”. So when they invented their own writing system, they used the wedges, even though the original reasons for that design no longer applied! This is known as a skeuomorph. It was a completely different writing system, functioned completely differently from the cuneiform in these lessons, but maintained the wedges because that’s just how writing works!

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