Medial Cuneiform: A Brief History
The earliest known writing was made on clay tablets around 3000 BC. These were used to record the history of Mesopotamia. They are called proto-cuneiform because they have traces of cuneiform script.
Later, these tablets became obsolete when the use of movable type began. However, some texts survive from this period such as Sumerian epic poems and Babylonian epics (the Gilgamesh Epic).
In the second millennium BC, cuneiform was still being used to write historical documents but it had become outdated. Some historians believe that cuneiform was superseded by hieroglyphic writing in Egypt. Even though there is no evidence that proves this theory, it seems logical enough.
Around 1900 BC, cuneiform writing was replaced by hieroglyphic writing. By then, the first known writings were made on papyrus. Papyrus is a soft material that could easily be destroyed.
This led to the development of paper. Paper was invented sometime between 1500 and 1000 BC and it took off during the time of Alexander the Great’s conquests in ancient Greece and Rome.
The Chinese started to make paper a lot earlier, around 105 AD. They used hemp and old rags to create this durable material. The Arabs refined the process in 700AD and created paper as we know it today.
Paper has been in use for around 1500 years now.
Cuneiform was used for around 4000 years before it fell out of use in favor of alphabetic writing. The oldest sample of cuneiform dates back to the late 4th millennium BC. It was discovered at the city of Susa in Iran (modern day Shush) and it was inscribed on a small piece of clay.
This small piece of clay is actually the sumerogram for the word “barley” (é).
The word “cuneiform” comes from the Latin word “cuneus” which means “wedge” and the Latin word “forma” which means “shape”. The word was created by the French scholar Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy (1758-1838).
Cuneiform was written in a variety of different ways. The script was created by pressing a stylus into a wedge-shaped manner. The wedge shape of the letters allowed the writer to pack more shapes into a small space and to create curves and angles.
The Sumerians (native people of Mesopotamia) were the first people to use this writing system. They started creating clay tablets in cuneiform around 3100 BC during the Uruk period. This was the first time in history that writing was used.
It started out as a system of simple accounting marks and it quickly developed into a full-fledged writing system.
Cuneiform texts were inscribed on different types of medium including clay, stone, metal, metal, wood, leather and bone. Most texts have been found in burial sites of elite members of ancient Mesopotamian society. Many of the uncovered texts contain information about daily life and religious rituals.
Cuneiform (pronounced /’kyu̇nɨfɔ:m/ or /’ku:nifɔrm/) is one of the earliest systems of writing and still used by some people in daily life for recording stories and events. The word “cuneiform” comes from the Latin words “cuneus” (wedge) and “forma” (form).
This system slowly developed into a complicated process of recording information. It was first used by the ancient Sumerians.
By the time of the Akkadian Empire, cuneiform was already being used on clay tablets for recording laws, stories, instructions and more. Cuneiform continued to be refined and used until around the 3rd century AD.
The Cuneiform script was used by different groups of people in the ancient Near East for different languages. These languages included Sumerian, Akkadian, Hurrian, Hittite, Ugaritic and Urartian. The last known clay tablets in cuneiform were written in the 5th century AD (although some may have been written later).
The Sumerians invented writing around 3200-3100 BC. They started to create small pictures on clay tablets using a sharp object (much like a modern pencil). The pictures represented objects, people, and animals.
The Sumerians represented language sounds with these small pictures. Each picture represented a single language sound. These pictures were then arranged into various patterns (or “sentences”) that had meaning.
These patterns became the world’s first writing system. It is important to note that this first writing system was logosyllabic. This means that to create a word, each word had its own unique symbol.
Sentences were created in two ways. The first way was to connect individual symbols in different ways to create sentences. For example:
The second way of creating sentences involved using “determinatives”. These were language symbols that helped give more meaning to a word.
Determinative: shows the word is a geographical feature
Determinative: shows the word is a human
This writing system developed over time into one that used both logograms and phonograms (single symbols and combinations of symbols that represent sounds).
In the table, you can see how the cuneiform script developed from a logo-syllabic system to a system that is more phonetic.
Period Word Translation Phonetic value (Sound represented) Geometric period
3000-2800 BC human being
axe */ /
/ 2200-2000 BC person
2 arrows running */tasri/* 1800-1600 BC syllable дата (date) 1500-1100 BC sun rising rays above mountain */филя*/ 1200-800 BC syllable суна (su-na) 1000-600 BC syllable сун (su-un)
From the first line, you can see that the earliest type of cuneiform writing is very different to later forms. The word divisions are only indicated by a single vertical line (or rarely a double vertical line). This indicates that the logographic (picture writing) system is still in use.
Each symbol represents a different word, and the sentence structure indicates word divisions by themselves.
The second line shows how the system develops from the use of multiple logograms to using multiple symbols for each word, and the division of these words into syllables. This is the start of the phonetic transition.
The third line shows how some logograms are still in use (such as */филя*/ – sun rising above a mountain), while others have been replaced with syllabic writing. The word divisions are now indicated by multiple horizontal lines in between the symbols.
Even later, only the beginnings of syllables are represented in a phonetic way (the /f/ sound in */филя*/ is no longer used to represent a sun, but instead just its first letter).
Finally, the modern form is reached: a combination of phonetic symbols for initial sounds and the use of determinatives to clarify meaning. The word divisions are now represented with small vertical lines.
The following table gives you an idea of the stages of development of the cuneiform writing system over time.
Time Period Writing style Develops into…
Sources & references used in this article:
Plantarflexion opening wedge medial cuneiform osteotomy for correction of fixed forefoot varus associated with flatfoot deformity by CB Hirose, JE Johnson – Foot & ankle international, 2004 – journals.sagepub.com
Ecological divergence and medial cuneiform morphology in gorillas by MW Tocheri, CR Solhan, CM Orr, J Femiani… – Journal of Human …, 2011 – Elsevier
Isolated fracture of the medial cuneiform by RH Patterson, D Petersen… – Journal of orthopaedic …, 1993 – journals.lww.com
Lateral column calcaneal lengthening, flexor digitorum longus transfer, and opening wedge medial cuneiform osteotomy for flexible flatfoot: a biomechanical study by RA Benthien, BG Parks, GP Guyton… – Foot & ankle …, 2007 – journals.sagepub.com
Isolated medial cuneiform fractures: report of two cases and review of the literature by F Guler, AB Baz, A Turan, O Kose… – Foot & ankle …, 2011 – journals.sagepub.com
Isolated medial cuneiform fracture: review of the literature and report of two cases by RC Olson, SS Mendicino… – Foot & ankle …, 2000 – journals.sagepub.com
Isolated medial cuneiform fracture: a commonly missed fracture by A Eraslan, S Ozyurek, B Erol, E Ercan – Case Reports, 2013 – casereports.bmj.com
Treatment of residual clubfoot deformity–the” bean-shaped” foot–by opening wedge medial cuneiform osteotomy and closing wedge cuboid osteotomy. Clinical … by KA McHale, MK Lenhart – Journal of pediatric orthopedics, 1991 – europepmc.org
Radiographic analysis of an opening wedge osteotomy of the medial cuneiform by M Lutz, M Myerson – Foot & Ankle International, 2011 – journals.sagepub.com