Cuneiform (pronounced “KYOO – NEE – IF – ORM”) is a system of writing invented by the ancient Sumerians around 3200 BC. It was used to write the Sumerian language. It changed over time, but basically used between 600 and 1000 symbols to write words or parts of words (syllables). The symbols were made by pressing cut reeds into clay tablets, and letting it dry. SO, cuneiform WAS NOT a language, and not an alphabet, and didn’t have letters.  It could be used to write ANY language; later civilizations of Mesopotamia, such as the Assyrians and Babylonians, used versions of cuneiform to write their languages too. It could be used to write English today, except it’s kind of a pain to use.

Here’s the seal of the Assyrian Empire from 2250 BC, written in cuneiform script

Many thousands of these clay tablets are still around today, and we can see them in museums. The cuneiform system of writing was used for about 3000 years before finally dying out.

Here’s an inscription from Cyrus the Great, telling how he captured Babylon in 539 BC. See how it looks different from the example above?

For many centuries, travelers in the Middle East reported seeing strange writing on old tablets, but no one could read it. Finally in the 1800’s, several different scholars from different countries (and one British military officer) worked hard to try to figure out the code. In 1857 they came together to share their work and cuneiform was officially deciphered (meaning the code was cracked)!

Some cuneiform writing discovered in southern Iraq


Photo credits: Inscription: By Nic McPhee from Morris, Minnesota, USA – This file was derived from:  Flickr – Nic’s events – British Museum with Cory and Mary, 6 Sep 2007 – 195.jpg, CC BY-SA 2.0,; Cyrus the Great: By Charon77 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,