Proto-Cuneiform Version II

What is Proto-Cuneiform?

It may come as a surprise that the earliest instances of writing in Mesopotamia come not from public decrees, religious incantations, or other translates of the spoken word, but rather economic texts recording quantities of commerical goods. By the time Sumerians were composing poetry in the mid third millennium BC, writing had already been is use for over five hundred years (Michalowski). The earliest version of a writing system the Mesopotamians used did not originate out of attempts to find a durable phonetic representation of their spoken language. Nor did it arise out of the desire to preserve for posterity the wisdom or commandments of the ancients.

The earliest substantive sources of writing in Mesopotamia come brom the Late Uruk and Jemdet Nasr periods (ca. 3300-2900 BC) (Green). It is no coincidence that this period witnessed a great population increase and the emergence of some of the oldest of the great Mesopotamian cities such as Uruk and Susa(?). As these cities grew in size, they began to trade with one another more often. The building of houses and establishment of a reliable water supply had to be planned within a city. More intense labor and resources needed to be devoted to constructing and maintaining water canals. The growing importance of municipal temples demanded more efficient organization of supplies. All of these activities led to greater centralized government, which expanded its control over trade, urban planning, and record-keeping. This was the setting for the emergence of the first Mesopotamian writing system, termed 'Proto-cuneiform' because it was the ancestor of the more familiar cuneiform writing that was perfected in the third millenium.

In economic transactions, numbers are the most important item to keep track of. Although the idea of using tokens to represent quantities of physical objects had been used in Mesopotamia long before the emergence of the first writing systems, by 3200 BC we find the first instances of clay tablets containing numeric and ideographic symbols on them. These documents are essentially numerical tables that indicate a certain quantity of a given commodity, using numerical symbols to indicate the quanitity, and an ideographic symbol to indicate the kind of item being catalogued.

center|Erlenmeyer collection, MSVO 3, no. 1|Des|

The highly specialized function of these tablets indicates that they were produced by a well-regulated bureaucracy. Early Mesopotamian writing was a tool invented for administrative purposes. It was controlled by a central authority, which achieved uniformization by producing professional scribes out of training schools. Also evident from these tablets is the dearth of phonemic, or even linguistic content. These documents were not meant to be read, or even thought of as 'preserved speech', just as today we do not think of numerical databases as text documents.

These humble origins of cuneiform influenced its development in interesting ways. One is the way information was organized on tablets. As the number and types of goods recorded increased, scribes found ways to organize them spatially on the tablet to introduce structure without using additional signs. For instance, they would divide a tablet up into several columns, with some columns split up into many cells for individual entries. If a particular cell needed to contain a lot of information, it could be further subdivided into more cells. In addition, thinner columns could be interspersed between the main ones to act as supplementary margins. All of this indicates that proto-cuneiform, although partially based on ideograms, did not reflect the morphological, syntactical, or phonetic quality of its users' language.

center|W 20494 Obv. Uruk III Period. From Englund 1998|

This changes, however, (when?) with some archaic tablets of Ur in which the columns used to partition tablets become the same size. (other things?) The leveling of non-linguistic content corresponds to a development in linguistic content. Here is where the cuneiform writing system as we know it emerges, as we begin to find other, non-economic documents, with expressions reflecting the grammar and syntax of Sumerian. By 2700 we find royal inscriptions in Babylonia, and letters around 2400 BC (Michalowski apud Cooper).

Characteristics example
Prehistory - 3400 BC Small tokens of various shapes, presumably in one-to-one correspondence with counted commodities such as animals and jars.
3400 BC - 3300 BC Small tokens now contained in clay bullae, with impressions of the tokens made on the outer surface and often sealed with a pictographic impression.
3300 BC - 3250 BC Now in addition, flat and rounded clay tablets with token impressions and impressions from a round stylus found. Metrological systems and bundling steps not consistently employed
3250 BC - 3200 BC Flat and rectangular-shaped tablets. Metrological systems and bundling steps employed. W 11040
3200 BC Tablets now accompanied by a few ideograms referring to the objects counted or persons involved in transaction. Additionally, 'tags' found, consisting of small tablets with hole running lengthwise and containing ideograms that are precursors to proto-cuneiform signs. W 6881,b
3200 BC - 3100 BC Uruk IVa. Proto-cuneiform. Ca. 900 sign repertory used in documenting transactions. Tablets often divided into multiple columns, rows, or cases, and could indicate subtotals. Multiple, specialized metrologies and bundling steps employed. Beginning of lexical list tradition, including Lu2 A. Possible use of rebus principle and indication of grammatical morphemes. W 20044,58] "Wood List"
3100 BC - 3000 BC Uruk III. Most complex stage of proto-cuneiform. More categories of products recorded. Timekeeping system indicated. Tablets can have multi-leveled cases. More lexical lists created or canonized. Archaic City Seal. Possible example of literature in the Tribute List. MSVO 1, 185
2800 BC - 2600 BC Early Dynastic I & II period. Archaic texts of Ur. Multi-level case-system replaced by columns of uniform width. Simplified numerical notations. Evidence of Sumerian language in writing. Production of new lexical lists stops.UET 2, 066
2600 BC - 2500 BC Early Dynastic IIIa (Fara) period. Clear evidence of Sumerian as well as Akkadian language scribes writing texts of multiple genres, including literature.
2500 BC - 2350 BC Early Dynastic IIIb (Lagash I) period. Royal inscriptions found. Linearly ordered sentences indicating Sumerian verbal morphology and case markers.
  • Englund, Robert 1998 Texts from the Late Uruk Period, in Spaeturuk Zeit und fruehdynastische Zeit
proto-cuneiform_version_ii.txt · Last modified: 2010/02/11 01:54 (external edit)
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