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Ancient Mesopotamia
Ann Marie Dlott & Colleagues, Shrewsbury Public Schools, MA


Cuniform Writing

The Beginnings of Writing

Farmers needed to keep records.

The Sumerians were very good farmers. They raised animals such as goats and cows (called livestock). Because they needed to keep records of their livestock, food, and other things, officials began using tokens.

Tokens were used for trade.

Clay tokens came in different shapes and sizes. These represented different objects. For example, a cone shape could have represented a bag of wheat. These tokens were placed inside clay balls that were sealed. If you were sending five goats to someone, then you would put five tokens in the clay ball. When the goat arrived, the person would open the clay ball and count the tokens to make sure the correct number of goats had arrived.

The number of tokens began to be pressed on the outside of the clay balls. Many experts believe that this is how writing on clay tablets began.

A system of writing develops.

The earliest form of writing dates back to 3300 B.C. People back then would draw "word-pictures" on clay tablets using a pointed instrument called a stylus. These "word-pictures" then developed into wedge-shaped signs. This type of script was called cuneiform (from the Latin word cuneus which means wedge).

Who used cuneiform?
Not everyone learned to read and write. The ones that were picked by the gods were called scribes. Boys that were chosen to become scribes (professional writers) began to study at the age of 8. They finished when they were 20 years old. The scribes wrote on clay tablets and used a triangular shaped reed called a stylus to make marks in the clay. The marks represented the tens of thousands of words in their language.

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