Hands-on with Cuneiform

When I joined the CREWS Project and started my research on the context of writing at Ugarit, one of the challenges was getting to grips with Akkadian. Ugarit was a tremendously cosmopolitan and multilingual city, at the crossroads between the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia and Anatolia and this means that the writing we have from the city comes in a wide range of languages and scripts. The most common are Ugaritic – usually written in a form of alphabetic cuneiform  – and Akkadian.

One of the Amarna Letters

Akkadian was the language of much of Mesopotamia – what is now eastern Syria, Iran and Iraq – and by the Late Bronze Age had become the major international language of the region. When people wanted to send letters to people in other civilisations, they wrote in Akkadian. This was true even in places fiercely proud of their own languages and writing systems: one of our most important sources on ancient diplomacy is the archive of Akkadian letters found in the Egyptian city of Tell el-Amarna.

Akkadian was written in cuneiform, but an entirely different system to that used for Ugaritic. Akkadian cuneiform is much older, deriving from the system used for Sumerian, one of the world’s first written languages. It’s an extremely complex system where each cuneiform sign (there are around 600) either represents a syllable or acts as a logogram, standing for a whole word. What makes it extra fun is that each sign might be able to be read as several different syllables, as well as one or more logogram; and each syllable might be represented by several possible signs. So figuring out what words the writing represents is a major task in itself before you can even get started on translating.

Since October, I’ve been sitting in on Akkadian classes run by Dr Martin Worthington in the Division of Archaeology, and I’m slowly getting to grips with the language and writing system. Last week, we were lucky enough to have a hands-on practical at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, where we got to handle and examine some of the cuneiform in their collection. This included Akkadian tablets such as this resin cast of the famous Flood Tablet, which gives an account of the Mesopotamian version of Noah’s Flood as part of the Epic of Gilgamesh.


There were also these cones, inscribed in Sumerian. The text records the foundation or refurbishment of buildings by kings – in this case Gudea of Lagash – and the cones were hammered into the mud-brick walls so that the gods or any future refurbishers would know who had made the building.


Also from a building was this brick stamped with an inscription by the Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar:


A replica of the Gezer Calendar in the Israel Museum. Picture from Wikipeda

Finally, not cuneiform but still of great interest to me, was a plaster-cast of the Gezer Calendar. This is a short calendar describing what agricultural activities take place when in the year and is written in early Hebrew/Phoenician. It was an inscription I’d discussed in my PhD thesis, so it was nice to get to handle a copy.


As well as being fun, hands-on sessions like this are a really important part of the research process. When you study texts from reproductions – even in the original cuneiform – they can become divorced from the physical reality of the object they are found on. It’s easy to start thinking of them just as writing and to lose sight of how that writing would have appeared to those who encountered it, how it would have been used and how it relates to the archaeology of where it was found. For example, look at how astonishingly tiny the cuneiform on the Flood Tablet is:


Apart from the skill that would have gone into writing that small and neatly, just imagine trying to read that in a small room in a palace or temple with no artificial light. What does it mean for how we interpret them that the Foundation Cones would be buried in a mudbrick wall? What about the very different skills involved in carving a stone stamp that you could use to press inscriptions into bricks?

These questions are part of what’s called the materiality of inscriptions – thinking about them as physical things in the world and how that affects how people interacted with them. It’s unfortunately something that hasn’t always been given as much attention as it should have been, and although my own research is still at an early stage, it’s something I’m going to think about a lot with the material from Ugarit.

I’m very grateful to Dr Martin Worthington and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology for arranging this session, and to Laure Bonner for the photos.

~ Philip Boyes (Research Associate on the CREWS Project)


6 thoughts on “Hands-on with Cuneiform”

    1. Sorry – I don’t know any Sumerian, I’m afraid. Fortunately there’s not much of that from Ugarit. I’d suggest taking it to a museum, if you can find one with a good Near East collection.


  1. Philip Boyes- I am most interested in the materiality of inscriptions. I’ve zero background in this field. I’m a cinematographer. I do have a very specific question regarding the photo at the bottom of this page, above the Comments section. ( In case this note is devoid of context, here’s the link: https://crewsproject.wordpress.com/2017/02/15/hands-on-with-cuneiform/ )

    You are holding a reproduction of the Flood Tablet. I read your questions regarding what we modern thinkers would call font size and line spacing. Is there any possibility that a slightly elevated wooden rod system was employed that guided the stick ( sic ) as it was moved along and impressions were made into the wet clay?

    I envision a rod in the horizontal aspect that is held by a peg at each end. The pegs rest in two flat wooden strips in the vertical aspect in relation to the tablet. When the end of the line is reached, one would move the guide and holding pegs down to the next set of holes. By fashioning different sets of “spacing strips” for the vertical aspect, might one be able to proceed with very evenly spaced lines?

    As far as the tight and even spacing left to right on each line, well. I was raised Jewish. I have stood before a real Torah, sheepskin wooden scroll, silver pointer and all. Those lines are just remarkable in their uniformity of size and spacing. Hand-written by a “sofer”, they are works of art. Like that beautiful Flood Tablet you held.

    I would guess that the business transactions were not writ by businessmen but by their version of a sofer. And at that, as long as the clay is kept just damp enough, a mistake in pressing the tool in could be smoothed over very carefully and re-impressed. No?


    Peter Abraham, S.O.C.


    1. Hi Peter,

      Thanks for the comments – it’s nice to hear from interested people outside academia. I’m afraid I don’t necessarily know the answers to your questions: I’m very much learning myself and Mesopotamian cuneiform isn’t my primary research area; I specialise in Ugaritic alphabetic cuneiform, which is a rather different kettle of fish in some ways.

      I’ve never heard of any rod system like the one you describe, but that doesn’t necessarily mean no such thing existed. I think it would be quite difficult to prove. In some cases tablets do make use of ruled lines in order to keep things neat, and you do see a lot of variation in the care and skill displayed in different documents. I expect the likeliest thing is that tablets like the flood tablet would be the work of incredibly experienced specialist scribes at the top of their profession and that a lot of care was taken to get them perfect. In contrast, other genres of text can be much more haphazard, and erasures of the kind you mention are detectable.

      As for who handled business transaction, there is evidence for ‘scribes-for-hire’, I think, who would witness and set down contracts and receipts; we shouldn’t assume that all writing was in the hands of central administrations or temples, at least all of the time. On the other hand, I don’t think we should imagine that only specialist scribes could write. There is evidence for literacy beyond the formal scribal bureaucracies and reason to believe that some letters etc may have been written by the senders themselves rather than merely being dictated. I think it’s extremely plausible that at least some merchants would have some facility with writing, although it’s obviously a continuum and I’m not implying anything like universal literacy.

      I hope that answers things a little. As I say, I’m by no means a Mesopotamianist or Assyriologist proper so I’m sorry I can’t give a more categorical answer. However, if you’re interested in the subject, I’d recommend Domenique Charpin’s book ‘Reading and Writing in Babylon’, which I found to be excellent and accessible.

      Best wishes,



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