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Writing Methods

Unlike the ancient Egyptians and Romans, who had an abundance of stone and paper to inscribe upon, Mesopotamians often relied on clay, not only to write on, but to build their homes and to make essential everyday items. Tablets were typically used to keep track of the abundance of goods related to trade and commerce and were, more often than not, prosaic.

World's Oldest Medical Tablet

World’s oldest medical tablet: This unique tablet holds the recipe for several potions that were used to treat specific ailments, though they were unfortunately not specified. Penn Museum Collection B14221 | Our site

Cuneiform is typically written on wet clay, which is then dried out in the sun after the inscriptions are complete. However, important legal documents are sometimes baked for the sake of longevity. There are instances in which cuneiform has been found on stone, metal, ivory, glass, and wax, but a large majority of such inscriptions are in clay.

Writing in Cuneiform

Examples of how cuneiform was written: Pictures No.1 and No.2 were the more popular techniques scribes used. No.3 became less popular after 2300 BCE due to the awkward angle needed to create such a mark. Robinson.

When writing cuneiform, a scribe works in columns, starting at the top left of the tablet and working his (most scribes were male during this time) way down, starting a new column to the right. When one side of the tablet has been filled, the scribe would turn the tablet from the bottom edge. They would then start on the top right edge and move to the left in columns. Scribes typically used reed styli, as reed stalks were plentiful and durable. Many scribes trimmed their styli to give them circular, pointed, or flat ends.

Early tablets were often pictographic in nature, often incorporating drawn lines and various shapes. Through time, the drawings transformed into the uniform wedge-like inscriptions that are traditionally associated with cuneiform today.

Early Pictographic Stone Tablet

Early Pictographic Stone Tablet: A tablet that was most likely created before the standardized version of cuneiform. Penn Museum Collection B10000 l Our site

Cuneiform is written in a very specific manner; only a limited amount of sign angles were used. Typically, the wedges that make up cuneiform do not point upwards, to the left, or slant to the right, as these directions would be very awkward to make for a right-handed scribe. Earlier tablets did contain some of these types of wedges but were mostly abandoned around 2300 BCE, most likely due to their inefficiency.

To become scribes, many young boys (and a few girls) went to scribal school. There, a teacher would often make them rewrite a short line, proverb, or a god’s name repeatedly until they were satisfied with their work.

Bitten Tablet

Bitten Tablet: This tablet was most likely made by a young scribe being taught how to write cuneiform, as evident by the repeating symbols. Our site: Penn Museum number N5326B

After graduating, they would typically worked in agricultural, to document rations and supply levels. Higher ranking scribes would work as personal secretaries to government officials, or at the royal court. Many also delved into the field of law. Sadly, scribes of the Mesopotamian era were not as revered as the scribes of Egypt were.