Cuneiform Clay Tablets

In the 4th millennium BC the scribes of ancient Iraq developed a writing system that consisted of wedge-shaped letters and was named "cuneiform"( from Latin cuneus, "wedge"). Cuneiform writing was impressed onto clay tablets, which were made of various shapes (cone-shaped, drum-shaped, and flat), by a scribe with a reed stylus. Often they were also sealed in clay envelopes in order to insure the integrity of the documents.

The earliest attested documents in cuneiform were written in Sumerian, the language of the inhabitants of southern Mesopotamia. Yet cuneiform was employed for writing a number of languages (including Akkadian and Assyrian and Babylonian dialects). From the end of the 4th millennium BC until roundabout the 1st century BC, the cuneiform system was used to write administrative texts, but also private legal documents, public and private letters, historiographic texts, and literary and scholarly texts.

Initially, cuneiform writing was pictographic: a symbol stood for a specific word, such as sheep or sun. Later, with the adoption of cuneiform writing by the Akkadian language, writing became syllabic: a multi-syllabic word, such as sheepskin, would be represented by combining the symbols for sheep and skin, rather than by developing an entirely new symbol. Eventually, writing became alphabetic: symbols stood for vowels and consonants, thus greatly reducing the number of symbols needed for complex written communication.

As with other forms of writing the use of cuneiform greatly changed the social structure and the civilization's relationship to their own history among the cultures of ancient Middle East. Writing allowed laws to be written and so to assume a static and independent character; history became more detailed and incorporated much more of local cultures' histories.