The land between two rivers, known as Mesopotamia, has contributed much to the modern world, especially in regards to writing. The creation of cuneiform helped shape a society that gave rise to a system of education where, at least initially, only the highest members of society could undergo rigorous studies where they learned, above all, how to write in this pictorial and logographic form of communication. The legacy of this script has influenced the way information was written down and recorded.
Cuneiform bears certain similarities to the Egyptian hieroglyphs that many people have come across at some point in their lives. However, it was the Sumerians of this fertile river valley who are acknowledged as having formed the earliest form of writing around 3500 B.C. Symbols and images were written upon clay tablets with a stylus made from the reeds that grew near the rivers. The very word cuneiform actually means “wedge shaped”, which is how the impressions on the clay tablets appeared after being drawn in with the stylus’ triangular tip. The most popular tablets ever recovered by archaeologists were those that depicted the Epic of Gilgamesh. Although we do not possess the narrative in all its entirety, the majority of the story has been translated into many languages, some of which have multiple translations.
In order to master this complex script, only the elite of society as well as educated scribes would have the privilege and tutelage necessary to learn cuneiform. Such exclusivity would be found later in history in regards to Latin, Greek, and other languages that were mastered by the select few. Only when there were changes in society or when a language underwent a transformation to be more accessible to the public did literacy rates grow. One must also remember that most individuals concerned themselves with learning a pliable trade and were not required to be literate as is the case today. Back then, it was a luxury whereas now it is a necessity.
Although the Epic of Gilgamesh is the best known sample of Sumerian cuneiform script, literature itself was not the main reason why a written language was created. Writing was extremely useful and used primarily for recording events, documenting government procedures and legislation, and keeping track of financial records. Merchants and administrators found that the ability to record information on clay tablets allowed for a greater degree of organization that resulted in a more streamlined process of managing the government as well as monetary transactions and trade. Mathematics also rose to the forefront as new methods of calculation and record keeping were formed. This extra edge against other cultural groups allowed for the Sumerians to rise up as a prominent civilization.Every day we are exposed to a variety of forms of written text, whether we are flipping through a novel, scouring the internet for news, or doing your taxes. We should always remember that the gift of writing came from civilizations before us and we should have some degree of gratitude for one of the most useful inventions ever created by the human mind.