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Skip to 0 minutes and 4 secondsHello. My name is Magnus Widell. I'm teaching Cuneiform Languages and Mesopotamian History here at University of Liverpool. Cuneiform languages are a number of different languages that all use the cuneiform script. A number of different languages, the most important languages being Sumerian and Akkadian. Both of these languages being used, of course, in Mesopotamia. The Cuneiform script started early in the third millennium and continued to be in use for almost 3,000 years, throughout the third millennium, the second millennium, and most of the first millennium. It was not the earliest writing system in Mesopotamia. The earliest writing we have from Mesopotamia starts already in the second half of the fourth millennium.

Skip to 0 minutes and 53 secondsWas a pictographic script, not very different from the writing system used in ancient Egypt. However in Mesopotamia writing is being done on wet clay, and writing symbols depicting different things is complicated and difficult on clay. And therefore, the pictographic writing system gradually was being replaced by cuneiform writing, which is how we imprint stylus into the wet clay, creating the system. The writing system. In addition to Sumerian and Akkadian, the two main languages being used in ancient Mesopotamia, the cuneiform writing system was used for a number of other ancient languages used in the region such as Eblite, Elamite, Hittite, Luwian, Hattic, Hurrian, and Urartian. It was also being used as a precursor to some alphabets such as Ugartitic.

Skip to 1 minute and 55 secondsOf these different languages, the languages that I especially teach here are Sumerian and Akkadian. And my own research interest is really in the Sumerian language. I am particularly interested in the administrative and economic documents written in Sumerian. And I'm trying to make history based on the content of those texts. Many Egyptologists are interested in the Akkadian language. This is partly because Akkadian, early on developed into an international language used for diplomacy between different states. So in the middle of the second millennium, BC, in Mesopotamia, or in the whole Middle East, we see a number of different kingdoms. Some of those kingdoms are quite large and important.

Skip to 2 minutes and 41 secondsMany of them are smaller kingdoms, with a king and a city, and a little bit of a countryside. These different states were in communication with each other, and they needed a common language. And Akkadian became that common language. In Egypt, a number of texts, more than 400 texts have been found and are called the Amarna letters. And many of those texts-- not all of them-- but many of those texts, although they have been found in ancient Egypt, are written in the Akkadian language.

Skip to 3 minutes and 13 secondsIn addition to the Amarna letterss-- only a few hundred texts, and therefore only a small portion of the text that we have written in Akkadian-- Akkadian was being used for number of other different types of inscriptions, such as law codes, literature, letters, hymns and songs, and administrative documents. The Akkadian language was deciphered in the middle of the 19th century. There were in particular, four scholars involved in this process. Hincks and Rawlinson, Oppert, and Talbot. These scholars were studying a text found in western Iran, that the Behistun inscription. This is quite late inscriptions from about 500 BC. It's important because it's inscribed in Babylonian, which is an Akkadian dialect, as well as Elamite and old Persian.

Skip to 4 minutes and 9 secondsThese scholars, by the middle of the 19th century, claimed to be able to read this language, Akkadian or Babylonian. The public was not entirely convinced. And therefore in 1857, there was an important experiment conducted in London, by the Royal Asiatic Society, where these four scholars received a text. They have not seen this text before. And they took it home. Produced an edition of these texts that later was being published. And the public could then compare the four different editions of these text and see to what degree those editions matched up. Although there were differences in the translations, it was clear that the common gist of the text was the same in the four translations.

Skip to 4 minutes and 59 secondsAnd from that point onwards, Akkadian was considered to be deciphered.

An introduction to Cuneiform

Dr. Magnus Widdell, lecturer in Assryiology at the University of Liverpool introduces Cuneiform script.

Here he outlines that Cuneiform is actually a script that was utilised my a number of cultures in the ancient Near East. In a similar way, our Latin alphabet is used for a number of languages such as English, German, Spanish etc.

Development of Cuneiform

Magnus explains that cuneiform originally was a language using pictograms (rather like Egyptian hieroglyphs). Over time the pictures became stylised symbols. One major reason for this was the medium used to record Akkadian cuneiform. Carved into wet clay with the end of a reed, it was difficult and time consuming to create intricate pictures, so instead the incisions made by the reed simply approximated the original pictures.

Below is an example of how Cuneiform developed over the centuries in different cultures. The word depicted is ‘head’.

Alt text D Bachman

  1. The pictogram as it was drawn around 3000 BCE.
  2. The rotated pictogram as written around 2800 BCE.
  3. The abstracted glyph in archaic monumental inscriptions, from around 2600 BCE.
  4. the sign as written in clay, as with the last example dating from around 2600 BCE.
  5. Late 3rd millennium (Neo-Sumerian)
  6. An Old Assyrian, early 2nd millennium, as adopted into Hittite.
  7. A simplified sign as written by Assyrian scribes in the early 1st millennium.

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This video is from the free online course:

Superpowers of the Ancient World: the Near East

University of Liverpool