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Ask a Near Eastern Professional: Cuneiform Scripts in Assyria and Babylonia - The ASOR Blog

Ask a Near Eastern Professional: Cuneiform Scripts in Assyria and Babylonia

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Paul Howles asks: “If I under correctly, the cuneiform scripts used in Assyria and Babylonia in the 1st millennium BC (Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian periods) were different. How different were these signs? Approximately what percentage of the signs were identical?”

By: Susanne Paulus

Babylonia and Assyria were two of the most important powers in Mesopotamia in the 1st millennium BC. They shared a common language, Akkadian, and a common script, cuneiform. While scribes in both cultures used the same signs, they wrote nearly all the signs differently. Some sign forms are rather similar to each other: for example, the sign AN. Others signs, like LUGAL, are noticeably different in many respects. Often, these differences can be found in the usage of different sign elements within one sign. The sign KA shows typical differences: While the Assyrian sign has only horizontal and vertical wedges, the Babylonian sign usually has one wedge called a winckelhaken (circled in red).

1.Table of selected Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian sign variants. Signs from Labat, René. Manuel d’Épigraphie Akkadienne (Signes, syllabaire, idéogrammes). Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1995.

Table of selected Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian sign variants. Signs from Labat, René. Manuel d’Épigraphie Akkadienne (Signes, syllabaire, idéogrammes). Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1995.

Because cuneiform was always written by hand, signs were never uniform. The form of a sign might depend on the city in which the text was written, the time period of the text, and the individual hand of the scribe. Other differences can also be seen between the cursive script written on clay tablets and the monumental script, which is used for inscriptions on stone. Consequently, Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian signs can be nearly identical (variant 1 of AN), slightly different (variant 2 of AN), or very different (variant 3 of AN).

These differences have historic origins. When the cuneiform writing system was invented at the end of the 4th millennium BC in Uruk, a city in southern Mesopotamia, the signs were originally line drawings representing pictures. For example, the sign KA (figure 2) represents a head, with the mouth area highlighted by strokes. In the following period, the sign was turned 90°. Furthermore, it was impressed into clay with a stylus instead of being drawn, resulting in the emergence of cuneiform’s eponymous wedges.

In the 3rd millennium, cuneiform developed even further, and the signs were simplified. Around 2000 BC, a regional split occurred. The script in the northern part of Mesopotamia (Assyria) and the script in the south (Babylonia) started to evolve independently. Around 1500 BC, the split between the kingdoms of Assyria and Babylonia reinforced this development.

The evolution of the sign KA from the 4th millennium BC until the 1st millennium BC. Adapted from Labat, René. Manuel d’Épigraphie Akkadienne (Signes, syllabaire, idéogrammes). Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1995, 48.

The evolution of the sign KA from the 4th millennium BC until the 1st millennium BC. Adapted from Labat, René. Manuel d’Épigraphie Akkadienne (Signes, syllabaire, idéogrammes). Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1995, 48.

Normal scribes would either write Babylonian or Assyrian, depending on the region in which they lived (figure 3), but trained scribes were able to read both. This was especially important when letters were exchanged between the royal courts.

In the library of the famous Assyrian king Assurbanipal (7th century BC), tablets in Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian scripts were found together. Jeannette Fincke, who studied the paleography of these scribes, discovered that the famous scholars who wrote the tablets had mastered both scripts. But their knowledge was not limited to the first millennium sign forms; sign lists (figure 4) prove that they also studied the earliest sign forms written more than 2,500 years ago. This shows the impressive continuity of Mesopotamian culture!

3.Assyrian palace relief showing a scribe writing cuneiform. 8th century BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

3. Assyrian palace relief showing a scribe writing cuneiform. 8th century BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

4.Tablet inscribed with a syllabary of archaic sign forms and the corresponding Neo-Assyrian sign forms. 7th century BC, Nineveh. http://cdli.ucla.edu/dl/photo/P397667.jpg © The Trustees of the British Museum.

4. Tablet inscribed with a syllabary of archaic sign forms and the corresponding Neo-Assyrian sign forms. 7th century BC, Nineveh. http://cdli.ucla.edu/dl/photo/P397667.jpg © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Susanne Paulus is Assistant Professor of Assyriology at the University of Chicago.

Have a question about the ancient Near East that you’d like answered? Send your questions to the Ancient Near East Today editor by emailing theancientneareasttoday@gmail.com!

For Further Reading

Irving Finkel and Jonathan Taylor, Cuneiform. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015.

Dominique Charpin, Reading and Writing in Babylon. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.

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