cuneiform (kyōnēˈĭfôrm) [key] [Lat., = wedge-shaped], system of writing developed before the last centuries of the 4th millennium B.C. in the lower Tigris and Euphrates valley, probably by the Sumerians (see Sumer). The characters consist of arrangements of wedgelike strokes generally impressed with a stylus on wet clay tablets, which were then dried or baked. The history of the script is strikingly parallel to that of the Egyptian hieroglyphic (see also alphabet and inscription). The normal Babylonian and Assyrian writing used a large number (300–600) of arbitrary cuneiform symbols for words and syllables; some had been originally pictographic. There was an alphabetic system, too, making it possible to spell a word out, but because of the adaptation from Sumerian, a different language, there were many ambiguities. A single symbol could be used to represent a concept, an object, a simple sound or syllable, or to indicate the category of words requiring additional definition. Cuneiform writing was used outside Mesopotamia also, notably in Elam and by the Hittites (see Anatolian languages). There are many undeciphered cuneiform inscriptions, apparently representing several different languages. Cuneiform writing declined in use after the Persian conquest of Babylonia (539 B.C.), and after a brief renaissance (3d–1st cent. B.C.) ceased to be used in Mesopotamia. A very late use of cuneiform writing was that of the Persians, who established a syllabary for Old Persian. This is the writing of the Achaemenids (mid-6th cent. B.C.–4th cent. B.C.), whose greatest monument is that of Darius I at Behistun. Key discoveries of cuneiform inscriptions have been made at Nineveh, Lagash, Uruk, Tell el Amarna, Susa, and Boğazköy. Two great names in the interpretation of cuneiforms are those of Sir Henry C. Rawlinson and G. F. Grotefend.
See E. Chiera, They Wrote on Clay (1956); J. D. Prince, Assyrian Primer (1909, repr. 1966); A. Gaur, A History of Writing (1984).