From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Kish Tablet
Script type
Time period
c. 3300–2900 BC
LanguagesUnknown, possibly Sumerian
Related scripts
Child systems

The proto-cuneiform script was a system of proto-writing that emerged in Mesopotamia, eventually developing into the early cuneiform script used in the region's Early Dynastic I period. It arose from the token-based system that had already been in use across the region in preceding millennia. While it is known definitively that later cuneiform was used to write the Sumerian language, it is still uncertain what the underlying language of proto-cuneiform texts were.


Proto-cuneiform lexical list of places (BM_116625)

During the 9th millennium BC, a token-based system came into use in various parts of the ancient Near East. These evolved into marked tokens, and then into marked envelopes now known as clay bullae.[1][2][3] It is usually assumed that these were the basis for the development of proto-cuneiform, as well as of the contemporaneous Proto-Elamite writing system: as many as two-thirds of the tokens discovered have been excavated in Susa, the most important city in what would become Elam. These tokens continued to be used, even after the development of proto-cuneiform and Proto-Elamite.[4][5][6][7][8]

The earliest tablets found are of a 'numerical' character—they consist only of lists of numbers. They have been found not only in Susa and Uruk, but in a variety of sites, including some that lack later Proto-Elamite and proto-cuneiform tablets, like Tell Brak, Habuba Kabira, Tepe Hissar, Godin Tepe and Jebel Aruda.[9][10][11][12][13] Proto-cuneiform emerged in the what is now labeled the Uruk IV period (c. 3300 BC), and its use through the later Uruk III period. The script slowly evolved over time, with signs changing and merging.[14] It was used for the first time in Uruk, later spreading to additional sites such as Jemdet Nasr.[15]

With the advent of the Early Dynastic period c. 2900 BC, the standard cuneiform script used to write the Sumerian language emerged, though only about 400 tablets have been recovered from this period; these are mainly from Ur, with a few from Uruk.[16]


Proto-cuneiform tablet recording the allocation of beer

There is a longstanding debate in the academic community regarding when the Sumerian people arrived in Mesopotamia. Partly spurred by linguistic arguments and evidence, overall it is generally clear that a number of fundamental changes occurred in Mesopotamia—such as the use of the plano-convex brick—at the same time the first definitive evidence of the Sumerian language appeared during the Early Dynastic I period. Proto-cuneiform offers no clear clues as to what spoken language it encoded, leading to much speculation, though Sumerian is often assumed.[17][18]


Proto-cuneiform administrative account concerning malt and barley groats (MET_DP293245)

About 170 similar tablets from Uruk V (c. 3500 BC), Susa, and other Iranian sites like Tepe Sialk, are considered to be pre-Proto-Elamite, though bearing similarities to proto-cuneiform.[19] Sign lists and transliterations are less clear for this category.[20]

Like Proto-Elamite, the system's propagation was relatively limited. The vast majority of the proto-cuneiform texts found, about 4000, have been located in archaic Uruk, though also in secondary contexts within the Eanna district. The tablets fall primarily into two styles: the earlier (building level IV) set featuring more naturalistic figures, written with a pointed stylus, and the later set (building level III) with a more abstract style, made using a blunt stylus. These correspond to the Late Uruk c. 3100 BC and Jemdet Nasr c. 3000 BC periods respectively.[21][22] Many of the tablets were themselves later used as foundation filler during the construction of the Uruk III Eanna temple complex. It appears that the records were considered to be of transient utility or interest, and were quickly disposed of. The difficult stratigraphy has brought about a change from referring to tablets based on excavation layer to one of calling them script phase IV and III. Similarly to the tablets, clay seals previously used to secure vessels and doors ended up in the fill after being removed.[23] The sites and analysis of sealing has led to suggestions that the tablets originated elsewhere and ended up at Uruk, where they were discarded.[24]

A smaller number of tablets were found in Jemdet Nasr, Khafajah and Tell Uqair.[25][26][27] They tend to be less fragmentary and are sometimes found in stratified contexts. Some have made their way into various private and public collections: the provenance for some can be determined from internal clues, but for some the origin city is unknown.[28][29] For example, in 1988 82 complete well-preserved tablets from the Swiss Erlenmeyer Collection in Basel were auctioned off with most ending up in public collections.[30]

A notable exemplar was found by Langdon during his excavation in the 1920s, often called the "Kish tablet". A plaster-cast of the artifact is presently held in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, with the original at the Baghdad Museum. Its date of origin is unclear.[31]

Some tablets were sealed using a cylindrical seal.[32]

Proto-cuneiform Tablet – administrative account of barley distribution with cylinder seal impression of a male figure, hunting dogs, and boars (MET_DT847)

State of decipherment[edit]

Archaic cuneiform tablet E.A. Hoffman

To decipher an unknown, fully functional writing system, several things are usually desirable: knowledge of which underlying language is encoded, the existence of bilingual examples, and a large corpus. As currently understood, proto-cuneiform satisfies none of these qualities. However, it is important that proto-cuneiform is not a full writing system, but was rather a simple notation system used singularly for economic administration. Texts are singular and concrete in nature, such as lists of items.[33][34]

Already in 1928 with the first publication of example texts, a numerical sign list had been developed, based on the assumption the signs corresponded to those from Fara, the earliest cuneiform texts. In addition, it was quickly determined that the sexagesimal numerals and area numbers were also essentially the same as for early Cuneiform.[35] The mathematical system used in proto-cuneiform and Proto-Elamite began to be largely deciphered, beginning in the 1970s.[36][37] Within a few decades the details had been mostly worked out.[38][39] Some details remain obscure, and several generally agreed-upon details remain contested. As an example, the (ŠE system E) is thought to be a capacity measuree, but it has been pointed out that this measurement system is only found in the early Uruk IV layers, and not in the later Uruk III layers, and lacks the markers of a capacity measure.[40][41]

Sign Inventory[edit]

Currently there are about 2000 known proto-cuneiform signs, of which about 350 are numerical, 1100 are individual ideographic, and 600 are complex—combinations of 2 or more individual signs.[42] The non-numerical signs are attested in about 40,000 occurrences. There was a high degree of heterogeneity in sign usage: about 530 signs are only attested once, about 610 two to ten times, 370 attested 11 to 100 times, and about 104 signs attested more the 100 times.[34] Many signs have been identified including those for barley and emmer wheat.[43]


The underlying numeric base of the proto-cuneiform, like later cuneiform, is sexagesimal (base 60).[44][45] Earlier researchers believed that this system rose out of an earlier decimal (base 10) substratum but that idea has now lost currency.[46]

Proto-cuneiform sexagesimal type Sa with Cuneiform equivalents

Different products used different measurement systems and this can change with the context. In a single tablet the (Bisexagesimal System B) could be used for grain rations, (ŠE system Š) could be used for barley, and (ŠE system Š") be used for emmer wheat. Some of the measurement systems, such as (ŠE system C), which was for capacity, typically of grain.[47] There are thirteen numerical systems in total (Sexagesimal, Sexagesimal S', Bisexagesimal, Bisexagesimal B*, GAN2, EN, U4, ŠE, ŠE', ŠE", ŠE*, DUGb, DUGc) of which the contemporary Proto-Elamite writing system used only seven. Proto-Elamite also only used half of the sixty proto-cuneiform numerical signs.[48][49]


Proto-cuneiform cities list


The largest group of proto-cuneiform texts (about 2000 from the Uruk IV period and about 3600 from the Uruk III period) are accounts i.e. "economic records".[50] They involve a variety of items including people, livestock, and grain. Unfortunately there are often multiple ways to do things. For example, people can be listed two different ways 1) By gender and age (adult, minor, baby) or 2) without gender and in one of a number of age groups (0–1, 3–10 etc.).[51]


Another large category (with around a dozen examples in Uruk IV, and approximately 750 in Uruk III)) are called "lexical lists", which appearing in Uruk IV but became much more common in Uruk III. These documents are lists of items belonging to a given physical cateogry: metals, cities, tools.[52][53][54][55] Examples persisted into Early Dynastic and Old Babylonian times.[56][57][58]


The proto-cuneiform texts from Uruk were published in a series of books (ATU)

  • ATU 1. [12] Adam Falkenstein, "Archaische Texte aus Uruk", Berlin und Leipzig: Deutsche Forschungsgemein-schaft, Kommissionsverlag Otto Harrassowitz, 1936
  • ATU 2. [13] M. W. Green und Hans J. Nissen, unter Mitarbeit von Peter Damerow und Robert K. Englund, "Zeichenliste der Archaischen Texte aus Uruk", Berlin, 1987 ISBN 978-3786114390
  • ATU 3. Robert K. Englund und Hans J. Nissen unter Mitarbeit von Peter Damerow, "Die Lexikalischen Listen der Archaischen Texte aus Uruk", Berlin, 1993 ISBN 978-3786116875
  • ATU 4. Robert K. Englund und Hans J. Nissen, "Katalog der Archaischen Texte aus Uruk"
  • ATU 5. Robert K. Englund unter Mitarbeit von R. M. Boehmer, "Archaic Administrative Texts from Uruk: The Early Campaigns", Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag, 1994 ISBN 978-3786117452
  • ATU 6. Robert K. Englund und Hans J. Nissen unter Mitarbeit von R. M. Boehmer, "Archaische Verwaltungstexte aus Uruk: Vorderasiatisches Museum II", Berlin, 2005 ISBN 978-3786125211
  • ATU 7. Robert K. Englund und Hans J. Nissen unter Mitarbeit von R. M. Boehmer, "Archaische Verwaltungstexte aus Uruk: Die Heidelberger Sammlung", Berlin, 2001 ISBN 978-3786124023

And from other sites (MSVO)

  • MSVO 1. Robert K. Englund, Jean-Pierre Grégoire, and Roger J. Matthews, "The proto-cuneiform Texts from Jemdet Nasr I: Copies, Transliterations and Glossary", Materialien zu den frühen Schriftzeugnissen des Vorderen Orients Bd. 1. Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 1991 ISBN 9783786116462
  • MSVO 2. Matthews, R. J, "Cities, Seals and Writing: Archaic Seal Impressions from Jemdet Nasr and Ur", Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 1993 ISBN 978-3786116868
  • MSVO 3. Damerow, P. & Englund, R. K. forthcoming. "The proto-cuneiform Texts from the Erlenmeyer Collection" Berlin.
  • MSVO 4. Robert K. Englund and Roger J. Matthews, "proto-cuneiform Texts from Diverse Collections", Materialien zu den frühen Schriftzeugnissen des Vorderen Orients Bd. 4. Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 1996 ISBN 978-3786118756
  • CUSAS 1. Salvatore F. Monaco, "The Cornell University Archaic Tablets (CUSAS: Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology)", Eisenbrauns, 2007 ISBN 978-1934309001


A Unicode block encoding proto-cuneiform was initially proposed in 2020.[42] but has not yet been formally accepted by the consortium, as have character ranges for later forms of cuneiform.[59][60][61]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Schmandt-Besserat, Denise, "The Envelopes That Bear the First Writing", Technology and Culture, vol. 21, no. 3, pp. 357–85, 1980
  2. ^ Schmandt-Besserat, Denise, "Decipherment of the Earliest Tablets", Science, vol. 211, no. 4479, pp. 283–85, 1981
  3. ^ Overmann, Karenleigh A., "The Neolithic Clay Tokens", in The Material Origin of Numbers: Insights from the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, Piscataway, NJ, USA: Gorgias Press, pp. 157–178, 2019
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  8. ^ Bennison-Chapman, Lucy Ebony, "Tools of the Trade: Accounting Tokens as an Alternative to Text in the Cuneiform World", Bulletin of the American Society of Overseas Research 390.1, 2023
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  29. ^ Falkenstein, Adam, "Archaische texte des Iraq-Museums in Baghdad", Orientalistische Literaturzeitung 40/7, pp. 401–410, 1937
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  31. ^ S. Langdon, "Excavations at Kish Volume 1 Expedition to Mesopotamia", Paul Geuthner, Paris, 1924
  32. ^ Goff, Beatrice L., and Briggs Buchanan, "A Tablet of the Uruk Period in the Goucher College Collection", Journal of Near Eastern Studies, vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 231–35, 1956
  33. ^ [4] I. J. Gelb, "A Study of Writing", Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963
  34. ^ a b [5] Damerow, Peter, "The origins of writing as a problem of historical epistemology", Cuneiform Digital Library Journal, CDLJ 2006:1, 2006
  35. ^ Langdon, Stephen Herbert, "Pictographic Inscriptions from Jemdet Nasr excavated by the Oxford and Field Museum Expedition", Oxford editions of cuneiform texts 7, Oxford University Press, 1928
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  38. ^ Friberg, Jöran, "Counting and Accounting in the Proto-Literate Middle East: Examples from Two New Volumes of Proto-cuneiform Texts", Journal of Cuneiform Studies, vol. 51, pp. 107–37, 1999
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  40. ^ Bartash, Vitali, "Approaching the topic", in Establishing Value: Weight Measures in Early Mesopotamia, Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, pp. 1–15, 2019
  41. ^ Vaiman, Aizik A., "Protosumerische Mass- und Zählsysteme", Baghdader Mitteilungen 20, pp. 114–120, 1989
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  43. ^ Woods, Christopher, "Contingency Tables and Economic Forecasting in the Earliest Texts from Mesopotamia", Texts and Contexts: The Circulation and Transmission of Cuneiform Texts in Social Space, edited by Paul Delnero and Jacob Lauinger, Berlin, München, Boston: De Gruyter, pp. 121–142, 2015
  44. ^ Friberg, Jöran, "The Early Roots of Babylonian Mathematics: II. Metrological Relations in a Group of Semi-Pictographic Tablets of the Jemdet Nasr Type, Probably from Uruk-Warka", Research Report, 1979-15; University of Göteborg, Department of Mathematics, Chalmers, 1978–79
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  52. ^ Civil, Miguel, "Remarks on AD-GI₄ (a.k.a. "Archaic Word List C" or "Tribute")", Journal of Cuneiform Studies 65, pp. 13–67, 2013
  53. ^ Krispijn, Theo J.H., "The Early Mesopotamian Lexical Lists and the Dawn of Linguistics", Jaarbericht Ex Oriente Lux 32, pp. 12–22, 1992
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Further reading[edit]

  • Born, Logan, and Kathryn Kelley, "A Quantitative Analysis of proto-cuneiform Sign Use in Archaic Tribute." Cuneiform Digital Library Bulletin, 2021
  • Charvát, Petr, "On People, Signs and States – Spotlights on Sumerian Society, c. 3500–2500 B.C.", Prague: The Oriental Institute, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, 1998
  • Charvát, Petr, "Lambs of the Gods. The Beginnings of the Wool Economy in Proto-Cuneiform Texts", Wool Economy in the Ancient Near East and the Aegean, Oxbow, Oxford, pp. 79–91, 2014
  • Charvát, Petr, "Cherchez la femme: The SAL Sign in Proto-cuneiform Writing", La famille dans le Proche-Orient ancien: réalités, symbolismes et images: Proceedings of the 55e Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, Paris, edited by Lionel Marti, University Park, USA: Penn State University Press, pp. 169–182, 2021
  • [14] Dahl, J., "Proto-Elamite and linear Elamite, a misunderstood relationship?", Akkadica, 2023
  • [15] Damerow, Peter, and Robert K. Englund, "Die Zahlzeichensysteme der Archaischen Texte aus Uruk", 1985
  • Damerow, Peter, "Food production and social status as documented in proto cuneiform texts", Food and the status quest: An interdisciplinary perspective 1, pp. 149–170, 1996
  • Diaco, Maddalena, "The Signs For Buildings in the proto-cuneiform." Rivista di Preistoria e Protostoria delle Civiltà Antiche Review of prehistory and protohistory of ancient civilizations 43, pp. 35–52, 2020
  • [16] Englund, Robert K., "Late Uruk period cattle and dairy products: Evidence from proto-cuneiform sources." Bulletin of Sumerian Agriculture 8.2, pp. 33–48, 1995
  • [17] Englund, Robert K., "The Smell of the Cage", in Cuneiform Digital Library Journal 2009:4, 2009
  • Englund, Robert K, "Late Uruk Pigs and Other Herded Animals", in: U. Finkbeiner, R. Dittmann and H. Hauptmann, eds., Festschrift Boehmer Mainz, pp. 121–133, 1995
  • Friberg, J, "Numbers and Measures in the Earliest Written Records", Scientific American, vol. 250, no. 2, pp. 110–118, 1984
  • Gabriel, Gösta Ingvar, "Die archaischen Listen aus Uruk und die proto-keilschriftliche frontier. Überlegungen zu Funktion und Genese des ältesten lexikalischen Corpus", Journal of Ancient Near Eastern History, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 1–24, 2022
  • Glassner, J-J. "Proto-cuneiform Texts from Diverse Collections." The Journal of the American Oriental Society 119.3, pp. 547–547, 1999
  • Green, M. W., "Animal Husbandry at Uruk in the Archaic Period", Journal of Near Eastern Studies, vol. 39, no. 1, pp. 1–35, 1980
  • Kelley, Kathryn, "Gender, age, and labour organization in the earliest texts from Mesopotamia and Iran (c. 3300–2900 BC)", Dissertation, University of Oxford, 2018
  • Klein, Jacob, "Six New Archaic Tablets From Uruk", vol. 94, no. 2, pp. 161–174, 2004
  • [18] Nissen, Hans-Jörg. "Uruk: Early Administration Practices and the Development of Proto-Cuneiform Writing" Archéo-Nil 26.1, pp. 33–48, 2016
  • Nissen, HansJörg; Damerow, Peter; Englund, Robert K., "Archaic Bookkeeping: Early Writing and Techniques of Economic Administration in the Ancient Near East", Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993
  • Szarzyñska, Krystyna, "Records of Garments and Cloths in Archaic Uruk/Warka", Altorientalische Forschungen, vol. 15, no. 1–2, pp. 220–230, 1988
  • Vaiman, Aizik A., "Protosumerische Maß-und Zählsysteme", Baghdader Mitteilungen 20, pp. 114–120, 1989
  • Wagensonner, Klaus, "Early Lexical Lists and Their Impact on Economic Records: An Attempt of Correlation Between Two Seemingly Different Kinds of Data-Sets". Organization, Representation, and Symbols of Power in the Ancient Near East: Proceedings of the 54th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale at Würzburg 20–25 Jul, edited by Gernot Wilhelm, University Park, USA: Penn State University Press, pp. 805–818, 2022
  • [19] Christopher Woods, "The earliest Mesopotamian writing", in Visible language. Inventions of writing in the ancient Middle East and beyond, Oriental Institute Museum Publications 32, University of Chicago, Chicago, pp. 33–50, 2010 ISBN 978-1-885923-76-9

External links[edit]