Wedges and signs

Cuneiform script was mostly written on clay with a reed stylus. Each sign is made up of individual wedges, impressed into the clay according to well-defined conventions. Individual signs combine to make words and sentences, but normally without word-spacing or punctuation.

Clay and reed

Scribes mostly wrote on fine potters' clay that had been carefully prepared. First they removed all inclusions such as grit and plant matter and then worked the clay until it was flexible, so that it didn't crack as it later dried out. The consistency was also important: too wet and the stylus would stick to the clay; too dry and it would be difficult to make any impression at all. Some types of tablet, such as official letters and some legal documents, were manufactured to a standard format (see BM 023145). Other tablets were made to fit the text that would be inscribed on them. There was an art to judging how large or small any one should be.

Writing styluses were mostly shaped from the reeds that grew abundantly on river- or canal-banks. (The impressions made by the reed fibres are sometimes visible in enlarged digital photographs.) Archaeologists have also found styluses made of bone and ivory. In all cases, the writing edge was long, flat and squared off (like the handle end of a disposable chopstick).


The scribe held the tablet in one hand and the stylus in the other, much as we would hold a pen. But instead of moving the stylus across the clay he (or she) would lightly press the stylus into the surface at an angle of about 20º. The tip of the stylus, which was pressed deepest into the clay, formed the head of the wedge, while the edge of the stylus shaft formed the wedge's tail as it rose from the head to the surface.

In mature cuneiform script, wedges were made in only a few legitimate orientations:

Wedges whose heads were at the bottom or right in relation to the viewer were permitted in earlier phrases of the script but were gradually abandoned during the course of the third millennium BC.

Signs and sign-order

Cuneiform signs are composed of several strokes. The simplest consist of just one wedge or two; the most complicated have 20 or more. So-called compound signs are composed of two or more individual signs, put together in any of the following ways (in descending order of frequency):

Much more rarely, signs can cross one another at an angle, or multiple copies of a sign can be juxtaposed at different angles.

Words and sentences

The earliest tablets grouped signs into boxes, or cases (see BM 116625 and BM 116628). But from the early third millennium the direction of the script changed, with signs rotated 90º anti-clockwise. Mature cuneiform writing always runs from left to right (or from bottom to top in some contexts). There were no general conventions for separating signs from one another, so that in many contexts reading cuneiform involves identifying where the word boundaries lie. However, scribes were trained not to split words over lines of the tablet, and to try and keep multi-word phrases together too. Because both Sumerian and Akkadian are both verb-final (that is, the verb comes at the end of a typical sentence or clause), the reader can also use this feature to help to deconstruct a text.

Fluent readers of alphabetic scripts tend not to read each letter individually but to process meaningful clusters of letters - whole words or phrases. Similarly, as learners become more competent and confident at reading cuneiform they are surprised to discover that they are also able to group and read signs correctly within context. The apparent complexity and randomness of the cuneiform system might appear baffling at first, but each period, genre, and dialect uses a much more manageable repertoire of signs - and those signs regularly co-occur in clearly identifiable patterns. Thus early, regular practice at reading copies of real cuneiform texts is the best way to appreciate how cuneiform works.

Content last modified on 05 Dec 2016.

Eleanor Robson

Eleanor Robson, 'Wedges and signs', Knowledge and Power, Higher Education Academy, 2016 []

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