Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources

Akkadian Cuneiform

- (2350 B.C. - 100 A.D. ca.)

edited by: Salvatore Gaspa    DOI: 10.25429/     (translation revised by Melanie Rockenhaus)
Last update: 6/2022

  • Introduction
  • Index
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Text of Zimri-Lim, king of Mari, ca. 1780 BC, AO 20161, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The Akkadian cuneiform, which was used in the Ancient Near East from the third millennium BC to the first century of the Christian era to encode the Akkadian language and its dialects, is a mixed system of syllables and logograms of around 600 signs.

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Definition of "cuneiform" and type of writing system

Around the middle of the third millennium B.C. the Akkadian-speaking scribes adopted the cuneiform writing system used for Sumerian. This script, which was originally created to encode the Sumerian, a non-Semitic and agglutinative language characterized by a marked monosyllabic lexicon, is called by the scholars with the term “cuneiform” because of the wedge-shaped signs (from Latin cuneus). That the shape of the wedge was considered as the basic unit of this writing system already by the Mesopotamian scribes is evident from the Akkadian words used to indicate the single cuneiform sign: santakkum, “triangle, wedge”, and tikip santakkim, “cuneiform sign”. The shape of the wedge originates from the impression on the wet surface of the clay tablet by means of a reed stylus. A cuneiform sign may be constituted by one or more wedge-shaped indentations. The wedges may be horizontal, vertical, diagonal, and Winkelhaken. The sign called Winkelhaken was obtained by a vertical impression on the clay by the tip of the stylus. The Akkadian cuneiform is read from left to right. However, in the oldest stages of the script, from the end of the fourth millennium B.C. to the Old Babylonian period inclusive, the signs, which were written in columns, were read from top to bottom and from right to left. Progressively, the signs were turned of 90 degrees left. The modern sign-lists include around 600 signs, but not all these signs were used in every historical stage of Akkadian. Secondly, the number of signs in use depended on the specific text and the competence of the single scribe: while the composition of learned texts, such as literary, religious, and scientific texts, could require the knowledge of around 400 or more signs, the writing of ordinary documents, like letters, contracts, and administrative texts, could require from 100 to 200 signs.

The cuneiform writing system and the Akkadian language

Since the mid-third millennium B.C. the cuneiform was adopted to record the Akkadian language. The fact that this writing system was employed in a cultural context characterized by Sumero-Akkadian bilingualism and that the cuneiform developped from pictography to a phonetical system adapted to write an agglutinative and ergative language with unchangeable morphemes as Sumerian was determined the written form of Akkadian. As a consequence, the peculiarities of this Semitic language as well as the possibility of an in-depth knowledge of it by the modern scholars appear strongly conditioned by the cuneiform writing system. As a Semitic language, Akkadian was an inflected language in which the root could be modified by the addition of morphemes. The Akkadian root is a discontinuous morpheme given by a sequence of consonantal sounds which can be modified by means of doubling of consonants, insertion of vowels, addition of prefixes, suffixes, and infixes. In cuneiform transcription, Akkadian exhibits the same vowels of Sumerian (a, e, i, u); the semivowelsle w and y; the consonants b, d, g, , k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, , š, t, z, ṭ­­, and the glottal stop ʾ. The consonantal inventory appears strongly conditioned by the use of cuneiform which, for instance, does not allow to distinguish voiceless, voiced, and emphatic sounds within the consonantal groups of bilabials, dentals, and velars. Although the Akkadian-speaking  scribes adapted the Sumerian cuneiform to their language with some changes, the writing system remained strongly conservative over the millennia as to its basic principles. The cultural weight of the scribal schools, the education of the scribes, and the prestige of the language and the literature of the ancient Sumerian civilization greatly influenced the Akkadian scribes.

Peculiarities of the Akkadian cuneiform

The Akkadian cuneiform is a mixed system of syllables and logograms. An individual sign may represent a syllable or part of a syllable, a whole word, a determinative or semantic classifier. Signs which represent syllables are called syllabograms. Those which stand for words are referred to as logograms. Logograms are graphemes of Sumerian words taken over by the Akkadian scribes to write words of their own language. Since the logograms used in the Akkadian cuneiform are ancient Sumerian words they are conventionally referred to as sumerograms. The logogram was read by the Akkadian-speaking people with the corresponding Akkadian word (e.g. Sumerian LUGAL = Akkadian šarrum, “king”). To make easier the reading of these graphemes the scribes often added a grapheme used as a phonetic complement. The phonetic complement could represent a syllable of the beginning or of the end of the corresponding Akkadian word (e.g. KUR-u = šadû, “mountain”; KUR-ud = ikšud, “he conquered”). Further, it could be added to words written phonetically, to help with the reading of specific syllabic signs (e.g. ak-šudud, “I conquered”). Given the logo-syllabic nature of the writing, every Akkadian word could be written with a sequence of syllabograms (e.g. išātum, “fire”, written as i-ša-tum or i-ša-tu-um) or with a logogram which corresponded to the Akkadian word (e.g. IZI, instead of išātum, “fire”). The main characteristics ruling the cuneiform system are homophony and polyphony: when the same sound may be represented with different graphems, then there is homophony; when the same sign may indicate different sequences of sounds, then there is polyphony (e.g. the sign ad may be read also as at and a). These different sequences of sounds are said to be phonetic values (e.g. the sign UD may be read both with the value ud and the values tam, pir, par, laš, lišš, ). As a rule, the homophonous graphemes are distinguished in transliteration by means of accents and subscribed numbers according to the following order: the sign more frequently attested has no diacritical marker (e.g. du), while the second and third signs are respectively marked by acute and grave accents (e.g. , ). Finally, the other graphemes are marked by subscribed numbers (e.g. du3, du6, du7, du8du10, du11).
However, we must keep in mind that not all the phonetic values of every sign were employed in every historical stage of Akkadian and in every area where it was spoken and written. Although cuneiform was inherited from the the Sumerian system of writing, over three thousand years it underwent some changes; these changes were introduced by local scribal traditions, especially in order to simplify the graphic shape and the orientation of signs. The polyphony of signs, however, increased, since to the logographic and phonetic values inherited from the Sumerian cuneiform the Akkadian scribes added new ones based on their own language. In fact, it was a complex script, whose use was confined to the scribal circles. Notwithstanding the strong influence of Babylonian dialect and orthography on the Assyrian scribal milieu, in Assyria a local orthographic tradition developped. The Assyrian orthography shows many features in common with the Babylonian orthography, but also many differences in the form of signs. In addition, within the same orthographic tradition may coexist different variants for a single sign. These variants were due to many factors: the relationship between writing style and material used to write, as in the case of the lapidary style (on stone monuments) and the cursive one (on clay tablets); the prestige of archaic orthographic forms which the scribes learnt from the texts on which they practice cuneiform; the degree of education and the personal style of the single scribe.

Decipherment of the Akkadian Cuneiform

The history of the decipherment of the Akkadian cuneiform, which took place in the course of the nineteenth century, is strictly linked to that of the decipherment of the Persian cuneiform. Persian was, beside Akkadian and Elamite, one of the three scripts attested in inscriptions found in sites of the territory corresponding to the ancient Persia (Iran). The early descriptions of characters of the cuneiform writing which the European travellers saw near the ruins of Persepolis were already known in Europe since the seventeenth century, thanks to the witness provided by Garcia de Silva y Figueroa, Thomas Herbert, and the Italian Pietro della Valle. In particular, the Roman nobleman Pietro della Valle, in a letter of 1621 sent to a Florentine friend from Shiraz, accluded to the description of what he saw at Persepolis also a reproduction of five signs of the mysterious script. But it is with the rigorous work of the Danish explorer Carsten Niebuhr (1733 - 1815) that we have the first accurate copies of cuneiform inscriptions from Persepolis and environs. Niebuhr contributed to put the study of cuneiform on firm theoretical grounds: he confirmed the direction of the script from left to right, distinguished three different kinds of script, and separated the simple characters from the complex ones.

The name of the script is that given by Thomas Hyde, a scholar who did not believe that the mysterious signs constituted a writing; he coined the word “cuneiform” (dactuli pyramidales seu cuneiformes) because of the particular wedged shape of signs. From Niebuhr’s conclusions starts the activity of the German Georg Friedrich Grotefend (1775-1853), who gave the first partial decipherment of Old Persian; he achieved this result through the identification of the groups of signs corresponding to the Achaemenid kings Hystaspes, Darius, and Xerxes. Instead, the definitive results towards the complete decipherment of Old Persian were achieved in the same period by Rasmus Rask (1787 - 1832), Eugene Burnouf (1801 - 1852), Christian Lassen (1800 - 1876), and the Irish clergyman Edward Hincks (1792 - 1866). To the same Grotefend’s results arrived independently also the British Major Henry Creswicke Rawlinson (1810 - 1895), who completed the difficult task of copying the monumental trilingual inscription of Darius at Behistun (western Iran) over the course of a number of expeditions between 1836 and 1847. He also deciphered a part of the Persian version and published a translation of the text in 1846. The definitive understanding of the text in Old Persian opened the path to the decipherment of the other two cuneiform scripts in which was written the inscription of Darius at Behistun and which duplicate the Persian version in Elamite and Babylonian. The scholars soon recognized that the Akkadian text was the most complex among the three. Its cuneiform script was constituted by characters whose number was higher than both that of Old Persian and of Elamite. In fact, the Persian cuneiform includes just 42 graphemes, while the Elamite script comprises 131 syllabograms and 25 logograms. The decipherment of Elamite writing, whose language still remains a little-understood language, is due to the work of Grotefend and especially of Edwin Norris (1795 - 1872), who published his results in a monumental commented edition of the Elamite version in 1852.

Although it appeared to be the most complex in comparison to the other scripts, the decipherment of the Babylonian cuneiform and the understanding of the Akkadian version of Darius’s inscription were facilitated by the comparison with the numerous texts in Babylonian cuneiform found in previous excavations and with the Assyrian tablets which Austen Henry Layard unearthed at Nimrud and at Quyunjik (northern Iraq) in the same years. The various phases of the process of decipherment of the Akkadian cuneiform happened over twelve years. Edward Hincks, who has been working in the decipherment of cuneiform since the beginning, gave a fundamental contribution also in the identification of the Akkadian cuneiform and of the language that in such a script was encoded. Hincks recognized that the language in question was related to the other languages of the Semitic group; to the same conclusions was already arrived the Swede Isidore de Löwenstern (1807 - 1856). Moreover, from the comparative evaluation of some occurrences of names, words, and phrases in several copies of the same Akkadian texts he was able to understand how the syllabic system of Akkadian worked and the way by which the same occurrences could be alternatively expressed in logographic forms. The fact that many characters of the Akkadian cuneiform had more than one phonetic value induced Hincks to conclude that this script was not suitable to record a Semitic language such as Assyrian and Babylonian and that it was devised for a different language. However, there were still many scholars who were sceptical about the possibility to understand the cuneiform. The confirmation that the decipherment of the Akkadian cuneiform was definitively accomplished came from the well-known “translation competition”, by which the Royal Asiatic Society in London, on the initiative of W. H. Fox Talbot (1800 - 1877), invited Rawlinson, Hincks, Talbot himself, and the French Jules Oppert (1825 - 1905) to put themselves to the test with the translation of the same inscription. The text chosen for the test was an inscription of the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser I (1114 - 1076 B.C.), written on a clay prism. The four autonomous translations, after being examined by an impartial committee, appeared substantially identical to the judges. So, in 1857 it was conclusively and solemnly declared the accomplishment of the decipherment of the Akkadian cuneiform.

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In Mesopotamia, stone was the preferred material for monumental and dedicatory inscriptions. Many inscribed objects were made of stone as well, especially semi-precious stones, as in the case of cylinder seals. However, differently from other places of the ancient Near East, Mesopotamia was poor in stone, so this precious material had to be imported from far-away regions. Royal inscriptions of various format and content were inscribed on stone media, principally on statues, stelae, obelisks. There are two well-known examples of inscribed stelae in Akkadian cuneiform. The first is the stele of the king of Akkad Naram-Sin (2254 - 2218 BC), in pink sandstone, on which is engraved a royal inscription which completes the iconic depiction of the military triumph of the king and his troops. The other is the diorite stele of the so-called “Law Code” of Hammurapi (1792 - 1750 BC), king of the first Babylonian dynasty, on the top of which are depicted the king and the god of justice Šamaš, while on the larger part of the surface of the monolith are recorded his laws.

In first millennium BC Assyria, some of the preferred media for royal inscriptions are the wall stone reliefs of the royal palaces and the stelae. The existence of clay tablets with the same text of some epigraphs which decorated the wall reliefs of the Assyrian palaces allows us to understand how the stone-carver worked. In these tablets, there are epigraphs which omit the names and leave a blank space. Presumably, the name must have been inserted in the epigraph carved on the relief. The space for the epigraph on the relief was clearly limited and the stone-carver had to consider the number of characters for every line. The cuneiform script appears to be particularly adaptable to problems of space thanks to the peculiarities of the mixed logo-syllabic system: for instance, in case of limited space at the end of a line in an epigraph area, the word, instead of being written with a normal sequence of syllabograms, could be replaced with the corresponding logographic variant.

Another medium for Assyrian royal inscriptions is represented by the stele. In the Neo-Assyrian age (9th - 7th cent. BC), besides the normal foundation stele which was destined to be buried in the foundations of a building, we find the inscribed stele with the depiction of the king; this kind of stele was then usually placed outside the building. Inscribed stelae could also be carved on inaccessible mountainsides. One can consider, for example, Tiglath-pileser III’s victory stele at Mila Mergi, carved on a vertical cliff at Dohuk-Zakho (northern Iraq) or that commemorating Sargon II’s campaign against Karalla at Tang-i Var, 85 km from Kermanshah (western Iran), carved on a flank of mount Kūh-i Zīnāneh, at 40 m. above ground level.

In Babylonia, a typical inscribed monument is the kudurru stone, commonly interpreted as a boundary-stone from its appearance and the Babylonian designation used to indicate it. The kudurrus, which were characteristic of the period of the Kassite domination (15th -12th cent. BC) and which continued to be used until the Neo-Babylonian age (7th cent. BC), are stone monuments of irregular cylindrical shape whose surface is in part carved in relief with astral and divine symbols and in part inscribed with copies of royal decrees regulating grants of land or tax exemptions in favour of towns or officials. The Akkadian cuneiform script on monuments shows a lapidary style which is often characterized by archaizing features and which may diverge considerably from the style used on contemporary clay records.


The principal medium for cuneiform writing was the clay tablet. The fact that clay was easily available in the land of the two rivers favoured the great fortune of the clay tablet as the common writing material. One of the basic competences the scribe was required to learn was the ability to fashion clay into tablets or other objects used to write. Clay tablets differentiated in size, width and shape. In addition, the selection of the appropriate format was strictly related to the kind of document the scribe intended to write. Generally, the tablet had a flat side (obverse) and a slightly convex side (reverse). The dimensions of the tablet were variable, but the commonest type of tablet could be easily held in the palm of the hand. The shapes of tablets too were variable; besides the most common rectangular tablets, there were also circular tablets.

Once the text was impressed on the wet surface of the tablets by means of a reed stylus, the clay medium was left to dry out or baked in a kiln. Baking was a conservative process which gave durability and strength to the tablet. The text could be written not only on one or both the sides of the clay tablet, but also on the edges of it. In the case of letters and legal documents, the tablet on which the text was inscribed was enclosed in a clay envelope, onto which the names of sender and receiver and details about the content of the text enclosed in the envelope were recorded. Other writing media were also shaped out of clay, such as prisms of six or more sides, cylinders or barrels, cones and bricks, which were all used for royal inscriptions and buried in the foundations of buildings or walled up in their structure.

There is the tendency to reproduce the cuneiform ductus of the clay tablets also on other media. Other media for writing used by the scribes were constituted by both durable and perishable materials. Potentially, the surface of any material could be inscribed in cuneiform. Commemorative and dedicatory inscriptions could be engraved on stone (stone tablets, wall reliefs, statues, obelisks, stelae), metal (metal tablets and other metal media) and on various items (vessels, jewels, amulets, weapons, etc.). Textual and iconographic sources indicate that perishable media – such as waxed writing boards with wooden or ivory frame, scrolls of leather or papyrus – were used as well. No archaeological evidence for leather and papyrus can be provided, while we know of some exemplars of ivory writing boards coming from Assur (Qal‘at Sherqaṭ) and Kalhu (Nimrud). This kind of tablet, in use from the Ur III to Late Babylonian periods, was employed for administrative recording purposes and literary texts. A thin layer of wax was laid within the wooden or ivory frame. These writing boards could be attached together by means of hinges to form a sort of book which opened and folded up like an accordion. This writing medium was particularly appreciated by both the scribes of the state administration and those working in the libraries because of the malleability of the material on which the texts were imprinted. In addition, wax did not require drying out like the clay of the tablets and this allowed the scribes to modify the text easily with erasures and corrections. The extreme malleability of wax allowed a continuous reuse of the writing surface for new texts and made it the ideal medium for the preliminary compositions of texts which, once completed in a definitive version, would then have been copied on clay.

The spread of Aramaic in Assyria in the 8th – 7th cent. BC caused Aramaic in alphabetic script to be adopted by the central administration of the Assyrian state as well. From the iconographic evidence (palace wall reliefs), one can see that Aramaic was written with a stylus on a soft and perishable medium (leather or papyrus). But what is more, the fact that the Assyrian imperial society was bilingual and bicultural favoured the interchange between the two writing traditions, that is, the Aramaic in alphabetic script and the Assyrian in cuneiform, as clearly shown by the examples of clay tablets impressed in Aramaic alphabetic characters instead of the Assyrian cuneiform signs. Finally, the surface of the tablet and its external envelope could bear a seal or a nail impression. This practice was common in legal documents.


In the ancient Near East, the metrological notation of the capacity of pottery vessels – especially those of great size which were placed in palace and temple storehouses – or their property could be impressed in cuneiform script on the surface of the vessels.


Cuneiform could be written on clay tablets not only by impression of a reed stylus, but also with ink, presumably by using special brushes or pens with a fine point. There are very few examples of this type of cuneiform script. An astrological report of Assurbanipal’s reign (668-631? BC) shows traces of a colophon with cuneiform characters written with ink. Other Neo-Assyrian examples of cuneiform script written with brushes can be seen on the fragmentary slabs of painted glazed pottery from Assur as well as on the remains of wall painting from Til Barsip (Tell Ahmar).


The Mesopotamian reed stylus

The stylus used by the Mesopotamian scribes consisted of a piece of marsh reed with a pointed beaked end. The triangular-based end allowed the stylus to impress the shape of a small triangle or wedge on the wet surface of the clay tablet. This stylus is called qan ṭuppi (literally: “tablet-reed”) in Babylonian. The use of styli of other materials (wood, metal, bone) must have been less common. The peculiarities of this writing tool determine the cuneiform sign, limiting the strokes only to linear forms (horizontal, vertical, diagonal) and preventing any curvilinear development of the script. The way the end of the stylus was cut influenced remarkably the style of writing. The stylus could exhibit a more or less rounded, flat or pointed end. To write, the scribe impressed the strokes by holding the stylus obliquely on the clay.

Besides being used for writing, the stylus was also employed by the scribe to divide the space for the text on the surface of the clay tablet into parts according to the format rules of the text chosen. In several tablets (e.g. lexical lists, administrative records), the text space appears to be organized in lines and columns. Furthermore, many tablets of literary texts have holes impressed on the surface. The purpose of these holes, which were certainly made with the same stylus used to write, is not clear, but it is certain that this practice became common in the composition of texts of literary content from the Middle Babylonian and Middle Assyrian periods. In Babylonian and Assyrian tablets of the first millennium BC, the stylus was also used to add short comments or details in Aramaic alphabetic script about the content of the document.

The few examples of the use of ink for the cuneiform script on clay tablets would be indirect evidence for the use of brushes. The cuneiform was probably written with a metal or wooden stylus on the waxed surface of the wooden or ivory writing boards, although it cannot be ruled out that also the common reed stylus was employed.

To erase

The erasure of the cuneiform script on the clay tablet could be done by rubbing fingers over the part of the text which had to be eliminated. After that a new text could be written. The part of text to be corrected could be further moistened to facilitate the correction. In any case, the clarity of the corrections introduced by the scribe depended on the characteristics of consistency and elasticity of the clay in use.