Distributing content on tablets is one of the oldest features of civilisation as we know it. Over 5000 years ago, in thriving cities such as Uruk which were situated between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, the earliest written records were created on clay tablets using a reed stylus.
Unlike later Egyptian hieroglyphics, which were most commonly committed to friable papyrus made from sedge plants, these clay tablets survived many disasters including fire, which only preserved them better.
It would be lovely but completely false to think that classical cuneiform script, which evolved from this earliest Mesopotamian writing, was driven by the desire to record literature or perhaps religious material. Although later tablets did contain cultural documents, the real motivation behind our first written records was accountancy: keeping details of harvests, grain sales, land ownership, even tax accounts.
As in so many other features of what we consider to be civilisation, it was the material rather than cultural world that cut the leading edge.
The earliest languages to be written using cuneiform script were Sumerian and later Akkadian, both of which used extensive collections of signs composed from multiple wedge-shaped marks. In contrast to the alphabet used to form these words, cuneiform started, like heiroglyphic script, as logograms representing entire words. Thus the sign known as KA, 𒅗 if you have an appropriate font installed, grew to represent not only the word ‘ka’, but also that for ‘zu’, ‘kiri’, ‘dug’, and ‘inim’; during the next millennium it became used as a phonogram for the syllable ‘ka’ too.
With over 800 different signs used to form words, and around 100 for numbers, cuneiform signs were first incorporated into the Unicode 5 standard for representation in computer text, some 2000 years after they ceased to be used in clay.
Many thousands of cuneiform tablets discovered in hurried excavations or bought following frank looting of sites found their way into institutions like the British Museum in the nineteenth century, and are painstakingly detailed with contents transcribed in series of books published about a century ago. Sumeriologists have made them freely available as Acrobat PDF documents, giving access to these treasures to all. You can now learn long-dead languages like Sumerian from excellent electronic texts, consult online dictionaries, and read their literature from original tablets.
Although an excellent platform for libraries covering Sumerian, Akkadian, and other cuneiform tablets, the iPad falls short of the flexibility of a Mac. iOS still does not itself allow you to customise the fonts available on your iPad, so if you want to display cuneiform encoded as Unicode text under iOS, you will need to buy Florian Schimanke’s AnyFont, or similar.
If you want to make your own transcriptions, or access modern documents in which the cuneiform has been encoded as Unicode characters rather than scanned pixels, you will need to install custom cuneiform fonts onto a Mac running OS X. Several free fonts are available, encompassing the different stages of the script’s evolution, and the Nesili keyboard layout even helps you type directly in cuneiform signs.
With Sumerian grammar still riven with disagreements – scholars have not yet arrived at any consensus as to whether there are any true adverbs, and adjectives are quite controversial – and the bewildering polyvalence of cuneiform signs, reading man’s first literary output remains a challenge.
Online collections such as Oxford’s Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature offer excellent translations that provide insight into the life, strife, and loves of people alive when, far beyond the north-western edge of their world, Stonehenge was advanced technology.
There is something satisfyingly recursive about studying the contents of the first writing tablets on the latest of Apple’s tablets.
Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 29 issue 06, 2013.