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Benjamin Fortson

Cuneiform denotes any of at least three writing systems of ancient Mesopotamia and the surrounding areas. It is characterized in its classical form by signs consisting of one or more wedge-shaped strokes (cf. Latin cuneus, “wedge”). The first such script to emerge, and the one most widely used, was Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform, which developed in what is now southern Iraq in the late 4th millennium bce. Its antecedents were more primitive methods of mercantile record-keeping using pictograms and tally marks. The earliest stages of the script contained patently pictographic signs drawn in clay with a pointed stylus. A later shift to the use of a reed with the end cut at an oblique angle produced the classic wedge-shaped impressions. The breaking-up of images into sets of wedges together with a gradual reduction in the number of strokes plus a ninety-degree rotation of the signs increased their abstractness and elevated the wedges (initially just an accidental byproduct of the writing technology) to an important design element. It became aesthetically prized in its own right and was carried over onto other media such as stone. The wedges were also imitated in the two other unrelated scripts that are also called cuneiform: Old Persian and Ugaritic.