Cuneiform is unique in its very nature because as its name indicates, cuneiform is “wedge” writing. Scribes produced cuneiform using reed styluses on soft clay. The markings they inscribed into those clay tablets have remained for millennia as records of one of the earliest forms of writing.
The term cuneiform comes from the Latin word cuneus, which means “wedge.” The Sumerians of Mesopotamia (near modern-day Iraq) created the writing form about 5000 years ago. They originally developed the scripting system for bookkeeping purposes; it represents one of the earliest known forms of writing. Even though the Sumerians were a small group of people who disappeared from history after several hundred years, their achievements have been of tremendous, lasting value. Most especially this is true of cuneiform, which became the model for writing systems throughout the ancient world.
Part of cuneiform’s unique importance arises from the fact that it was written not on paper – which can easily perish – but on tablets of clay that can last for far longer time spans. Today, hundreds of tablets containing the old writings still survive, waiting to be deciphered by scholars who study cuneiform and the languages, like Sumerian or Akkadian, that it was used to transcribe.