Around 3500 B.C. Mesopotamia experienced the expansion of large population centers. The city of Uruk surpassed others as an urban center with 4,000 inhabitants. This city-state is called ³the first city in world history.' At its height in 2900 B.C., Uruk contained 50,000 to 80,000 residents in a 3.7 mile walled city. It was the largest city in the world. Uruk is also famous as the capital city in the epic of Gilgamesh and is thought to be the Biblical city of Erech built by King Nimrod.
Dominated by large temple estates the city of Uruk needed a method of recording, accounting, and dispersing revenues for goods and services.
Between 3400 and 3400 B.C. the invention of recording economic data on clay tablets called cuneiform writing was born. The earliest writing originated as a system of pictographs and numbers. A blunt wedge-shaped reed stylus (a cuneus in Latin) made varied shaped impressions on wet clay.
Earliest clay tablets were written inscriptions of administrators of large temple institutions allocating rations or movement and storage of goods. The early signs (pictures), inscribed on tablets were pictures of grain, fish, and animals. The cuneiform pictures could be read by people speaking a variety of languages similar to international road signs interpreted by drivers of many nations.
This historic reproduction is an acrylic resin replica of an early clay tablet in the British Museum. Dated between 3100 to 3000 B.C., this tablet records the allotment of beer to workers. Beer was the most popular drink in Mesopotamia ant it was regularly rationed to workers. The symbol of beer, an upright jar, appears three times in this tablet. Alongside the pictures are five different impressions representing numerical symbols.
The signs on this early tablet are grouped into boxes and are read from top to bottom from right to left. Writing from right to left eliminated the smearing of wet tablets by the average right handed scribes.
The cuneiform writing system was used for more than 22 centuries through several stages of development from the 34th century to the 2nd century A.D.
Around 2600 B.C., word-signs and and symbols began to represent both words and sounds. A true written language was born. For the first time in history complex ideas of economics, religion, politics, literature, and scholarship were written and preserved on clay documents.