An Introduction to Cuneiform

By Professor Jacob Dahl

The Birth of the Written Word

In this podcast Professor Jacob Dahl of Wolfson College, University of Oxford, provides an introduction to the origins and significance of cuneiform. Cuneiform is the earliest known writing system (dating from c. 3500 BC to c. 100 AD) and represents a transformational turning point in the development of human civilisation.

An estimated half a million tablets are held in museums across the world, with more being discovered every year. This astonishing body of text and literature covers everything from personal letters, state diplomacy, spells and incantations to the prototype for all subsequent hero epics: The Epic of Gilgamesh. The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative has made a large amount of this material available digitally on its website.

Professor Dahl reflects upon these vast and diverse written texts preserved from the ancient past and shows how they give us an unparalleled view of what it means to be human in different conditions and different times.

1. When do we start to see the development of writing? What are the origins of cuneiform?
2. What was the value of having a system of writing?
3. When does cuneiform start to be used to represent historical events and works of the imagination?
4. To what extent does the development of cuneiform provide the basis for a revolution in intellectual and symbolic life?
5. How widespread is literacy?
6. Can you tell us about education in ancient Mesopotamia?
7. Sources: an unparalleled wealth of diverse texts covering all aspects of life. A window into the past.
8. To what extent does the development of cuneiform lead to a revolution in the transmission of knowledge and culture?
9. When do we start to see the emergence of literary traditions? From kingship to mortality.
10. At what point do we see the development of scholarship and key places of learning?
11. When does cuneiform start to fade in use and influence?
12. What is the legacy of cuneiform?
13. Learning about what it means to be human.

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