Tips for learning cuneiform signs

Cuneiform signs, with their severe visual abstraction and apparently endless and arbitrary array of values, can often seem completely memory-resistant. But with patience and a little bit of imagination, learning cuneiform is manageable, rewarding, and fun.

Time management: 10 x 10 x 10

Little and often is the best approach, especially to begin with:

So how should you fill those ten-minute sessions?

Active learning: doing, not looking

Most of the time Assyriologists don't need to write cuneiform; they just read it. But simply staring at a list of signs on the page is probably the least effective way to memorise them. Try these techniques instead:

Clay and chop-sticks

Video of a tablet being written, by Frans van Koppen.

This is one of the most effective and enjoyable ways of learning cuneiform.

Buy a small supply of plasticine, play-doh, or other re-usable, non-messy child's modelling clay. Beg some disposable chopsticks from an Asian restaurant or takeaway or find some other long thin tool with a square cross-sectioned end. You could also create a stylus that resembles an authentic Mesopotamian reed stylus quite closely. Use a section of a thin bamboo piece (sold in garden centres as plant support), make two small cuts in the top with a sharp knife (at about 12 o'clock and 4 o'clock) and split off the length of the section. Now smoothen the top end you will write with, for example with a nail file, in order to make sharp corners. This stylus has the advantage of being flexible which makes the writing process easier; we have used one in our video.

Hold a smooth fist-sized lump of clay in one hand and your 'stylus' in the other. It doesn't matter whether you are left- or right-handed. Press the stylus into the clay at an oblique angle (about 20º-30º) so that a corner enters the surface. Lift it up again without dragging. Cuneiform signs are made by vertical movements of the stylus into the clay's surface, not by horizontal movements across it.

Practice making separate vertical, horizontal, and diagonal wedges. Experiment with the angle and depth of your impressions. Combine the wedges into the cuneiform signs you are learning. At any time you can erase the signs with your thumb or stylus, or reshape the clay entirely and start again.

Pencil and paper

It is also a useful skill to be able to write cuneiform signs because it helps you understand their constituent parts and the extent to which they may visually vary. Start with a pencil and lined paper first, especially if you are making flash cards. Cuneiform signs hang from the lines, they don't sit on them, so start at the top of each sign and work down. Concentrate on getting the overall proportion right, without worrying about what the 'heads' of the wedges look like. When you are confident about the outlines of signs, then you can experiment with style.

In elegant, clear cuneiform calligraphy the component lines of a wedge all touch but do not overlap. Similarly pay attention to whether the tails of constituent wedges should touch or cross one another. Look carefully at the alignments of the heads of the wedges too.

Flash cards

Buy a set of old-fashioned index cards and cut them in half. On one side draw a cuneiform sign (first in pencil and then ink over it). Draw a vertical line down the middle of the other side and write the sign's syllabic values on the left-hand side. On the right-hand side write its logographic values, with the Akkadian reading and English translation. You can add new values as you meet them.

You can use your pile of flash cards in different ways:

Sorting and classifying

You can also usefully focus on learning particular groups of signs, for instance:

Experimenting and playing

Put signs together to make meaningful words and phrases, whether in Akkadian, Sumerian or English. Make up silly rhymes or stories to help you relate the appearance and values of signs. No-one need know, and often the sillier the association the more memorable it is!

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