Kish Tablet
Script type
Time period
c. 3300–2900 BC
LanguagesUnknown, possibly Sumerian
Related scripts
Child systems
ISO 15924
ISO 15924Pcun (015), ​Proto-Cuneiform

The proto-cuneiform script (occasionally referred to as archaic cuneiform) was a system of proto-writing that emerged in Mesopotamia, eventually developing into the early cuneiform script used in the region's Early Dynastic I period. It arose from the token-based system that had already been in use across the region in preceding millennia. While it is known definitively that later cuneiform was used to write the Sumerian language, it is still uncertain what the underlying language of proto-cuneiform texts were.


Proto-cuneiform lexical list of places (BM_116625)

During the 9th millennium BC, a token-based system came into use in various parts of the ancient Near East. These evolved into marked tokens, and then into marked envelopes now known as clay bullae.[1][2][3][4] It is usually assumed that these were the basis for the development of proto-cuneiform, as well as of the contemporaneous Proto-Elamite writing system: as many as two-thirds of the tokens discovered have been excavated in Susa, the most important city in what would become Elam. These tokens continued to be used, even after the development of proto-cuneiform and Proto-Elamite.[5][6][7][8][9]

The earliest tablets found are of a 'numerical' character—they consist only of lists of numbers. They have been found not only in Susa and Uruk, but in a variety of sites, including some that lack later Proto-Elamite and proto-cuneiform tablets, like Tell Brak, Habuba Kabira, Tepe Hissar, Godin Tepe and Jebel Aruda.[10][11][12][13][14] Proto-cuneiform emerged in the what is now labeled the Uruk IV period (c. 3300 BC), and its use through the later Uruk III period. The script slowly evolved over time, with signs changing and merging.[15] It was used for the first time in Uruk, later spreading to additional sites such as Jemdet Nasr.[16]

With the advent of the Early Dynastic period c. 2900 BC, the standard cuneiform script used to write the Sumerian language emerged, though only about 400 tablets have been recovered from this period; these are mainly from Ur, with a few from Uruk.[17] Thus, the 5000 years from the emergence of tokens to full cuneiform writing was about equal to the 5000 years since then.


Proto-cuneiform tablet recording the allocation of beer

There is a longstanding debate in the academic community regarding when the Sumerian people arrived in Mesopotamia. Partly spurred by linguistic arguments and evidence, overall it is generally clear that a number of fundamental changes occurred in Mesopotamia—such as the use of the plano-convex brick—at the same time the first definitive evidence of the Sumerian language appeared during the Early Dynastic I period. Proto-cuneiform offers no clear clues as to what spoken language it encoded, leading to much speculation, though Sumerian is often assumed.[18][19]


Proto-cuneiform administrative account concerning malt and barley groats (MET_DP293245)

About 170 similar tablets from Uruk V (c. 3500 BC), Susa, and other Iranian sites like Tepe Sialk, are considered to be pre-Proto-Elamite, though bearing similarities to proto-cuneiform.[20] Sign lists and transliterations are less clear for this category.[21]

Like Proto-Elamite, the system's propagation was relatively limited. The vast majority of the proto-cuneiform texts found, about 4000, have been located in archaic Uruk, though also in secondary contexts within the Eanna district. The tablets fall primarily into two styles: the earlier (building level IV) set featuring more naturalistic figures, written with a pointed stylus, and the later set (building level III) with a more abstract style, made using a blunt stylus. These correspond to the Late Uruk c. 3100 BC and Jemdet Nasr c. 3000 BC periods respectively.[22][23] Many of the tablets were themselves later used as foundation filler during the construction of the Uruk III Eanna temple complex. It appears that the records were considered to be of transient utility or interest, and were quickly disposed of. The difficult stratigraphy has brought about a change from referring to tablets based on excavation layer to one of calling them script phase IV and III. Similarly to the tablets, clay seals previously used to secure vessels and doors ended up in the fill after being removed.[24] The sites and analysis of sealing has led to suggestions that the tablets originated elsewhere and ended up at Uruk, where they were discarded.[25]

A smaller number of tablets were found in Jemdet Nasr, Umma, Larsa, Khafajah, Kish, and Tell Uqair.[26][27][28] They tend to be less fragmentary and are sometimes found in stratified contexts. Some have made their way into various private and public collections: the provenance for some can be determined from internal clues, but for some the origin city is unknown.[29][30] For example, in 1988 82 complete well-preserved tablets from the Swiss Erlenmeyer Collection in Basel were auctioned off with most ending up in public collections.[31]

A notable exemplar was found by Langdon during his excavation in the 1920s, often called the "Kish tablet". A plaster-cast of the artifact is presently held in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, with the original at the Baghdad Museum. Its date of origin is unclear.[32]

Some tablets were sealed using a cylindrical seal.[33]

Proto-cuneiform Tablet – administrative account of barley distribution with cylinder seal impression of a male figure, hunting dogs, and boars (MET_DT847)

State of decipherment

Archaic cuneiform tablet E.A. Hoffman

To decipher an unknown, fully functional writing system, scholars usually need some knowledge of the underlying spoken language, some bilingual texts, and a large corpus. Proto-cuneiform was not accessible in any of these ways, but decipherment was possible because it was not a full writing system, but a specialized notation for economic administration. Its texts were stereotyped and concrete, such as lists of items.[34][35]

Already in 1928 with the first publication of texts, a numerical sign list had been developed, based on similarity to the signs of Fara, the earliest cuneiform texts which were the immediate successors of proto-cuneiform. The sexagesimal numerals and area numbers were also essentially the same.[36] The mathematical system of proto-cuneiform and Proto-Elamite was largely deciphered over a few decades beginning in the 1970s.[37][38][39][40] Some details remain obscure, and several generally agreed-upon details remain contested. For example, the (ŠE system E) is thought to be a capacity measure, but this has been challenged because it is only found in the Uruk IV layers, not the later Uruk III, and it lacks the markers of a capacity measure.[41][42]

Sign Inventory

Currently there are about 2000 known proto-cuneiform signs: about 350 numerical, 1100 individual ideographic, and 600 complex (combinations of individual signs).[43] The non-numerical signs are attested in about 40,000 occurrences. There was a high degree of heterogeneity in sign usage: about 530 signs are only attested once, about 610 two to ten times, 370 attested 11 to 100 times, and about 104 signs attested more than 100 times.[35] Many signs have been identified including those for barley and emmer wheat.[44]


The underlying numeric base of the proto-cuneiform, like later cuneiform, is sexagesimal (base 60).[45][46] Earlier researchers believed that this system rose out of an earlier decimal (base 10) substratum but that idea has now lost currency.[47]

Proto-cuneiform sexagesimal type Sa with Cuneiform equivalents

Different products used different measurement systems, which could change with the context. In a single tablet the (Bisexagesimal System B) could be used for grain rations, (ŠE system Š) for barley, and (ŠE system Š") for emmer wheat. Another was (ŠE system C) for capacity, typically of grain.[48] There were thirteen numerical systems in total (Sexagesimal, Sexagesimal S', Bisexagesimal, Bisexagesimal B*, GAN2, EN, U4, ŠE, ŠE', ŠE", ŠE*, DUGb, DUGc) of which the contemporary Proto-Elamite writing system used only seven, and only half of the sixty proto-cuneiform numerical signs.[49][50]


Proto-cuneiform cities list


The largest group of proto-cuneiform texts (about 2000 from the Uruk IV period and 3600 from Uruk III) are accounts (economic records).[51] They involve a variety of items including people, livestock, and grain. Confusingly, there are often multiple ways to write things. For example, people can be listed by gender and age (adult, minor, baby); or without gender by a number of age groups (0–1, 3–10 etc.).[52]


Another large category (with around a dozen examples in Uruk IV, and approximately 750 in Uruk III)) are called "lexical lists", which appeared during Uruk IV but proliferated in Uruk III. These are lists of items in a given physical category: metals, cities, tools.[53][54][55][56] Examples persisted into Early Dynastic and Old Babylonian times.[57][58][59]


The proto-cuneiform texts from Uruk were published in a series of books (ATU)

And from other sites (MSVO)


A Unicode block encoding proto-cuneiform was initially proposed in 2020.[43] but has not yet been formally accepted by the consortium, though character encoding for later forms of cuneiform have been formalized.[60][61][62]


See also


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  2. ^ Schmandt-Besserat, Denise, "Decipherment of the Earliest Tablets", Science, vol. 211, no. 4479, pp. 283–85, 1981
  3. ^ Overmann, Karenleigh A., "The Neolithic Clay Tokens", in The Material Origin of Numbers: Insights from the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, Piscataway, NJ, USA: Gorgias Press, pp. 157–178, 2019
  4. ^ [1] McLaughlin, Peter, and Oliver Schlaudt, "The Creation of Numbers from Clay: Understanding Damerow’s Theory of Material Abstraction", Cuneiform Digital Library Journal 2023 (2), 2023
  5. ^ Denise Schmandt-Besserat, "An Archaic Recording System and the Origin of Writing", Syro-Mesopotamian Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 1–32, 1977
  6. ^ Denise Schmandt-Besserat, "An Archaic Recording System in the Uruk-Jemdet Nasr Period", American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 83, no. 1, pp. 19–48, (Jan. 1979)
  7. ^ Lieberman, Stephen J., "Of Clay Pebbles, Hollow Clay Balls, and Writing: A Sumerian View", American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 84, no. 3, pp. 339–58, 1980
  8. ^ Schmandt-Besserat, D., "Tokens at Susa", Oriens Antiquus 25(1–2), pp. 93–125, 1986
  9. ^ Bennison-Chapman, Lucy Ebony, "Tools of the Trade: Accounting Tokens as an Alternative to Text in the Cuneiform World", Bulletin of the American Society of Overseas Research 390.1, 2023
  10. ^ Schmandt-Besserat, Denise, "The Earliest Precursor of Writing", Scientific American, vol. 238, no. 6, pp. 50–59, 1978
  11. ^ Strommenger, Eva, "The Chronological Division of the Archaic Levels of Uruk-Eanna VI to III/II: Past and Present", American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 84, no. 4, pp. 479–87, 1980
  12. ^ [2] Hallo, William W., "Godin Tepe: The Inscriptions", Yale University, 2011
  13. ^ Oates, Joan and Oates, David, "The Reattribution of Middle Uruk Materials at Brak". Leaving No Stones Unturned: Essays on the Ancient Near East and Egypt in Honor of Donald P. Hansen, edited by Erica Ehrenberg, University Park, USA: Penn State University Press, pp. 145–154, 2002
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Further reading