(cyoo nee' ih fohrm) The most widely-used system of writing in the Ancient Near East until it was supplanted by alphabetic scripts like Aramaic. The word cuneiform is derived from the Latin cuneus, wedge, and is used to refer to characters composed of wedges. The system of writing was originated apparently by the Sumerians before 3000 B.C. The earliest documents are commercial tablets consisting of pictographs (of sheep, grain, etc.) and numbers. Because the documents were written on tablets of moist clay, the scribes soon found it more convenient to indicate objects with stylized pictures composed of wedges made by a stylus. The earliest cuneiform signs were ideographs (a sign standing for a word); but as literary needs increased, the signs were given phonetic values.
The cuneiform system of writing was adapted and developed to suit the requirements of several other languages, including Akkadian, Hurrian, Hittite, Elamite, and Eblaite. The people at Ugarit and the Persians used wedges to form their alphabetic scripts.
The decipherment of the cuneiform scripts of Mesopotamia was aided by the existence of trilingual inscriptions, such as the Behistun Rock inscriptions written in Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite cuneiform. The decipherment of the Persian written in an alphabetic cuneiform opened the way for the decipherment of the more difficult syllabic Babylonian and Elamite scripts. Due to the pioneering efforts of H. Rawlinson, E. Hincks, and J. Oppert and others, by the end of the nineteenth century it was possible to read with confidence the cuneiform inscriptions known up to that time.
The decipherment of the Ugaritic alphabetic cuneiform script was accomplished simultaneously but independently by H. Bauer, E. Dhorme, and Ch. Virolleaud in 1930-31. Unlike any other cuneiform writing, Ugaritic consists of thirty-one signs or characters used to record documents in a language similar to Phoenician and Hebrew. The Ugaritic inscriptions and documents date from the fourteenth century and are of crucial importance for the study of the Bible. See Akkadian; Assyrian; Babylonian; Sumerian; Writing.