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Book Collections in Special Collections & University Archives

This guide featires the Rare Books collection and Oregon Collection held by the University of Oregon Libraries Special Collections & University Archives


Cuneiform is a logo-syllabic script that was used to write several languages of the Ancient Near East. The script was in active use from the early Bronze Age until the beginning of the Common Era. It is named for the characteristic wedge-shaped impressions which form its signs. Cuneiform originally developed to write the Sumerian language of southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Along with Egyptian hieroglyphs, it is one of the earliest writing systems.

Over the course of its history, cuneiform was adapted to write a number of languages linguistically unrelated to Sumerian. Akkadian texts are attested from the 24th century BC onward and make up the bulk of the cuneiform record. Akkadian cuneiform was itself adapted to write the Hittite language sometime around the 17th century BC. 

The latest known date for a cuneiform tablet is 75 AD. The modern study of cuneiform writing begins with its decipherment in the mid-19th century, and belongs to the field of Assyriology. An estimated half a million tablets are held in museums across the world, but comparatively few of these are published. The largest collections belong to the British Museum (approx. 130,000 tablets), the Vorderasiatisches Museum Berlin, the Louvre, the Istanbul Archaeology Museums, the National Museum of Iraq, the Yale Babylonian Collection (approx. 40,000 tablets), and Penn Museum.

In the Ancient Near East, clay tablets were used as a writing medium, especially for writing in cuneiform, throughout the Bronze Age and well into the Iron Age. 

Text on clay tablets took the forms of myths, fables, essays, hymns, proverbs, epic poetry, business records, laws, plants, and animals. What these clay tablets allowed was for individuals to record who and what was significant. An example of these great stories was The Story of Gilgamesh. This story would tell of the great flood that destroyed Sumer. Remedies and recipes that would have been unknown were then possible because of the clay tablet. Some of the recipes were stew, which was made with goat, garlic, onions and sour milk.

By the end of the 3rd Millennium BCE, (2200–2000 BCE), even the "short story" was first attempted, as independent scribes entered into the philosophical arena, with stories like: The Debate between Bird and Fish, and other topics.

Special Collections holds five Cuneiform tablets and three facsimile reproductions which are described below: