The Library of Congress THE LOC.GOV WISE GUIDE
HOME Meet Some Amazing Americans Mesopotamia Meets the 21st Century Get Your Irish Up! Have You Been to the 'Polar Bear Garden'? 'A Master of Our Language' Mastering Your Digital Knowledge Children At Work
Mesopotamia Meets The 21st Century

Mesopotamia (present-day southern Iraq) is the site of the world's earliest civilization and the place where cuneiform originated. The Sumerians, who thrived during the third century B.C., developed cuneiform, which began as a form of writing based on symbols. Cuneiform later became alphabetic in form, leading to ambiguities in interpretation.

[School exercise tablet], 2200-1900 B.C. [Votive plaque], Gudea of Lagash (2144-2124 B.C.).

In a case of the ancient world meeting the modern, a new presentation in the Global Gateway Web site offers digitized images of clay tablets, cones and brick fragments inscribed with cuneiform pictographs. The 38 objects are from the Library of Congress' collections. The Library acquired its collection of cuneiform materials in 1929 from Kirkor Minassian, an art dealer. These materials were part of his collection of Islamic bookbindings, manuscripts, textiles and ceramic and metal objects illustrating the history of the development of writing and book arts in the Middle East.

The Sumerians invented cuneiform, which involves the use of a wedge-shaped reed stylus to make impressions in clay. The clay (or brick) was then either baked in a kiln or dried by the sun. The word cuneiform is derived from Latin -- cuneus, for wedge and forma, meaning shape. These Sumerian writings can be seen in "Cuneiform Tablets: From the Reign of Gudea of Lagash to Shalmanassar III." The tablets are dated from the reign of Gudea of Lagash (2144-2124 B.C.) to Shalmanassar III (858-824 B.C.).

If you'd like to see examples of the world's only living pictographic system of writing, go to "Selections from the Naxi Manuscript Collection," which documents ceremonial writings of the Naxi people of China. This collection is also part of the Global Gateway Web site.

Global Gateway makes available world history collections from other great libraries of the world. The Library has joined with libraries in Brazil, Spain, the Netherlands and Russia. This site also makes available such rare items as "The Lewis Carroll Scrapbook."


A. [School exercise tablet], 2200-1900 B.C. African and Middle Eastern Division. Reproduction information: Call No.: Cuneiform Tablet Collection, No. 35. Contact:

B. [Votive plaque], Gudea of Lagash (2144-2124 B.C.). This tablet is a votive temple inscription, standardized during the reign of Gudea. Part of the top, right , and bottom edges are missing. Writing only on obverse, using standard 10-line votive inscription style. Two columns, six lines on the left, four on the right. The tablet is thought to come from Drehem or Jokha. The inscription reads: "For Ningirsu, the strong warrior of Enlil, Gudea, Prince of Lagash, has made what will last forever; (Gudea) has built his (Ningirsu's) Enninnu (temple), the flashing thunderbird, and returned it to its place for him." African and Middle Eastern Division. Reproduction information: Call No.: Cuneiform Tablet Collection, No. 25. Contact:

The Library of Congress | Contact Us