March 15, 2005 Cuneiform Tablets Available in New Web Presentation

Ancient Pictographic Writing Examples Date to More than 4,000 Years Ago

Contact: Guy Lamolinara (202) 707-9217

The ancient form of pictographic writing known as cuneiform is the subject of a fascinating new Web presentation of 4,000-year-old materials from the Library of Congress collections

"Cuneiform Tablets: From the Reign of Gudea of Lagash to Shalmanassar III," is now available on the Library’s Global Gateway Web site at The materials are housed in the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division.

"Cuneiform Tablets" includes 38 items -- mostly clay tablets, but also several brick fragments and two clay cones. The oldest tablets date from the reign of Gudea of Lagash (2144-2124 B.C.). These tablets contain the earliest examples of writing held in the Library of Congress.

Cuneiform, an ancient pictographic writing system developed by the Sumerians, involves the use of a reed to make impressions in clay. The tip of a reed stylus was impressed into a wet clay surface to draw the strokes of the pictograph, thus acquiring a "wedge-shaped" appearance. 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.

The cuneiform tablets in this online presentation served various purposes. Twenty-two tablets contain inscriptions pertaining primarily to the receipt of and payment for goods and services -- accounting records, in effect. Twelve tablets are school exercise tablets, used by scribes learning the cuneiform writing system.

The Library of Congress 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.

"Cuneiform Tablets: From the Reign of Gudea of Lagash to Shalmanassar III" joins other world history collections available on the Library of Congress’ Global Gateway Web site. These other collections can be seen at In the "Collaborative Digital Libraries" section are materials from Brazil, the Netherlands, Russia and Spain. The "Digital Collections" section provides links to thematic presentations, including "Puerto Rico at the Dawn of the Modern Age," "The Spanish-American War in Motion Pictures" and the extraordinary "Prokudin-Gorskii Collection" of photographs of Russia taken just before the revolution.


PR 05-063
ISSN 0731-3527