For thousands of years, the Sumerians were a forgotten people. No book recorded their achievements; no spade unearthed their treasures. The Sumerians had passed out of history, until, in the mid-19th century, linguists studying Assyrian cuneiform writing discovered cuneiform tablets written in another language. Linguists and archaeologists alike soon began to realize that in Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Sumerians had produced the world’s first great civilization.
Today, after the discovery of Sumerian buildings and their treasures, Sumerian pottery and household goods, and—most significant—tens of thousands of clay tablets containing Sumerian writings, the Sumerians receive credit for many “firsts”a in recorded history. Some of these “firsts” are listed below.
The First Effective System of Writing
Sometime between 3500 and 3000 B.C., Sumerian scribes began to write on clay tablets with reed styluses. At first they drew signs that were simple and pictographic, but gradually they developed a complex syllabic system of writing known as cuneiform (“wedge-shaped,” so called from the marksmade on the clay by the stylus). The Sumerian system of cuneiform was later adapted by both the Babylonians and the Assyrians to their own languages.
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