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Cuneiform's glyphs are well-known for the odd way they were made; stamping. I wonder though, given that it remained in used for thousands of years, was this the only way it was ever utilized? Was there any point in history when people actually drew it on paper or some other medium like you see with more modern scripts? I don't see it as being very practical to draw the characters in the system. Did any culture that used this system make books? I have a hard time imagining people who mainly 'wrote' on epically thick clay tablets making anything equivalent to a scroll, book, or other long-winded text. Weren't they ever hampered by this limitation that any text they created had to essentially fit onto a single page?

Regarding usage, how on earth did they record the Epic of Gilgamesh, or other such myths? There's obviously no way a single chapter could've fit onto a single clay tablet. Did they only carve it into monuments? Also, could you imagine recording something like the freaking Torah onto clay tablets? Surely they must have had a way to record texts longer than what could fit onto a single 'page'?

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    it doesn't address the main thrust of your question (to which I don't know the answer), but yes, the Epic of Gilgamesh was written out on (relatively large) clay tablets, and this required multiple tablets (the same way we use multiple pages today when we write something larger than one page). The Wikipedia page for the Epic of Gilgamesh includes photos of some of the tablets it is known from
    – Tristan
    Commented Apr 10 at 10:43
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    As this comment and fdb's answer show, what you call "stamping" is typically subsumed under the term "writing". Perhaps you are interested in whether there were cursive forms of cuneiform or whether cuneiform was ever written with pigment. fdb's answer is negative on both fronts, but I give the wikipedia links here because it may give you a better idea of the typology of writing.
    – Keelan
    Commented Apr 10 at 11:41
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    I meant 'writing' as in 'dragging a stylus over some medium to spread pigment over it in lines'. By 'stamping', I was talking about how cuneiform was normally produced. I'm aware its 'writing' either way. I was asking if it was ever produced in any way other than impressing or carving.
    – user43283
    Commented Apr 10 at 11:52
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    I don't have time to write a proper answer right now, but I'll just leave these links: oracc.iaas.upenn.edu/nimrud/ancientkalhu/thewritings/… (scroll down to "Writing cuneiform in ink") and cdli.ox.ac.uk/wiki/… Commented Apr 10 at 20:57
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    The stylus was not dragged over the surface. It was pressed into the surface. There is no pigment.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 10 at 21:10

2 Answers 2

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I wonder though, given that it remained in used for thousands of years, was this the only way it was ever utilized?

As fdb mentions, it was also sometimes carved or hammered into other materials. When your writing system is designed for clay, but you want to make a monument to your kingly glory out of stone, you have to make do somehow.

Old Persian cuneiform in fact was never (as far as we know) stamped into clay, only carved into stone. They just used the wedges because, well…that's how writing worked at the time!

Was there any point in history when people actually drew it on paper or some other medium like you see with more modern scripts?

Technically yes, but this is going to be an unsatisfying answer. Tablets don't photograph well, so when an archaeologist wants to publish a new tablet so Assyriologists can study it, they'll do it with an "autograph": an ink drawing of the wedges.

autograph of KBo VI.1

So yes, people do write cuneiform on paper, but only within the last couple centuries. In ancient Mesopotamia, if you wanted to write on paper (or rather papyrus or animal hide or whatever), you'd just use a different language with a different writing system: Aramaic or Hieratic Egyptian or whatever.

EDIT: Though it seems it was sometimes written in ink on hard materials! See below.

I don't see it as being very practical to draw the characters in the system.

It's not!

Did any culture that used this system make books?

Depends what you mean by "book". No scrolls or codices, since you can't really roll up or fold clay. But they had small tablets for letters, and big tablets for documents and books.

Weren't they ever hampered by this limitation that any text they created had to essentially fit onto a single page?

A big tablet would usually be divided into four or more sections (two columns on the front, two columns on the back, sometimes writing on the edges too), and if this isn't enough, you just use more tablets!

Regarding usage, how on earth did they record the Epic of Gilgamesh, or other such myths? There's obviously no way a single chapter could've fit onto a single clay tablet.

Clay tablets can get really big! The most complete version of the Epic of Gilgamesh we have is twelve tablets long. Here's a fragment of one of those, to give you a sense of its size:

Flood Tablet

You can see the width of one of the columns here; the full tablet would have had two columns on each side of the clay. An ancient Mesopotamian library would have shelves and shelves and shelves full of these, each labelled on the bottom edge (the "colophon") sort of like the spine of a book, so you can see "Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet 4/12" or the like as you peruse the collection.

Occasionally one of these libraries burned down, and that's why we have so many surviving tablets thousands of years later! Of course, almost all of them are broken into pieces, and since cuneiform is hard to read in photographs we need to rely on Assyriologists to go examine them in person to make the autographs…which is why the majority of tablets that have been excavated have never been translated in the modern era. But progress is happening on this front, slow as it might be.

EDIT:

It seems I was wrong! Ilmari Karonen pointed me to this page:

Cuneiform could occasionally be written in ink, paint, or glaze although it is not well suited to this technique. To form a wedge in clay takes a single stroke; writing one in a liquid medium takes three strokes, drawing the three sides of the triangular outline.

At Nimrud cuneiform inscriptions are found on wall plaques that decorated the temple of Ištar, mistress of the Kidmuru. They were glazed with multicoloured designs and a short inscription.

Ink had long been used by cuneiform scribes for various purposes. Scribes working in the royal city of Nineveh in the 7th century sometimes wrote the colophons [ed: the notes like "Epic of Gilgames, tablet 4/12" written on the edge] to library tablets in ink. It was much more commonly used for writing Aramaic.

That's something I wasn't previously aware of!

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  • Well, you can roll up or fold clay – just not fired clay. Commented Apr 10 at 19:34
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    @JanusBahsJacquet True. I suppose I should have said you can't roll up or fold clay and then unroll/unfold it again without ruining the text.
    – Draconis
    Commented Apr 10 at 19:40
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    DT.273 is a famous example cuneiform clay tablet from the Library of Ashurbanipal with a colophon in ink.
    – Michaelyus
    Commented Apr 11 at 1:27
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    can we please have a banana in the photo? You know, for scale... Commented Apr 11 at 15:49
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    @CiprianTomoiagă: That was my thought as well! Fortunately, this link is less secretive: the tablet is six inches from top to bottom, which conveniently equals one standard banana. And indeed that is significantly smaller than I would have guessed from the picture alone!
    – TonyK
    Commented Apr 13 at 0:47
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“5000 years ago the old Sumerians wrote on fistfuls of mud, and we can still read what they wrote. 2000 years ago the Chinese were writing on worm excrement (also called silk) and on bamboo shoots, and we can still read it. 1000 years ago mediaeval people were writing on paper and on animal skins (parchment), and we read it without difficulty. Today we write on computer disks that self-destroy in five years.”

There are two ways to write with cuneiform (“wedge-shaped”) script. One is by pressing a stylus into a lump of clay (I would not really call this “stamping”). The other, much less common, way is to imitate the wedges by hammering a copy of them into stone. In principle, there is no reason not to copy them with paint or ink on some medium, just as modern Assyriologists copy the signs on paper, but only a few such texts have come down to us from antiquity. In any case, do not underestimate the amount of text you can fit on a clay tablet. And if one tablet is not enough you can write it on a series of tablets, like the volumes of a multi-volume book.

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