Ann Marie Dlott & Colleagues,
Shrewsbury Public Schools, MA
The Beginnings of Writing
Farmers needed to keep records.
The Sumerians were very good farmers. They
raised animals such as goats and cows (called livestock). Because
they needed to keep records of their livestock, food, and other
things, officials began using tokens.
Tokens were used for trade.
Clay tokens came in different shapes and sizes.
These represented different objects. For example, a cone shape
could have represented a bag of wheat. These tokens were placed
inside clay balls that were sealed. If you were sending five
goats to someone, then you would put five tokens in the clay
ball. When the goat arrived, the person would open the clay ball
and count the tokens to make sure the correct number of goats
The number of tokens began to be pressed
on the outside of the clay balls. Many experts believe that this
is how writing on clay tablets began.
A system of writing develops.
The earliest form of writing dates back to 3300
B.C. People back then would draw "word-pictures" on
clay tablets using a pointed instrument called a stylus. These
"word-pictures" then developed into wedge-shaped signs.
This type of script was called cuneiform (from the Latin word
cuneus which means wedge).
Who used cuneiform?
Not everyone learned to read and
write. The ones that were picked by the gods were called scribes.
Boys that were chosen to become scribes (professional writers)
began to study at the age of 8. They finished when they were
20 years old. The scribes wrote on clay tablets and used a triangular
shaped reed called a stylus to make marks in the clay. The marks
represented the tens of thousands of words in their language.