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Neo-Babylonian, Commemorative Cylinder of Nebuchadnezzar II. Earthenware with impressed inscription, about 600 BCE. Toledo Museum of Art
Writing seems to have first developed in Mesopotamia around 3000 BCE, when the Sumerians adapted a system of simple pictures into a more complicated system of written signs that represented sounds. Known as cuneiform (“wedge-shaped”) for the distinctive shape of the marks, which were pressed with a sharp reed into soft clay, this system of writing was initially devised to keep track of the exchange of grain and livestock and other bureaucratic record-keeping. However, it soon was used to express and communicate ideas, including religious concepts, the deeds of kings, mathematics and astronomy, literature, and even jokes.