Irving Finkel teaches how you can write cuneiform I Curator’s Nook Season Four Episode 8

published on July 3, 2020

NICK: I don't know how to write cuneiform

IRVING: Who gives a flying f***

My name is Irving Finkel and I'm a curator in the British Museum

and this afternoon I'm going to be talking

about how to impart some knowledge of
cuneiform writing

to people who are blissfully unaware of how it works

or even what it stands for

I'm not actually doing this for the first time because

there was a chap called Tom who I ran into

on the steps of the Museum

with a table and some clay and we had a chat

and in point of fact we had rather a good time

made a lot of progress

That was quite an interesting thing and many people around the world now know

how you can do this sort of thing if you want to

So with that behind me

with that sort of experience it seemed it might be worth

– sort of on home ground –

seeing if we could find some other person

selected at random from the passers-by

to see whether they too might grab some
understanding of the rudiments of this

and make a little progress just to cheer
us all up

So we're very lucky to have with us afternoon



Sorry I don't think I remember the name



Very nice to see you again

**incoherent bumbling**

NICK: Nick


Didn't we make a film together before? I remember!

NICK: Quite a few actually

IRVING: Yes, yes I remember

Anyway let's get down to the point

So as you know the Mesopotamians wrote in cuneiform on clay

And rather fortunately we have

a couple of cold, slimy slabs here

one each

as our kind of working basis



IRVING: So you're with me here?

Then you take an example of the

well-known Babylonian species of lolly

of course the thing is so old

that the actual lolly thing has gone

so all we've got left is what might appear to be

the dry and pointless stick

But this is the thing we need!

And if you're really attentive

and do really well

it might be that somebody buys you a lolly as a reward

This is the first point which should comfort you in your state of panic

that although this fascinating and
the intellectual sheet before you

does look rather intimidating

all of these cuneiform signs are made up of 3 components

That's to say 'component 1'


NICK: 2?

IRVING: I knew you would!

You see that's how marvelous it is

So broadly speaking

and I want you to follow me closely here

NICK: With a pen?

IRVING: Using this pencil I'm going to demonstrate what I'm talking about

So these are the components:

you have the possibility of writing a
upright or vertical wedge

So you will see you on your sheet
lots of these things

have vertical wedges like this one here

Then the second thing is you have to have a horizontal one

which is like these here

And the third one is what we call 'diagonal'

from the Greek 'diagonal'

meaning 'diagonal'

and here you'll see an example

if you can in this mirk

NICK: There

IRVING: O yes there's a piece of paper

NICK: That's a point

Probably the only one I'm gonna get

IRVING: So the process to produce
these three things

involves 2 principles

Firstly your lollie stick

NowI'm not saying in any ways that this is exactly how they did it

but this is a simple way which has the same results

so you rest it on the 4finger

1, 2, 3, 4

yes, like that

and then you hold it firmly with the thumb anchoring it in position

if you apply it in a vertical position but press the left-hand edge in

this displaces the clay with a kind of a head

and you can do long or short

and you can do with a large head

or a small head depending on the application

but basically a vertical positioning of the thing

pressed into the clay and displacing the body of the clay

leaves behind a vertical wedge

Exactly Very good!

So that's your first upright wedge a nd a very fine pair if I may say so

NICK: Yeah I don't think they're bad

IRVING: But let's not get too excited

We now have to consider the second
application or the horizontal

where you maintain this rigid position that we've adopted in the first place

and then we go

sssqrrrrkkq (spelling?)

through that number of degrees

NICK: Right Okay

IRVING: Marvellous

NICK: I don't know

Should I have made the noise?

IRVING: No, I thought it would focus your attention

NICK: Well I mean it did, but then I got very distracted

IRVING: I'm sorry, I won't do it again

So you're keeping it flat

and you're turning it in such a way

that theoretically you could lay it flat like this

but you don't want to do that

again you want to use this under edge to displace clay

to make a horizontal wedge

NICK:okay I don't think I'm gonna get this one right

IRVING: I'm certain

I'm very confident you will

You don't actually have to make a hole THROUGH the tablet

But there's nothing wrong with enthusiasm

NICK: I mean it's got a kind of grey look to it

It feels like stone Maybe I'm taking a wrong inscription approach

IRVING:Yes and I think that thinking will probably stop shortly

So we've got the old horizontal down

then we have number 3 or the diagonal

now this is something I have to explain carefully without sound effects

If you have your stylus in position

if you imagine taking this corner only

Right now I'm gonna stick it into you you see

it seems to stick in rather well doesn't it?

NICK: It really does

IRVING: Did that hurt?

NICK: No But I could feel it

IRVING: Well let me try again then!

Th e point is if you press that sharp corner into the clay at that angle

It leaves behind it one of those

Just try it

If you dip the corner in and take it out

NICK: yeah, that's a bit rubbish
I've got two lines

IRVING: that's cause you wobbled

there's no room for any wobbling

NICK: it's very square What am I doing wrong?

The end is a bit, it's bit rubbish

IRVING: Maybe you've got a rubbish stylis Try this one

NICK: oh yeah but if I get it wrong with this
one then it's proof that I was just rubbish

IRVING: No this has obviously been wobbled by an amateur

you can see it immediately

So you've got control of these 3 possibilities

NICK: I've definitely got control of 2

IRVING: So going on from there if our name is Ashurbanipal

it might be a challenging and interesting possibility to write that in this original script

I mean this is already for some students something of a challenge

in its own right

you know the first phrase

the first word perhaps?

What do you feel?

And I don't want you to feel in any way intimidated

or crushed

or inadequate

or humble

or deflated

or let down

or exposed

NICK: No this is a very

IRVING: or anything that'll make you feel really miserable

NICK: No this is a very comfortable scenario to be in

I enjoy how much smaller my desk is than yours

and the fact I can't move my legs

IRVING: well I didn't want to mention that but it is rather a noticeable gap

NICK: but generally I'm quite comfortable

IRVING: So we have to discuss rather carefully what this name means

and what it consists of

So this is an interesting thing about these ancient Mesopotamians

is that their names meant something

Now of course if you know enough about the history of names in this country

they all mean something

but most people have no idea anymore what they mean

and they think they're just names

NICK: So what does your mean name?

W̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶d̶o̶e̶s̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶r̶ ̶m̶e̶a̶n̶ ̶n̶a̶m̶e̶?̶ What does your name mean?

IRVING:I have no idea

it's just a name

Let's say that we're talking about Ashurbanipal

Just put this on the blackboard for the people at the back

Okay that's Ashurbanipal

So in the Assyrian language

but still written with pencil

it consists of 3 parts


and this here 'Ashur' is the name of the god

So in ancient Assyria the National God from which name Assyria obviously derives

Was called Ashur He was the chief god of the pantheon

NICK: I was gonna say because they do have more than one don't they?

IRVING: Lots Bucket fulls in fact

So this guy's name is constructed like many Mesopotamian names

'such and such a god did such and such a thing'

So that's why they're all so intelligible

Anyway, leaving that aside we have the
god Ashur

and then 'bani' means 'creator of'

or to put it more plainly in English:

'creator of'

and then 'a son'

NICK: Okay so he's quite literally son of Ashur

IRVING: So Ashur is responsible for this creation of this male baby

What we need to establish is
the cuneiform signs with which

this name is written, and then have to write

NICK: And so how do you go from English to not English

IRVING: This bit's the English remember?

And that bit's the?


NICK: Yep, cool, excellent On it

IRVING: It's so great they way you follow

NICK:I really didn't think I was going to be good at this but it turns out

IRVING: Where ever we twist and turn you're there

It's so encouraging

Okay first thing is this:

some of these signs pronounce the sounds of the words

but some of them have a different function

So the very first sign in this name to write Ashur

is another sign which means 'god' anyway

it's what we call a determinative

NICK: Okay, cool So it's not 'AS' which I
thought I jumped ahead

because I found 'AS' and I thought that was gonna be the first bit of the name but it's not

IRVING: I understand that Many people would have done it

So this symbol here which you see

is a vertical and 2 horizontals

NICK: Wait Are you are you now telling me that the cheat sheet you gave me for comfort

is now meaningless?

Is this, is this on here?

Or is this a separate one?

IRVING: Most of the signs that we'll be discussing here are on there

NICK: Okay but this one in particular is not

IRVING: I thought this would be helpful for you

NICK: I know I mean it is Thank you!

IRVING: I'm moving in from left field in this supportive kind of way

Then we have two signs one looks
like this

and one looks like this

So this one here is 'ash'

and ash is a single horizontal wedge

and this one here is 'shur'

which is this sign here

So these are 3 signs for part one of the name

We'll just break here from an advertisement and will be back in 5 minutes

NICK: See you soon!

**Irving sings themetune**

SHOUTYMAN: TIckets for the BP

I am Ashurbanipal, king of world, king of Assyria

vary in price between £17


£17 for adults

£14 for 16 to 18-year-olds

£14 for students

(with a student card)

£14 for persons with disabilities

and ABSOLUTELY FREE if you're under 16

Feeling past it?

Sad you're now too old to get in for free?


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forward slash Ashurbanipal dot ASPX

IRVING: And now we can do what people do on television

Right! Before the break we explained to you

about cuneiform writing and we told you
that cuneiform writing

was written with styluses

They do that don't they? They recap the whole thing

NICK: They do!I thought you were doing a fantastic job as well

I feel like we should have another break and then

come back to you recapping the recap

IRVING: We can keep that up our sleaves

Right So we've done one

Now we have to do 'creator of'

NICK: So from that can we do it with two of these?


NICK: or is that? Nope

IRVING: This is why I selected this work for you

because you are particularly nimble-witted

and would never have assumed that one would write ' bani'

with the signs 'ba' and 'ni' on this sheet

as if!

NICK: Of course I wouldn't

that would be that would be embarrassing!

IRVING: You would be so mortified

I'm glad you realized straight away that was the case

NICK: I did But let's say someone watching this had perhaps

IRVING: I don't think anyone is watching

NICK: Someone watching had perhaps made the assumption that it would be on the sheet

Because there is a 'ba' right here

and there is a 'ni'

it's right here

So if you had done this in a cuneiform tablet

would someone understand that or would it be so alien

because they hadn't used this

that they wouldn't comprehend it?

IRVING: What they would do is they would say

reading comfortably along


'Ha ha hello!

Someone's written 'banu' as 'ba' 'nu'

O how incredibly who would have done that?'

And then they would have leapt to some terrible conclusion

about the general ability of that scribe

NICK: Right

IRVING: So this is where I think we really have to concentrate

This name Ashurbanipal is in the Assyrian language

But if you want when you're writing this script

you can write Assyrian words by using
Sumerian signs

in the middle of a sentence

Now before you panic let me show you this

Are you familiar with this sign here?

I have but scant acquaintance with money of any kind I'm afraid to say

but I gather this means

NICK: It's a dollar sign

IRVING: Excellent

So if you have this written on a piece of paper you would say?

NICK: Ten dollars ($10)

IRVING: And if you had this in front of
it you would say?

NICK: For ten dollars?

IRVING: Yes, as if you were an auctioneer or something

NICK: O right yes I was trying to understand when you would say that

IRVING: The point here is if you're writing a long sentence in English

you can put this symbol

and you don't say 'for S with two diagonal
lines through it 10'

you say dollars

It illustrates the fact that human beings
learn much faster

when it's something to do with money more than with any other matter

So now you've got that firmly down

you will understand that rather than
writing 'ba' 'ni' in this predictable

but incorrect fashion we could use a Sumerian sign

Now we know that it means 'creator'

so what we're looking at here is the Sumerian word for 'creato'r

which we don't read in Sumerian

because that's pronounced 'du'

we don't say Ashur – du

We know that 'du' in Sumerian is read band new indicated that's funny it looks like a

mad thing you know I don't see why you
should pick on this particular fact when

everything else about these writings is
totally out of control and that's why

after three and a half thousand years it
died out completely so what does it say

about you being able to read it yourself

is one of the ears I mean they never
know that it's that's fine then we have

to have the sign aptly so aptly means
Sun or air so we have so far not written

anything on Kenna form what we're
getting but we get more giving there and

we have written a short by an aptly
which is not a Shabana pal oh that's a

point yes well a sure born
Oh Barney aptly is the proper Akkadian

name but he's always called a Shabana
pal and all these names go through a bit

of distortion over time one way or
another but actually Ashurbanipal is

perfectly acceptable so how would you
think you might like a plea I feel like

this is a trick why come along you can
do it so I would use that you would I

knew you would and leave I'm certain you
would so what we would have here is a

nice convenient little writing app and
Lee okay actually what we're gonna do No

it is theoretically possible that one
could but in fact what we do is

something like this case mmm that blue
means Sun okay so we take the Sumerian

word for Sun which is oh yes we write
the R and we read a plea right well so

the other interesting nuance which I'm
sure is what you're about to ask me was

was if the C means creator of a Sun in
English then what happens about the

grammar I did wonder about that because
this is all but at least parts of it of

phonetic and you can do more than one
language with it so yeah wet wet because

that is a I did Latin for three weeks
and genitive hmm so yeah how do you have

you indicate well this is how you
indicated and the word for a create or

mmm in the KD is bar knew the word for
Sun is aptly yes in the nominative okay

and if you want to say that this is the
creator of land then this becomes Barney

so this becomes aptly yes

and these vowels indicate that this is
the X is the creator of Y so when you

have a situation of writing in this way
by using a sign which is actually from

another language and you have to supply
the word in your own script you have to

put it in the right grammatical form
okay every man of your attainments I

think this is what we call the dog why
did anticipate any difficulty there

really so what we want to do now is to
say I am yes okay well that's not so

difficult the word in Assyrian for I is
an arc okay and in English she was a a

you know you'll be pleased to hear that

in such an inscription and one would
write are and now and who and then join

them together in your mind so we can
spell that word phonetically so and this

is where I think you come into your own
yes see if you can find our and know and

Brian countdown or sixty hey na 1716 oh
wait no qu no I genuinely can't find

where is Kay I know why you can't is
because it's arranged alphabetically and

that is something you never quite got
down there's only a car there there's

nothing else around it that says
anything about with a K I do realize

that it's just not there is yes ah yeah

mm okay what we going to do now is he
going to take our um slabs what you do

because I've got quite a few imprints
already what did you do if you had a

mistake oh they cut off one of your
fingers so if you remember throwing your

mind back hours ago when you start yes
miserable matter and our first sign has

to be this sign for God which is a big
vertical cross bite to horizontal so we

would do it like this right
you press this thing you remember in

position this would be the vertical bonk
governor I've just cracked all of it

it's not gonna I suppose I'll give an
authentic age to kind of think it was

aged cool it and stop over here got
quite a lot of that stuff going around

the blender hit yes to this angle yes we
have a um horizontal it bisects it like

so mmm-hmm so that the haters on the
inside of me and so do you think they

would have moved their hands or is it
cheating just to go like that and keep

on doing
I think this is a matter of taste I

think it's the movement of the right

mmm between those degrees okay which
allows you to do everything with maximum

and comfort if you start moving the
tablet it is possible but I doubt it say

okay I've already money so it grows out
of the head of the onion okay Wow

so we've done this sign but you don't
pronounce what you say meaning the next

bit is a divine there yes
so we want to write a sh ensure so one

long horizontal quite a fat one good
then we have to do sure the way we do

this we have to leave a bit of room
because we're going to need to do that

bit but it's easiest to do the vertical
first so here's our little vertical

mm-hmm and then we go clunk clunk clunk
yep and then haha go like that alright

so that is a fake yeah I got you so you
want it to line up with the top so is it

like you're writing him or you're trying
to write in between two lines at all

times well it's actually the energy of
the washing line becomes very very

helpful him from the washing line
yes and the next lines heads and from

there what's your name
aha okay yes I think I'm holding the

tablet now thank you
relax you don't have to grip it is if

you about have a tooth in here now now
we have to go to this do which cool me

which dead pronounce you know nowadays

to remind you of that moment would you
like to see me do it first and I'm going

to plop that in there yeah in that sort
of fashion and then we're gonna go

through a piece of clay and thing like
that yep didn't go very far

I can't see anything yet yeah the sort
of thing this one should go on a bit

cousin I don't know where that head
comes that's a mistake

so this is our do three yes okay and
then a gigantic one because the table

doesn't touch it inexpensive yes that
was no that's stubby it right well how

do you recognize a belittle the critical
I think flourish about it which i think

is admirable and if you could match they
really do struggle with their own wine

it's almost like this is a skills thing
I'm gonna say something that took about

six years an intense were to acquire
within anyway skill so we don't need if

and now we're going to yeah no yes
say uh I mean say what we have is one

big vertical in the couple of small
verticals you know we do together all

together now isn't that good that's a
fest what I've done so far I think

you're warming up beautifully nobody be
doing this at home right so that's all

my skew nine four years Jesus got a feel
about ancient Assyria now list Nixon

began to do is to send
follow your lead here yes and ironically

is gonna do the same letter again but
boy mate I feel like I'm gonna run out

of clay are you allowed to stop mid word
no no no that

hand comes off at the wrist if you do
that that's really a Highness thing

right so you jumped ahead right close
back off

actually this is not my best but are you
free I have to say but it's really

difficult to concentrate on ones off
women it's constantly having to look

down and young young person striving as
you are thinks I don't actually think

this one's okay despite the fact I
couldn't actually draw it mm-hmm

I'm just making sure it's fine and just
wing it right now we can subject' it to

the test
yes which is we pocket them each and we

go into the autobahn app an exhibition
with no one's looking we leave them on

the floor see if any I'm panicked and
soup anybody pants sounds sounds good

and like a responsible thing that the
British Museum definitely would not do

um right so if you would like to see
cuneiform written better than this

possibly of this standard there's loads
of it in the latest exhibition we've

it's the BP exhibition i am asha parekh

val king of the world's king of syria
which you've now found out how to write

some off if you'd like to go see it
there are tickets available there's a

link that will pop up just about now on
screen as well as one in the description

I think than that you've done video

do you wanna say don't forget to
subscribe to the British Museum YouTube

no I say that in your honor

oh and don't forget to subscribe to the
British Museum YouTube channel thanks

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