Cuneiform script is one of the earliest known systems of writing, distinguished by its wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets, made by means of a blunt reed for a stylus. The name cuneiform itself simply means "wedge shaped", from the Latin cuneus "wedge" and forma "shape," and came into English usage "probably from Old French cunéiforme."
Emerging in Sumer in the late 4th millennium BC (the Uruk IV period), cuneiform writing began as a system of pictographs. In the third millennium, the pictorial representations became simplified and more abstract as the number of characters in use grew smaller, from about 1,000 in the Early Bronze Age to about 400 in Late Bronze Age (Hittite cuneiform).
The original Sumerian script was adapted for the writing of the Akkadian, Eblaite, Elamite, Hittite, Luwian, Hattic, Hurrian, and Urartian languages, and it inspired the Ugaritic and Old Persian alphabets. Cuneiform writing was gradually replaced by the Phoenician alphabet during the Neo-Assyrian Empire. By the 2nd century AD, the script had become extinct, and all knowledge of how to read it was lost until it began to be deciphered in the 19th century.
Between half a million and two million cuneiform tablets are estimated to have been excavated in modern times. Of these, only approximately 100,000 have been published.
The cuneiform writing system was in use for a span of more than three millennia, through several stages of development, from the 34th century BC down to the 2nd century AD. Ultimately, it was completely replaced by alphabetic writing (in the general sense) in the course of the Roman era and there are no Cuneiform systems in current use. It had to be deciphered as a completely unknown writing system in 19th-century Assyriology. Successful completion of its decipherment is dated to 1857.
The system consists of a combination of logophonetic, consonantal alphabetic and syllabic signs.