Ancient Man by Hendrik Van Loon Ancient Man by Hendrik Van Loon    

Chapter 10: The Sumerian Nail-writers

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In the year 1472, a short time before Columbus discovered America, a certain Venetian, by the name of Josaphat Barbaro, traveling through Persia, crossed the hills near Shiraz and saw something which puzzled him. The hills of Shiraz were covered with old temples which had been cut into the rock of the mountainside. The ancient worshippers had disappeared centuries before and the temples were in a state of great decay. But clearly visible upon their walls, Barbara noticed long legends written in a curious script which looked like a series of scratches made by a sharp nail.

When he returned he mentioned his discovery to his fellow-townsmen, but just then the Turks were threatening Europe with an invasion and people were too busy to bother about a new and unknown alphabet, somewhere in the heart of western Asia. The Persian inscriptions therefore were promptly forgotten.

Two and a half centuries later, a noble young Roman by the name of Pietro della Valle visited the same hillsides of Shiraz which Barbaro had passed two hundred years before. He, too, was puzzled by the strange inscriptions on the ruins and being a painstaking young fellow, he copied them carefully and sent his report together with some remarks about the trip to a friend of his, Doctor Schipano, who practiced medicine in Naples and who besides took an interest in matters of learning.

Schipano copied the funny little figures and brought them to the attention of other scientific men. Unfortunately Europe was again occupied with other matters.

The terrible wars between the Protestants and Catholics had broken out and people were busily killing those who disagreed with them upon certain points of a religious nature.

Another century was to pass before the study of the wedge-shaped inscriptions could be taken up seriously.

The eighteenth century--a delightful age for people of an active and curious mind--loved scientific puzzles. Therefore when King Frederick V of Denmark asked for men of learning to join an expedition which he was going to send to western Asia, he found no end of volunteers. His expedition, which left Copenhagen in 1761, lasted six years. During this period all of the members died except one, by the name of Karsten Niebuhr, who had begun life as a German peasant and could stand greater hardships than the professors who had spent their days amidst the stuffy books of their libraries.

This Niebuhr, who was a surveyor by profession, was a young man who deserves our admiration.

He continued his voyage all alone until he reached the ruins of Persepolis where he spent a month copying every inscription that was to be found upon the walls of the ruined palaces and temples.

After his return to Denmark he published his discoveries for the benefit of the scientific world and seriously tried to read some meaning into his own texts.

He was not successful.

But this does not astonish us when we understand the difficulties which he was obliged to solve.

When Champollion tackled the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics he was able to make his studies from little pictures.

The writing of Persepolis did not show any pictures at all.

They consisted of v-shaped figures that were repeated endlessly and suggested nothing at all to the European eye.

Nowadays, when the puzzle has been solved, we know that the original script of the Sumerians had been a picture-language, quite as much as that of the Egyptians.

But whereas the Egyptians at a very early date had discovered the papyrus plant and had been able to paint their images upon a smooth surface, the inhabitants of Mesopotamia had been forced to carve their words into the hard rock of a mountain side or into a soft brick of clay.

Driven by necessity they had gradually simplified the original pictures until they devised a system of more than five hundred different letter-combinations which were necessary for their needs.

Let me give you a few examples. In the beginning, a star, when drawn with a nail into a brick looked as follows.
But after a time, the star shape was discarded as being too cumbersome and the figure was given this shape.
After awhile, the meaning of "heaven" was added to that of "star," and the picture was simplified into an odd cross which made it still more of a puzzle.
In the same way an ox changed from:
A fish changed from:
The sun, which was originally a plain circle, became:
and if we were using the Sumerian script today we would make an:
look like this:
You will understand how difficult it was to guess at the meaning of these figures but the patient labors of a German schoolmaster by the name of Grotefend was at last rewarded and thirty years after the first publication of Niebuhr's texts and three centuries after the first discovery of the wedge-formed pictures, four letters had been deciphered.

These four letters were the D, the A, the R and the Sh.

They formed the name of Darheush the King, whom we call Darius.

Then occurred one of those events which were only possible in those happy days before the telegraph-wire and the mail-steamer had turned the entire world into one large city.

While patient European professors were burning the midnight candles in their attempt to solve the new Asiatic mystery, young Henry Rawlinson was serving his time as a cadet of the British East Indian Company.

He used his spare hours to learn Persian and when the Shah of Persia asked the English government for the loan of a few officers to train his native army, Rawlinson was ordered to go to Teheran. He travelled all over Persia and one day he happened to visit the village of Behistun. The Persians called it Bagistana which means the "dwelling place of the Gods."

Centuries before the main road from Mesopotamia to Iran (the early home of the Persians) had run through this village and the Persian King Darius had used the steep walls of the high cliffs to tell all the world what a great man he was.

High above the roadside he had engraved an account of his glorious deeds.

The inscription had been made in the Persian language, in Babylonian and in the dialect of the city of Susa. To make the story plain to those who could not read at all, a fine piece of sculpture had been added showing the King of Persia placing his triumphant foot upon the body of Gaumata, the usurper who had tried to steal the throne away from the legitimate rulers. For good measure a dozen followers of Gaumata had been added. They stood in the background. Their hands were tied and they were to be executed in a few moments.

The picture and the three texts were several hundred feet above the road but Rawlinson scaled the walls of the rock at great danger to life and limb and copied the entire text.

His discovery was of the greatest importance. The Rock of Behistun became as famous as the Stone of Rosetta and Rawlinson shared the honors of deciphering the old nail-writing with Grotefend.

Although they had never seen each other or heard each other's names, the German schoolmaster and the British officer worked together for a common purpose as all good scientific men should do.

Their copies of the old text were reprinted in every land and by the middle of the nineteenth century, the cuneiform language (so called because the letters were wedge-shaped and "cuneus" is the Latin name for wedge) had given up its secrets. Another human mystery had been solved.

But about the people who had invented this clever way of writing, we have never been able to learn very much.

They were called the Sumerians.

They lived in a land which we call Shomer and which they themselves called Kengi, which means the "country of the reeds" and which shows us that they had dwelt among the marshy parts of the Mesopotamian valley. Originally the Sumerians had been mountaineers, but the fertile fields had tempted them away from the hills. But while they had left their ancient homes amidst the peaks of western Asia they had not given up their old habits and one of these is of particular interest to us.

Living amidst the peaks of western Asia, they had worshipped their Gods upon altars erected on the tops of rocks. In their new home, among the flat plains, there were no such rocks and it was impossible to construct their shrines in the old fashion. The Sumerians did not like this.

All Asiatic people have a deep respect for tradition and the Sumerian tradition demanded that an altar be plainly visible for miles around.

To overcome this difficulty and keep their peace with the Gods of their Fathers, the Sumerians had built a number of low towers (resembling little hills) on the top of which they had lighted their sacred fires in honor of the old divinities.

When the Jews visited the town of Bab-Illi (which we call Babylon) many centuries after the last of the Sumerians had died, they had been much impressed by the strange-looking towers which stood high amidst the green fields of Mesopotamia. The Tower of Babel of which we hear so much in the Old Testament was nothing but the ruin of an artificial peak, built hundreds of years before by a band of devout Sumerians. It was a curious contraption.

The Sumerians had not known how to construct stairs.

They had surrounded their tower with a sloping gallery which slowly carried people from the bottom to the top.

A few years ago it was found necessary to build a new railroad station in the heart of New York City in such a way that thousands of travelers could be brought from the lower to the higher levels at the same moment.

It was not thought safe to use a staircase for in case of a rush or a panic people might have tumbled and that would have meant a terrible catastrophe.

To solve their problem the engineers borrowed an idea from the Sumerians.

And the Grand Central Station is provided with the same ascending galleries which had first been introduced into the plains of Mesopotamia, three thousand years ago.

    Ancient Man by Hendrik Van Loon Ancient Man by Hendrik Van Loon    

Chapter 10: The Sumerian Nail-writers


Study the lesson for two weeks.

Over the two weeks:

  • Read the story multiple times.
  • Read the synopsis.
  • Review the vocabulary terms.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.
  • Study the review questions.


The tenth chapter describes the Sumerian form of writing, called cuneiform. Unlike the Egyptians, the Sumerians had no papyrus and had to carve their writings into rock or clay tablets. Due to the difficulty of carving into rock, the Sumerians inscribed simple wedge shapes. It took Europeans centuries before they deciphered cuneiform. Critical to deciphering cuneiform was the discovery of the Rock of Behistun, which inscribed a story in three different languages, including both cuneiform and the known Persian language. The Sumerians lived in the marshy parts of Mesopotamia. They built towers atop which they lit fires in honor of their deities. They had not invented steps, so they constructed ramps to climb to the top of their towers. The Sumerians also built the famous 'Tower of Babel.'


Cuneiform: Denoting or relating to the wedge-shaped characters used in the ancient writing systems of Mesopotamia, Persia, and Ugarit, surviving mainly impressed on clay tablets.
Papyrus: A material prepared in ancient Egypt from the pithy stem of a water plant, used in sheets for writing or painting and for making rope, sandals, and boats.
Clay: A stiff, sticky fine-grained earth, typically yellow, red, or bluish-gray in color and often forming an impermeable layer in the soil.
Inscribe: Write or carve (words or symbols) on something, especially as a formal or permanent record.
Wedge: A shape having one thick end and tapering to a thin edge.
Decipher: Convert (a text written in code, or a coded signal) into normal language.
Mesopotamia: A fertile valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in present-day Syria and Iraq.
Tower: A tall narrow building, either freestanding or forming part of a building such as a church or castle.
Deity: A god or goddess. The creator or supreme being.


Activity 1: Narrate the Chapter

  • After you listen to the chapter, narrate the chapter aloud using your own words.

Activity 2: Examine a Real Cuneiform Inscription

  • Zoom in to study the stone inscription of Sumerian nail writing.
  • Imagine how difficult it was for Grotefend to decipher its meaning.

Activity 3: Sketch Cuneiform Shapes from the Chapter   

  • Click the crayon above. Complete page 33 of 'Second Grade World History Coloring Pages, Copywork, and Writing.'

Sketch each of the cuneiform shapes. Label each shape with its name.

  • Star
  • Ox
  • Sun
  • Invent your own cuneiform figure out of wedge shapes for an object such as an apple, a doll, or a bird.

Activity 4: Complete Coloring Pages, Copywork, and Writing   

  • Click the crayon above. Complete pages 34-35 of 'Second Grade World History Coloring Pages, Copywork, and Writing.'


Question 1

What shape is used in cuneiform writing?
1 / 5

Answer 1

The wedge shape is used in cuneiform writing.
1 / 5

Question 2

Who in the chapter used cuneiform writing?
2 / 5

Answer 2

In the chapter, the Sumerians used cuneiform writing.
2 / 5

Question 3

How is the Rock of Behistun like the Rosetta Stone?
3 / 5

Answer 3

Both the Rock of Behistun and the Rosetta Stone were used to decipher unknown languages (cuneiform and hieroglyphics, respectively).
3 / 5

Question 4

How did Sumerians climb to the top of their towers when they hadn't discovered stairs?
4 / 5

Answer 4

Sumerians built slopes or inclines to allow people to climb up and down their towers.
4 / 5

Question 5

Why did Sumerians burn fires at the top of their towers?
5 / 5

Answer 5

Sumerians burned fires at the top of their towers in honor of their deities.
5 / 5

  1. What shape is used in cuneiform writing? The wedge shape is used in cuneiform writing.
  2. Who in the chapter used cuneiform writing? In the chapter, the Sumerians used cuneiform writing.
  3. How is the Rock of Behistun like the Rosetta Stone? Both the Rock of Behistun and the Rosetta Stone were used to decipher unknown languages (cuneiform and hieroglyphics, respectively).
  4. How did Sumerians climb to the top of their towers when they hadn't discovered stairs? Sumerians built slopes or inclines to allow people to climb up and down their towers.
  5. Why did Sumerians burn fires at the top of their towers? Sumerians burned fires at the top of their towers in honor of their deities.


  1. 'Cuneiform Photo taken by John Hill (CC BY-SA 3.0).' Wikipedia.,_Van,_1973.JPG. n.p.