Cuneiform script is one of the earliest known systems of writing. 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, and by the 2nd century AD, the script had become extinct, all knowledge of how to read it forgotten until it began to be deciphered in the 19th century.
Cuneiform documents were written on clay tablets, by means of a blunt reed for a stylus. The impressions left by the stylus were wedge shaped, thus giving rise to the name cuneiform "wedge shaped", from the Latin cuneus "wedge".