Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

Early Developments in Writing

Steve Muhlberger

This lecture talks about the "intellectual technology" of writing, something of particular interest to historians and all other intellectuals.   It's a trendy subject these days, literacy.   I am going to avoid complex modern theories, but I should say that just because somebody, like you or me, is literate now, we do not understand literacy in different times or places.

Here's a story that helps make this point. Ambrose, bishop of Milan in the 380s A.D., at the end of antiquity, shocked his contemporaries by being able to read silently, using only his eyes! We make fun of people who move their lips when they read, but for a Roman, this was the only way to read or to write, which most literary authors at least did by dictating to a secretary. This is why most Latin literature seems florid and rhetorical. Writing was much closer to public speaking than it is now.

The type of reading and writing common today was reached only by a long and complicated path, along which the ancients moved only a little ways. But they have the credit for inventing the basics.

Let's look at those basics now.

The earliest writing we know of comes from clay tablets found in the Mesopotamian city of Uruk. It dates from between 3500 and 3000 B.C. We cannot be sure what language the writing is supposed to represent, because it is a pictographic writing.  These symbols seem to be abstractions from earlier pictographs, or evidence that the scribes of the time realized that abstractions would do as well as little pictures. In other words, the Uruk tablets are not evidence for the very earliest stage of writing. There was period of development for which we have no evidence. Perhaps we never will. If the earliest Mesopotamian writing was done on palm leaves, the evidence is gone for good.

It may be, though, that writing developed out of another system of record-keeping. In Middle Eastern sites from Egypt to Iran, starting from 9000 B.C., archaeologists have found groups of clay tokens in a variety of shapes: spheres, cones, discs and rods, and combinations of these shapes. Sometimes the tokens have marks on them. From 4000 B.C., these tokens are found in hollow clay balls, called bullae. The purpose of the tokens and their containers might be forever obscure, except that a late bulla from 1500 B.C. has an inscription on the outside: "Stones: 21 breeding ewes, 6 she-lambs, 8 rams, 4 he-lambs, 6 breeding nanny-goats, 1 billy-goat, w she- kids. Seal of Ziqarru." Inside the bulla was the corresponding number, not of stones, but of clay tokens. This bulla was a recording device, which kept together tokens representing a particular herd of animals. A bulla full of tokens could act as a receipt. The label on the outside made it unnecessary to open the bulla except for a final accounting.

In 1977, Professor Denise Schmandt-Besserat published a book arguing that the Uruk pictograms, or at least some of them, originated in the bulla-token method of keeping track of herds and other agricultural commodities. She argued that some early Uruk symbols, for instance, the one representing a sheep, were derived from the shape of the early tokens, and were used in labelling bullae so that the tokens could be read without opening the package. Eventually labelling superceded the use of tokens, and writing had come into existence.

This fascinating theory is still unproved.   If right, it suggests that writing had a very long prehistory.

Writing was used first to keep track of objects.

(Example in class of an early Uruk tablet which appears to be an inventory of cattle.)

Such documents are interpreted by Assyriologists as showing numbers plus pictograms representing proper names. (Assyriologist, by the way, indicates an expert in cunieform and its predecessors, such as this early pictographic script.) These records were presumably devised and used by the owners of great estates in early urban Sumeria to keep track of their scattered property. Centralized power, past a certain point, would have been impossible without this invention.

When these early writers wanted a systemthat could do more than record concrete objects and the simplest of proper names, they had to move away from the strict pictogram.

In fact the earliest writing we can read (in the Sumerian language)  has signs to represent grammatical elements.  Sumerian used pictographs that represented one word (the word "a" meaning water, for instance) also to represent the sound of that word (the sound "a").  This is roughly how Chinese characters work.   It takes some  mental juggling to decide if a symbol means "water" or simply the sound "a," but it can be done.  (Example in class.)

What now existed in Sumer was what is called logo-syllabic writing. This simply means that a given sign could be either a word (logos in Greek) or the sound of that word, usually one syllable of it. Sumerian appears to have been a language where most words were syllables, as in Chinese languages.

When you start thinking this way about pictograms, the picture element of the sign quickly becomes less important, and that is what happened in Sumer. To speed up their writing, they reduced all the signs to simplified forms made up of straight lines, which, because of the shape of the reeds they used, looked like wedges. This is the cunieform writing that dominated Mesopotamia and Syria for centuries.

Hieroglyphics, the earliest Egyptian writing, was also logo-syllabic. The Egyptians, somewhat later than the people of Uruk, began by drawing pictures of objects. When it became necessary, signs were used for sounds, syllabic sounds. Egyptian script, like Sumerian cunieform, was a hybrid, unsystematic script. Often a single sign was used for more than one word. Signs had to be attached to pictograms (or properly speaking, logograms, symbols that represented a whole word) to show which possible meaning was represented by the logogram. Often this was a phonetic symbol. (Examples in class).

In Sumerian it would have been very easy to create a simple script, to make up an unambiguous syllabary -- like an alphabet, only with each symbol representing a single syllable -- out of which every word in the language could be written. The Egyptian language encouraged scribes to create standard consonant sounds. But simplification of this sort was not adopted either in Egypt, Sumer, or Akkad.  Why do it the hard way? Because in both cultures, men who had learned the hard way an arcane skill that gave them prestige and status did not want to make things easy for everybody else, and sacrifice what they had won so hard.

Simplification of writing occured instead on the periphery of the slowly widening world of literacy. When people who spoke other languages figured out that writing was a good thing, they had difficulties with the existing systems. Sumerian-Akkadian writing depended on knowledge of one of those languages.  Without that knowledge, guessing the meaning of logo-syllabic combinations became very difficult indeed.

In Ebla in Syria, sometime before 2200 B.C., would-be scribes faced this problem, and decided that they must adapt cunieform to their own situation. What they did was choose Mesopotamian signs that represented syllables that began with a consonant and ended with a vowel. Thus Eblaites were able to write with many fewer sounds than people in Mesopotamia -- but still many more than we have.

People farther away from Mesopotamia simplified even more. The language of Crete, which still cannot be read, must nevertheless have been a simplified syllabic script. That is evident because they used less than 100 signs to represent everything, which is not possible for a language with any pictographic or ideographic element.

A similar script was being used for an old form of Greek by 1450 B.C. By 1500 B.C. then, outside of the oldest centers, syllabic scripts were almost routine.

The next simplification is to create an alphabetic script, where a symbol represents a single sound, and not some combination of consonants and vowels. Important steps toward the alphabet were taken by speakers of Semitic languages, mainly Canaanite languages, in Palestine and Syria. Semitic languages have a particular character that encourages alphabetic writing. A group of related concepts, is represented by a group of words all built up on the same consonants. In Hebrew, for instance mlk is associated for royalty: king is melek, queen is malkah, timlok is "she reigns." It easily becomes clear to any literate Semitic speaker that vowels and consonants are separable; likewise that the consonants are more important than the vowels, which can be guessed from the context. Hebrew is very often written without any indication of vowels.

Around 1700 B.C. people in Palestine -- or I suppose it should be called Canaan, since there were no Philistines there yet -- were experimenting with an alphabetic script derived from pictograms. The little pictures were used to represent the initial consonant of the word corresponding to the picture.

(Examples in class.)

Similar experiments were done somewhat later, around 1400, in North Syria, at Ugarit, an important trading town. Here the alphabetic principle was executed using cunieform. The Ugaritic letters, rather than being adaptations from Canaanite pictograms, were a very logical progression of a few signs.

The extremely popular Phoenician alphabet, from the coast of Lebanon, was a form of the old Canaanite alphabet. It stabilized about 1000 B.C., into a non-pictographic script with 22 consonants. It is a direct ancestor of the Hebrew alphabet, and by 750 B.C. it was being used, in a much adapted form, to write Greek.

The Greeks, with a non-Semitic language, felt a need for vowel signs. These were made out of Phoenician letters for which there was no need in Greek. Thus aleph, which is a glottal stop in Phoenician, became Greek alpha, or "a".

The creation of the alphabet, like the discovery of iron technology, had great potential for democratizing the sources of power in society. In fact, this did not happen very quickly at all. In fact, it has been estimated that only in this century have we reached the point where half of humanity is literate in some language.

In antiquity we are seeing the beginning of a long process -- though the hardest parts of that process may well have been these early, ancient stages..


H.W.F. Saggs, Civilization Before Greece and Rome (London, 1989) has an excellent short introduction, which I am indebted to.
This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.