Ancient Writing
Pre-requisites for Civilization
 Agriculture developed in the Fertile
Crescent around 9000 bce
 Mining and use of copper around 6000
 Growth of villages and towns
 Division of labor
Smelting of tin and copper to make
bronze around 3000 bce > Bronze Age
Invention of Writing
 Writing developed on the basis of earlier existing pictographs and
ideographs-- pictures began to be used to denote syllables of sound,
not meaning alone
 Modern humans began drawing pictures 40,000 years ago
(San in SW Africa, Australian Aborigines, Cro-Magnon in
southwest Europe).
 True writing is thought to have been invented independently at least
twice and perhaps three times in different places and times in human
in ancient Sumeria by 3200 bce -- where cuneiform developed
in ancient Mexico by the Olmecs before 400 bce--the precursor
to the Maya glyphs (used 200—1500 ce)
Writing may have been invented a third time independently: in
North China by 1200 bce - -the precursor of modern Chinese
Stimulus Diffusion
After the Sumerians, the idea of writing seems to have
diffused to many peoples of Southwest Asia and Egypt.
The Egyptians, the Cretans, the Elamites, and the Indus
Valley peoples developed writing.
Clay inscriptions dating back as far a 2500 bce have
been found in these areas. As yet none of the
inscriptions from Crete or the Indus Valley have been
It is virtually certain that these peoples borrowed the
idea of writing syllables of sound by using pictures.
Divine Invention
In Mesopotamia, the Sumerians credit either
the god Enlil or Ningizzida, Lord of the Tree
of Truth, as the creator of writing.
Later during Assyrian, and Babylonian
periods, the god Nabu was credited as the
inventor of writing and scribe of the gods.
Mesopotamian scribal gods also exhibit the
power of creation via divine speech.
Divine Invention
Egypt and Phoenicia
 In ancient Egypt, the invention
of writing is attributed to the
god Thoth or Tehuti (Dhwty
in Egyptian), the scribe and
historian of the gods, who also
kept the calendar and invented
art and science.
 Taautos of Byblos, the
Phoenician precursor of Thoth,
was the father of tautology or
 The Greeks associated both
gods with their god, Hermes
 At first, the Sumerians used
stone and clay tokens, which
represented various goods
and numerical values, to keep
track of their mercantile
 Around 3200 B.C. these
tokens were replaced by
markings made on clay
tablets and written language
was born.
 The first cuneiform writings
consisted of pictograms,
drawings of the items
 Shortly thereafter ideograms,
or abstract symbols, were
also used.
Tablet of pre-cuneiform script
South Mesopotamia
Uruk III, end of 4th millenium BC.
Clay (?sun-baked clay)
Clay Tablet,
ca. 1900 bce.
 Cuneiform recorded
all important
activities, from the
sale of land to
marriage and
adoption contracts.
 By the middle of the
third millennium
bce, the Sumerian
written language was
developed enough to
record oral epic
poetry, such as The
Epic of Gilgamesh
Student Practice Tablet
 Literacy was a highly valued skill
 Sumerians set up first
institutions of formal education:
 Education included writing and
 Tuition paid for education
 Educated were privileged elite:
government officials, scribes, etc.
Deciphering Cuneiform
1835: Henry Rawlinson, an English army officer, found some inscriptions on a cliff at
Behistun in Persia. Carved in the reign of King Darius of Persia (522-486 BC), they
consisted of identical texts in three languages: Old Persian, Babylonian and Elamite.
Nippur Flood
...a flood will sweep over the cult centers;
To destroy the seed of mankind...
Is the decision, the word of the assembly of
the gods.
By the word commanded by An and Enlil...
All the windstorms, exceedingly powerful,
attacked as one,
At the same time, the flood sweeps over the
cult centers.
The tablet can be dated by its script
to the late 17th century BC.
University of Pennsylvania
After, for seven days and seven nights,
The flood had swept over the land,
And the huge boat had been tossed about by
the windstorms on the great waters,
Utu came forth, who sheds light on heaven
and earth,
Ziusudra opened a window on the huge boat,
The hero Utu brought his rays into the giant
Priestess and
the world’s
first known
Here are the first 4 lines of cuneiform:
1) en-he-du-an-na.....................En-he-du-ana,
2) MUNUS.NUNUZ.ZI.............zirru priestess
3) dam-nanna........................... wife of the god Nanna,
4) dumu-...................................daughter
The inscription continues:
5) sarru-GI............................ of Sargon,
6) [ lugal]............................... [king] of
7) KIS................................... the world (Kish),
8) e-INANNA.ZA.ZA............. in the temple of the
9) uri.KI-ma-ka...................... Inanna- ZA.ZA in Ur,
10) bara-si-ga........................ made a socle and
11) bi-e-du
12) bara bansur-an-na...........named it: 'dais, table of
13) mu-se bi-sa......................the god An'.
Were Egyptians the first
 The earliest writing ever seen
may have been discovered in
southern Egypt. The
hieroglyphics record linen and
oil deliveries made over 5,000
years ago.
 The exact date of Sumerian
writing remains in doubt but
the new Egyptian discoveries
have been confidently dated to
between 3300 BC and 3200
BC using carbon isotopes
Dynasties 1 & 2: ca. 3100-2700 bce
 The culmination of the formative stage of the Ancient Egyptian
civilization that began centuries before during the Prehistory
 Goal to gain stable, superior status in Mid-East
 Establishment of divine kingship as Egypt's form of government
 Writing evolved from a few simple signs to a complex system of
several hundreds of signs with both phonetic and ideographic
 Craftsmen increased their skills and experimented with the use of
more durable materials.
 Structures built in brick, wood and reeds were copied in stone,
giving birth to the typical Ancient Egyptian architecture.
Palermo Stone
 A dark stone containing
information from the
early dynasties.
 It is inscribed on both
sides with a list of kings
from Pre-Dynastic Egypt
to the middle of the 5th
 The exact creation date is
not known, the earliest
possible date being the
middle of the 5th Dynasty.
Egyptian Hieroglyphs
 Hieroglyphs were called by the Egyptians "the words of God"
and were used mainly by the priests.
 The painstakingly drawn symbols decorated the walls of temples
 Hieratic script was used for conducting day to day business
 Hieroglyphs are written in rows or columns and can be read from
left to right or from right to left. The direction in which the text is
to be read is indicated by the human or animal figures which
always face towards the beginning of the line.
 The upper symbols are read before the lower.
History of
Rosetta Stone, 196 bce
 30th century BCE: The
hieroglyphic system is developed.
 500 BCE: A slow revolution of
hieroglyphic writing starts, as new
signs are introduced. The number of
available signs in the system grows
over the centuries from around 700
to several thousands.
 394 CE: The date of the last case of
hieroglyphic writing.
 1799: The Rosetta Stone is
discovered, which contained the
same text in two languages (Egyptian
and Greek), and in three writing
system (hieroglyphic, demotic and
 1822: The French scientist JeanFrancoise Champollion completes
the decipherment of the hieroglyphs.
History of Hieratic Script
 Around 2750 BCE: First examples of hieratic script.
 Around 2000 BCE: Writing direction changes from
vertical to horizontal read from right to left
 Around 600 BCE: Demotic script replaces hieratic script
for use with secular writing. Hieratic continued to be used
for religious texts.
 Around 100 CE: Last examples of hieratic script.
Hieratic Script
Developed from the hieroglyphic system.
 Hieratic comes from Greek denoting "priestly", since it
was used only for sacred texts in the last 1000 years of its
Hieratic script was used in carved or painted inscriptions,
normally written in ink with a reed pen on papyrus.
Hieratic script lasted for about 3200 years, but was
through the last 1000 years challenged by demotic script.
Hieratic script was taught in school, while hieroglyphs
were only understood by a small minority of priests in the
History of Demotic Script
 660 bce: First known example of demotic script.
 5th century bce: Demotic script is in use all over Egypt.
 Beginning 4th century ce: Demotic script is starting to be
replaced by Greek writing.
 425 ce: Last known example of demotic script.
Demotic Script
Demotic script lasted for about 1000 years, during the
last period of ancient Egyptian history.
The term "demotic" comes from the Greek word for
people, or popular.
Demotic script was used for business and literary
purposes, while hieratic was used for religious texts.
Demotic was the most abbreviated and cursive script
developed by the ancient Egyptians
Most demotic texts were written in ink on papyrus. It
was also written on wood or linen or carved in stone
or metal.
Who were
 Phoenicians, Canaanites & Punic/
Carthaginians are the same people:
Eastern Canaanites were called
Phoenicians by the Greeks & Western
Canaanites were called Punic by the
The Phoenicians called themselves
Canaanites, and they were the
descendants of two groups, the early
Canaanites who inhabited the coast of
Lebanon, and the Sea People who
invaded Lebanon about l200 bce.
Economic opportunity and population
pressures led them into the
Mediterranean Sea where they became
great traders and colonizers
The Phoenician alphabetic script of 22
letters was used at Byblos as early as the
15th century bce
 Phoenicia is a term which was applied by classical
authors to the city-states northern Lebanon from 1200
BC onwards.
 Their main cities were Tyre, Sidon and Byblos on the
coast of Lebanon
 The Greek word from which 'Phoenicia' derived meant
'purple', and was a translation of the name 'Canaan'
. Canaan which may have had some linguistic connection
with the purple dye produced from local murex shellfish
for which the region was famous
The Sea Peoples
• The Phoenicians were the best seafarers and ship builders of
the ancient world.
• The famous Lebanese cedar trees covering the slopes of
mountains of their native land was a perfect material for
construction of strong seaworthy ships.
• The Phoenicians are credited with the division of a circle into
360 degrees and having reliable celestial reference points.
• The earliest evidence for Phoenician ships comes from an
Egyptian tomb relief of around 1400 BC at Thebes which shows
Phoenician ships unloading in an Egyptian port.
Cedars of Lebanon: Egyptian connection
As far as back as 3200 B.C., the people of Gebeil
(Byblos) were cutting down cedar trees in the mountains of
Lebanon, to be shipped to Egypt and Mesopotamia for use
in building ships and making columns for houses.
The Phoenicians brought back gold, copper, and
turquoise from the Nile Valley and Sinai.
Canaanite ceramic pieces have been found in Egyptian
tombs dating back to 2999 B.C.
Legend has it that an Egyptian pharaoh hired a band of
Phoenicians to map and circumnavigate the
coast of Africa.
The 1st inscription reads:
"Wall built by Abibaal, king of
Byblos, for Baalat-Gebel, his
lady. May Baalat-Gebel prolong
the days of Abibaal and his
years over Byblos."
The 3rd inscription reads:
"Wall built by Shipitbaal, king
of Byblos, son of Elibaal, king
of Byblos, for Baalat-Gebel, his
lady. [May] Baalat-Gebel
prolong the days of Shipitbaal
and his years over Byblos."
[The red line indicates the
presumed location for
Phoenician alphabet
The Phoenician alphabet consisted of twenty-two symbols, all
consonants. Each one represented its own sound.
The Egyptian symbol for the ox head was given the
Semitic name aleph and was sounded as "a."
The Phoenician alphabet was used to form the other alphabets
which followed it. Aleph became the Greek
alpha, Beth became beta. In time, these letters became the Latin
letters A and B, etc.
The written language inscribed on papyrus, a type
of paper made of reeds.
So, closely linked with papyrus with the city of Byblos
(which traded cedar for the paper) that when the writing of the
Hebrew prophets were translated into Greek the city's name was
given to the great book- Biblia: the Bible.
Phoenician alphabet
Cadmus’s gift to the Greeks
“The Phoenicians who came with Cadmus … introduced into
Greece, after their settlement in the country, a number of
accomplishments, of which the most important was writing, an art
till then, I think, unknown to the Greeks. At first they used the
same characters as all the other Phoenicians, but as time went on,
and they changed their language, they also changed the shape of
their letters. At that period most of the Greeks in the neighborhood
were Ionians; they were taught these letters by the Phoenicians and
adopted them, with a few alterations, for their own use, continuing
to refer to them as the Phoenician characters - as was only right, as
the Phoenicians had introduced them. “
Herodotus, The Histories
Writing in China
 The origins of Chinese writing are obscure and debated.
 Some believe that the principle was borrowed through the trade
routes from Sumeria to China--which would be an example of
stimulus diffusion.
 Many believe that the ancient Chinese hit upon the writing
principle completely independently.
 The earliest known form of true writing in China dates from the
Shang dynasty, 1200 bce-1045 bce, dates considerably later
than for Sumerian writing. But it is entirely possible that
pictographic signs had begun to be used as sound symbols in
China long before that.
 Ancient pictograms and ideograms came to be used to denote
syllables of sound rather than to depict concepts.
Shang Dynasty
16th-11th c. bce
Shang Dynasty
 Central Yellow River Valley
 Oldest examples of Chinese writing
 Hunters and farmers
 Brilliant bronze culture
 casting of intricate ritual vessels
 tools
 Cities
 Cheng Chow (16th c. bc)
 Anyang (C. 1384-1111 bc)
Oracle Bones
• Oracle bones used for divination.
• A question was written on the bone,
which was then fired and a T shaped
crack was produced to be
interpreted; the interpretation was
then written on the bone.
• After the predicted event occurred,
the date of the occurrence was also
written on the bone.
Astronomy and Calendar
Oracle bone with record of solar
Ox bone inscribed with a table of
the Heavenly Stems and Earthly
Writing in the Americas
 The oldest discovered examples of writing
in the Americas are a cylinder seal and
carved greenstone plaque bearing glyphs
dating to ca. 650 bce, uncovered near the
Olmec center of La Venta in Tabasco,
 Key aspects of the Mesoamerican scripts research/meso/PohlPR.html
were present in Olmec writing:
 the combination of pictographic and glyphic
elements to represent speech,
 the use of the sacred 260-day calendar,
 the connection between writing, the calendar,
and kingship
 Writing spread from La Venta to other
parts of Mesoamerica, where the Maya
developed the Olmec prototype into the
New World's most sophisticated script
ca. 1200-300 bce
 Established the first major Mesoamerican civilization.
 Often regarded as the Mother Culture of later Middle
American civilizations,the Olmec people called
themselves Xi
 First to use stone architecturally and sculpturally
 Clever mathematicians and astronomers who made
accurate calendars
 Highly developed technical skills
magnetic compass
skill with iron ores
complex drainage system
First writing in North America
 This plaque
records the
story of
 It shows the
World Tree
sprouting out
of Creation
Olmec influence on
Central-American Civilizations
 Art
 Religious symbolism
 Hieroglyphic writing
 Bar and dot numbering
 Calendar
 Bloodletting ritual
 Ball game
Although there was never such a thing as a Maya Empire,
the diverse peoples and politico-religious formations that in
the past occupied Yucatán and modern day Belize, Chiapas,
Guatemala and Honduras, all had common cultural
a highly developed calendar
a rich complex writing system, and sophisticated mathematics..
Archeologists and historians recognize several periods in
the history of these cultures:
 Preclassic 2000 bce-100ad
 Classic 100 -900 ad
 Postclassic 900 ad-1500 ad
 The unit of the Maya writing
system is the glyphic cartouche,
which is equivalent to the words
and sentences of a modern
 Maya cartouches included at least
three or four glyphs and as many
as fifty.
 There is no Maya alphabet.
 Writing considered to be a sacred
gift from the gods.
 Knowledge of reading and writing
was jealously guarded by a small
elite class, who believed that they
alone could interact directly with
the gods
Glyphs representing, from left to right:
the sky
an ahau (king) a house
a child
the city of Palenque.
The Maya wrote using 800 individual signs or glyphs, paired in columns
that read together from left to right and top to bottom. Maya glyphs
represented words or syllables that could be combined to form any word
or concept in the Mayan language, including numbers, time periods,
royal names, titles, dynastic events, and the names of gods, scribes,
sculptors, objects, buildings, places, and food.
Maya glyphs were also
painted on codices made
of either deer hide or
bleached fig-tree paper
that was then covered
with a thin layer of plaster
and folded accordionstyle.
Recorded rituals,
chronologies, myths and
important events.
Most were burned by the
Spanish during the 16th c.
4 Extant Codices:
Dresden, Madrid, Paris, Grolier
Popul Vuh
 Book of Council
 Sacred book of Quiche Maya
 Lords of the great kingdom of Quiche
had a way of seeing what could not be
seen with the physical eye.
 Their guide was Popul Vuh, a book that
could allow the lords to know past and
future events.
 The book speaks of occurrences before
the first sunrise.

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