Discover the story of writing, £9.99
The earliest form of writing
The earliest writing we know of dates back to around 3,000 BC and was probably invented by the Sumerians, living in major cities with centralised economies in what is now southern Iraq. Temple officials needed to keep records of the grain, sheep and cattle entering or leaving their stores and farms and it became impossible to rely on memory. So, an alternative method was required and the very earliest texts were pictures of the items scribes needed to record (known as pictographs).
These texts were drawn on damp clay tablets using a pointed tool. It seems the scribes realised it was quicker and easier to produce representations of such things as animals, rather than naturalistic impressions of them. They began to draw marks in the clay to make up signs, which were standardised so they could be recognised by many people.
A wedge-shaped instrument (usually a cut reed) was used to press the signs into soft clay. This gave the writing system its name, 'cuneiform', meaning wedge-shaped.
From these beginnings, cuneiform signs were put together and developed to represent sounds, so they could be used to record spoken language. Once this was achieved, ideas and concepts could be expressed and communicated in writing. Letters enclosed in clay envelopes, as well as works of literature, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh have been found. Historical accounts have also come to light, as have huge libraries such as that belonging to the Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC).
The latest known example of cuneiform is an astronomical text from AD 75. During its 3,000-year history cuneiform was used to write around 15 different languages including Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Elamite, Hittite, Urartian and Old Persian.
While cuneiform was spreading throughout the Middle East, writing systems were also being developed in Egypt and China.
Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs
It is not known exactly where and when Egyptian writing first began, but it was already well-advanced two centuries before the start of the First Dynasty that suggests a date for its invention in Egypt around 3,000 BC. The most well-known script used for writing the Egyptian language was in the form of a series of small signs, or hieroglyphs.
Some signs are pictures of real-world objects, while others are representations of spoken sounds. These sound signs are pictures that get their meaning from how the word for the object they represent sounds when said aloud. Some signs write one letter, some more, while others write whole words.
Like cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs were used for record-keeping, but also for monumental display dedicated to royalty and deities. The word hieroglyph comes from the Greek hieros 'sacred' and gluptien 'carved in stone'. The last known hieroglyph inscription was AD 394.
Other scripts used to write Egyptian were developed over time. Hieratic was handwritten and easier to write so was used for administrative and non-monumental texts from the Old Kingdom (about 2613-2160 BC) to around 700 BC. Hieratic was replaced by demotic, which means popular, in the Late Period (661-332 BC), and was a more abbreviated version. In turn demotic was replaced by Coptic, which may have been introduced to record the contemporary spoken language, in the first century AD.
Writing in China
In China, the earliest writing dates back to around 1200 BC and was found at the Shang Dynasty (about 1500-1050 BC) site of Anyang. Shang kings believed their ancestors could advise them and would use hot rods to crack pieces of polished oxen shoulder blade or the under shell of turtles. The patterns of the cracks were used to forecast the future.
Scribes carved questions and answers into these ‘oracle’ bones. They might ask about the best time to grow crops, for example. The origins of this script are unclear, but the oldest examples are already highly-developed, suggesting it had been in use for some time. Inscriptions have also been found on Shang bronzes from this period.
Unlike cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, however, the Chinese script did not die out. It underwent major changes and was adapted for use in other languages, but is still in use today.
Later Chinese scripts were developed for specific reasons. Seal script was used by the First Emperor (around 221 BC) but is still used for seals as a personal signature. Clerical script was developed in around 200 BC for record keeping. An easy-to-read script was used for ordinary writing and printed books, while grass script was used when writing had to be done quickly, such as note-taking.
Writing, or calligraphy, is China’s highest art form. Characters must be drawn with perfect balance and proportion and the order in which the strokes are made always follows a set pattern.
The Chinese script still used today has 40-50,000 characters, although only around 3,000 are needed to write a newspaper. The characters can represent a sound, a whole word, or even a concept.
The glyphs of Central America
Across the Pacific Ocean, the Maya civilisation was at its height between AD300 and 900. Inscriptions have been found on monumental sculpture, public buildings, murals, pottery, shell, obsidian, bone, wood, jade and screenfold books called codices. They were only identified as a writing system by scholars during the nineteenth century.
The majority of surviving examples of Maya writing are from the Classic period (AD 250-900) although some date to the Late Preclassic (400 BC - AD 250). Inscriptions record calendar and astronomical information, and historical events such as alliances, wars, lineages and marriages.
Maya glyphs were inscribed in blocks placed in horizontal and vertical rows. One or more glyphs were set in each block. It is generally read from left to right and top to bottom. The text sometimes appears in single columns, but can appear in L-shaped or other arrangements, such as on the carved lintels from the city of Yaxchilán.
More information about objects featured here (from top)