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Until the advent of mass education in the Western world in the nineteenth century, most people could not read or write. Writing in most ancient civilisations was restricted to a fairly small and powerful elite. It was a useful tool in the creation of empires and kingdoms through administration and record-keeping.
The power of writing
This great skill was used to record payments of taxes and tributes to kings and rulers, and to keep track of the numbers of tax-payers in censuses. It was used to record commercial contracts and transactions between individuals, of goods and services bought and sold, and of the cost involved. Some of the earliest written texts from Mesopotamia and Egypt are of this kind. Cuneiform tablets from ancient southern Iraq, for example, record the allocation of rations to workers. Therefore, writing has been a means of organisation and keeping wealth and power.
In ancient Egypt levels of literacy were very low, less than one per cent. However, in some places we have evidence that a lot of people in that particular place able to read and write. Deir el-Medina, a walled village was home to the high middle-class officials working on building and decorating the New Kingdom tombs in the Valley of the Kings.
A stone ostrakon found there records work attendance In 280 days of Year 40 of the reign of Ramesses II (about 1279-1213 BC), only about 70 seem to have been full working days.
The list of forty names is accompanied by the reasons for their absence, such as illness, the death of relatives and purifications - perhaps relating to childbirth. Occasionally a man is away 'building his house', or at 'his festival' or even ‘drinking’.
Learning how to read and write
In order to make sure records were kept and understood, reading and writing have always been studied. In ancient Mesopotamia, schooling began at an early age.
Boys (and very rarely girls) learned how to make a tablet and handle the stylus used to make impressions in the clay. After learning the basic cuneiform signs students went on to learn the thousands of different Sumerian words. The teacher would write lines on one side of a tablet and students would turn it over and try to reproduce them. After training, students could call themselves dubsar or scribe and they became a member of a privileged class.
A public display
Even though literacy has traditionally been only for the wealthy, writing has been consistently used throughout history as a means of recording ideas and information in public proclamations. Kings and emperors set up inscriptions proclaiming their titles and chronicling their victories over their enemies. The Greek city of Athens in the fifth century BC recorded the decisions of its democratic constitution in public inscriptions. This made the political process open and accountable.
People have also used writing to record and communicate their thoughts and wishes in private or to friends and colleagues, even during periods of very limited literacy. Letters inscribed on clay and sealed in clay envelopes are preserved from ancient Mesopotamia and in the Egyptian, Greek and Roman worlds, ink and papyrus were widely used for private correspondence.
One of the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain is an invitation to a birthday party. It is one of the so-called Vindolanda tablets, a collection of letters and other pieces of writing on strips of tree bark from one of the main military outposts on the northern frontier of Roman Britain.
The invitation from Claudia Severa, wife of Aelius Brocchus, is for Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Flavius Cerealis. It was mostly written by a scribe, but Severa’s writing can also be seen. The tablet is one of the earliest known examples of writing in Latin by a woman.
The art of reading and writing
In many societies, a special room would be set aside within a wealthy household for private writing and study. In east Asian and Islamic cultures, the furniture of writing, pens and boxes, became extremely ornate, and the art of penmanship, or calligraphy, highly prized as a sign of learning or social prestige.
Until the end of the Edo period (AD 1868), every literate Japanese person had a personal writing-box containing brushes, ink-stone, ink-stick and water-dropper. The quality of the craftsmanship reflected the status of the owner.
Right up to modern times, literacy has been a highly prized skill. In China a simplified script was created to help improve literacy during the 1940s and 50s. But, while in developed countries most people learn to read and write at school, there are still people with very limited levels of literacy, if any at all, all over the world.