The Lore of Scriptology

Lecture 2b: Early History of Writing
(2000 - 900 BCE)

AdamBlatner, M.D.

Posted March, 2011.    Given as part of Senior University Georgetown's pre-Spring  2011 program.
       1.  Introduction & Overview              2a. The Very Early History of Writing                    2b:  This is Lecture 2b.              3. Mid-History of Writing  (@ 800 BCE - 1400 CE)            4.Related Developments (e.g., Typography, Calligraphy, etc.)            5: Invented Writing Systems           6a. Codes and Playing with Writing           6b. Summarizing Thoughts          

In this talk (on this webpage) we'll review the branching out of writing systems, touching on  how they grew up in Crete (the Minoan Civilization) and Cyprus), in China, and other areas.

There was no writing in Sub-Saharan Africa, Northen Europe, other parts of the world other than this narrow region. Writing begain in (1) Mesopotamia (with the Sumerians, then the Akkadians); (2) Egyptian  Hieroglyphic and then (5) consonantal use of signs; (3) the spread of cuneiform to nearby regions of Elam; (4) the Indus Valley ?script; (6) the Sinaitic and Canaanite proto alphabets; (7) Hittite Cuneiform and Luwian syllabary; (8) the Ugaritic alphabetic cuneiform. (9) Cretan and Mycenian (early Greek) syllabaries; and (10) Chinese logograms.

In the picture below to the right is a hint of the "fertile crescent" and the neighboring regions that are a major focus of our lecture today. In the last lecture we talked about the origins. The key point is this line: "Golly, can you do that?" It's not necessary that people take on the workings of a writing system in order to grasp the idea that language or ideas can be preserved as markings on two-dimensional surfaces---rock faces, clay, papyrus, etc.---and that systems can be developed using one's own language and its requirements. Cuneiform, after all, was far from a user-friendly system, nor was ancient Egyptian.

King Hammurabi and the Neo-Babylonian Empire

Writing was becoming a mainline technology and new applications were being devised. That's what's fun---realizing that there are new ways---what are today for small hand-held computers called "apps" (i.e., applications)---for this technology. Hammuriabi, who ruled around 1850s BCE,  is known for his having created a law code for his many subject city-states and regions.

In so doing he modified the role of judges. On one hand, they were given less leeway and therefore were a little less corruptable. On the other hand, they were given less discretion. There is a continuing tension between over- and under-regulation in all legal and governmental affairs to this day.

The code on the right represents not only a step in the history of writing, but also a milestone in the history of law and also of medicine! (Or perhaps the problems of malpractice in medicine?!)

One application was that of mathematics. The Egyptians were building pyramids, and the Babylonians were not unsophisticated in their work, either. Early mathematics began to be more complex. I saw a book that claimed that the following inscription repreented significant geometric principles (I think relating to what would a thousand years later be thought of as Pythagoras' theorem about the relationships between the sides of right triangle and the hypotenuse.

Some other

1   scribe schools, bureaucracy, letter writing

32, history? Well, lists of kings and when they did their thing... a beginning

33.  Love poems!

34.  Mathematics

35.. Maps, there are the tigris and euphrates river and the city in the middle, Babylon...

36. Meanwhile, back down to Egypt.. They’d been doing something similar in elaborating hieroglyphics...

37 over the years their script also evolved.. As well as a kind of print-equivalent for books, Hieratic, and more cursive written form, demotic..

38, actually brightly colored...  And aesthetically far more interesting than the cuneiform...

39 but you can see those letters and their meaning, m for mayim which is still water in Hebrew

40 and they did math, too, so they could build incredible pyramids and temples..

41, but back to the hieroglyphics themselves, and the acrophonic principle

42, actually, the more you study these, it gets more complex, because it’s not just one letter, some signs are 4 2 or three letters.

43. And you combine them so a word might mean several things, as they do in English. Set can mean several things. So you add what’s called a determinative, what category of thing are we talking about? It helps...

44. I can’t get into the ups and downs of empires, other than to note that this is going on even as the technology is evolving..


Although we knew about ancient Greek and to some degree, Hebrew, the world had lost any memory of previous languages or scripts. It was generally assumed to be somewhat magical and mysterious.  Some wild speculations about the meaning of Egyptian symbols were made in the late 1400s, but serious efforts at decipherment waited until as late as the mid-18th and through the 19th century. Breakthroughs in deciphering the main writing systems (i.e., cuneiform and hieroglyphics) opened up as many new perspectives on our past as the microscope or the telescope. Later efforts unlocked much (but not all) of the mystery of inscriptions from Crete and its nearby regions, the civilizations of what is now south-east Turkey, and the Mayans and others in Central America. The point to make is that decipherment is a part of archeology that bridges over to scriptology, and it has its own vast complexities. Sometimes we know the language but not the script; sometimes we have some ideas about how to decode the script but we don't know the language. Sometimes we know neither! So the process is related to code-breaking.

This to the left is from a printed book titled Hynerotomachia---and yes, it has elements of dream---hypno---, and eroto-- there's a kind of love story here, mixed with a trip through a fantastic landscape and weird symbols on the architecture. This book reflects a common idea at the time, that in the early Reaissance, the symbols themselves were held to have deep significance. They weren't thought to just be signs that stood for sounds---as indeed they have been shown to be. That awareness only dawned on scholars of linguistics a century or more later---in the mid-1600s and beyond.
48. Ancient script... symbols...Hypnerotomachia...

49   The rosetta stone...

50..     Champolio    There were some pioneering decipherments in the 18th and especially the 19th century, which continue to carried on in the present, along with minor and moderate breakthroughs. There are quite a few unknown languages—some still today. I can’t begin to cover each one.
        But the ancient Egyptian was fascinating to the post-classical world. Much Egyptian was muddled by the conquests by the Persians, Alexander the Great, and all. Cleopatra was a descendent as much from the ancestors who were Alexander the Great’s general as from Egyptian aristocracy. So things got muddled in the last 400 years before the famed Cleopatra. But it was not an uncommon name.
   The hieroglyphics suggested not phonemes, but logographs, symbols that suggested to scholars in the early Renaissance—about which I spoke last session—that these folks were dealing with very esoteric wisdom.

But the big break came with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt to challenge the weakening Ottoman Empire and the province of Egypt. He brought along scholars and they unearthed several artifacts, the most famous of which was called the “Rosetta Stone,” because it was unearthed near the town translated as Rosetta. This stone was written in Hieroglyphics, Demotic—which was sort of like something between cursive and simple printing, and Greek! There was a man named Champollion who finally cracked the code, noticing that names of royalty were placed in special signs, the cartouche, and it finally occurred to them that the signs were alphabetic, phonemic, not symbolic of whole ideas—i.e., pictographic.
50 Champollion

51 So look at Kleopatra! 

52, need to use those determinatives, notice

53  Or getting more complicated, Isis.

54  In Persia they found several inscriptions that helped them crack the mystery of cuneiform, again using the names of kings— We heard of Cyrus as the English translation of the word in Hebrew in the Bible which referred not to Cyrus but Xerxes. Or perhaps more close, Ksy-ar-sha .Darius was Darayava-ush... etc.  So they worked from there.

My point is not to get into the details, which could take weeks just on this, but to open the doors to knowing that these mysteries exist, these fields of archeological decipherment. It’s a fun game!

54--55  Persian decipherment... RawlinsonAnother category to open your minds to is the whole business of decipherment—which requires archeology, decipherment skills that folks use for dealing with codes. And the more ancient nearby languages you know, the better your chances, because deciphering a script requires that you become familiar with the probable language that uses this script. And to repeat, it may well not be the language of what the previous decipherment shows, because there may have been a regime and language change within a couple hundred years.

56   time line,   just to stay oriented

57 Crete and Agean Islands and Hittite

58 Other writing systems in the 2nd millennium:
    Once the idea of writing caught on, early approaches were devised on the islands of Crete and Cyprus, in Anatolia (which is the main body of Turkey) and some parts of Greece. Over the last century decipherment has been progressing. The field of decipherment has its own literature and crosses over with the lecture last summer about codes and decipherment of contemporary codes. Deciphering a language involves many sub-disciplines and overlaps of course with archeology.

59    Map  Crete, linear a & b, no time to review these, Knossos? Did any of you visit that Minoan capital?

Cyprus, againKnowing nearby languages, equivalents, influences—it’s quite the detective challenge.

61 cypriote..
62 hittite stone
63 hittite

64Indus Valley

65   Many books on writing suggest an as-yet undeciphered script that may have operated in a kind of civilization in what is now mainly eastern edge of the west of Pakistan and part of India, the Indus river—from which India and Hinduism got their names. Cities were built there in the era around 2500 years BCE, and many examples of symbolic inscriptions have been found. A colleague wrote recently that further study questions that this is a writing system so much as religious symbol system. So we’ll see. I’m not going to spend too much time on this other than to know that archeology leads to some revision of the lore of history.

 66 China

It’s possible that writing began in China independently, but since it occurred a thousand years later, and a lot can happen in a thousand years, it’s also possible that the idea of representing language in two-dimensional space—that is to say, on some surface—may have been noticed being used by some traders during that time. But Chinese works out of another system.

Some say this was divinely inspired, or the next closest thing, through the oracles. Oracle-reading was widespread in many cultures—not just tea leaves, but the flights of birds, palm-reading, astrology, and so forth.
     Writing was said to have appeared–-according to legend, to a rule about 2000 BCE, but its roots are more likely five hundred years later, where the idea of writing was associated with a kind of oracular problem.

67     The soothsayers would write a question on something like a thin bone or tortoise shell, and then hold it to a fire until it began to crack. The patterns of the crack held a clue to the answer. In later years, one of the oldest texts, the Chinese book of changes, uses a different process, but still was used for divination, and this type of oracle came into interest again with the New Age movement and the resurgence of Jungian psychology.

68   same

69  Here’s where the oracle bones were found on the map of china

70 early ritual bowl

71 In the bowl, early chinese.   It became revised several times over the next thousand years.. More systematized....

72An example of early chinese writing, and then
73, new Chinese  .. Let’s remind ourselves of a few high points in archeology, with spotty archeology opening up in China. I expect in the next few decades, by the way, we will continue to see significant discoveries coming out of China and India, not only in their industrial competition with us, but also deepening scholarship about anthropology, archeology, linguistics, paleontology—they’ve discovered several new dinosaurs in the last few decades— and so forth.

74 Ugaritic.
75   Here’s the Ugaritic alphabet, cuneiform-like letters, but following a sequence of the early semitic abjad—no clear vowels yet, except at the beginning of some words..

76  Here’s an example of Ugaritic, a lawsuit! 

77 recent discoveries

78 sinai early alphabe

79 Back as far as 1800 BCE they’ve begun to find traces of what might be a semitic alphabet. Whether the story of Moses and Exodus was true or a legend built up for centuries, there certainly were elements of instability, invasions of northern tribes into Egypt, a probability of some sub-groups being more enslaved. And there were mines—all in the centuries before and after various estimates of the events alluded to during late Genesis and early Exodus, which is pretty clearly placed in the mid-2nd Millennium BCE.

Some of this research is fairly recent and I didn’t note this last time I gave a class like this.

80   Here are some pictures of these interesting recent findings.

81 Let it be noted that semitic is a language that includes many peoples of the eastern Mediterranean, peoples who would become the Arabs, the Israelites, Canaanites, Moabites, Amorites, and so forth. A clue to this language is the way it uses three letter-combination that can then be modified.

82 moabite stone

83 translations  From the Moabite stone, you can see how these words work. Anoki is similar to saying I in Hebrew even today. Ben - is son of– in Arabic and Hebrew—and various other continued links.

84 phonenicians

85The Phonenicians developed trade. They settled and became the Carthaginians who fought with Rome around the 2nd century before the Common Era. Their language was one of the first lingua francas. Later the Greeks and Etruscans (of Northern Italy) took on some of this new technology, but had to adapt it to their own language.

86, 87 So Cuneiform and Egyptian played off of each other and the pre-alphabet without vowels, also called an “abjad”—emerged... and continues to be workable in Arabic and Hebrew today... but they know they can add vowels to help..

88 You can see the invention is beginning to spread. Think again to the spread of computer-associated technology in our lifetime—in the second half of our lifetime!

89  Thus ends this presentation: Next time, we start with the history of the alphabet and other scripts that emerged from about 800 BCE through about 1400 CE.  I’m ready for questions 2. This lecture will begin with some history: Just as the roman alphabet that we use has housed, so to speak, a whole series of languages starting with Latin, and early English is almost completely foreign and unrecognizable to later speakers of the same language, so too the languages shifted way back. Sumerian, the first civilization with writing, only was dominant for a few hundred years. Since our nation has existed a little more than two hundred years, that’s not to be made light of, but the further back we go, the faster and more compressed history seems to be.

Further Notes:

I mentioned that Sumerian was taken over by Akkadian, which originated in a culture a bit more to the northwest of Sumeria. That kingdom became politically and apparently militarily dominant—and the point is that the language is basically semitic rather than Sumerian. So just as English is sort of a mix of an overlay of Norman French on early Anglo Saxon as of 1066 CE, so too Akkadian was largely this semitic language that kept Sumerian as a holy language, just as the later Catholic church kept latin for its mass, or Jews kept Hebrew for its prayers but not for the language of everyday life—until the birth of Israel— and Muslims keep Arabic as the only language for understanding the Koran, but most speak the languages of their own country in everyday life. Ditto for Sanskrit as a holy language for Indians who may speak many different tongues.  So people can be bilingual in this special way—or at least their priests and scholars can be.

, overwhelmed for a while, because the history of writing overlaps with the history of the countries, the nature of the culture, the religion, the politics, and no way can I boil two thousand or so years at a time to fifty minutes.

But then I thought of the later lectures and realized that lore can move laterally—the point of this series is not details but categories. I was reminded of one of the better pieces of advice I ever got in college—and perhaps it applies to us, too: Talking with a professor about my plans to try to get a liberal education structured around the many requirements of a pre-med curriculum, Prof. Berne, my zoology teacher, said: Take courses not so much for what they will teach you but rather what they will stimulate you to learn on your own.

So today we’ll learn a tiny bit of geography, and other themes, and let me state as a preamble that any one of these categories—the story of archological and linguistic decipherment, the story of trying to pin down when the alphabet itself emerged out of the other writing systems, the stories of how the process started and changed—each could fill a semester or more on their own. Categories: What went into figuring out these stories?

Last week I introduced the topic of writing systems, talked about some general considerations such as pictograms, logograms, phonetics, direction, and such. These will be posted on my website in time.

3. Timeline 2 and today we’ll consider what is entailed in beginning a new invention. In many inventions there are lots and lots of bugs to work out, and whether they be the evolution of computers or alphabets, there are in fact scores of refinements. We’ll also touch on a few other systems that are said to have begun early on, as well as the problem of decipherment.

In fact, we need to cover about two thousand years in 50 minutes so I am forced to edit severely. There are some topics I will touch very lightly on—just enough to say that there are whole lectures or series of lectures on each of the following topics: The story of decipherment of these scripts; the emergence of writing systems in Anatolia, the main body of what is today Turkey —such as the great Hittite kingdoms alluded to indirectly in the Bible... and the civilization in Minos on the isle of Crete—have any of you visited those sites— or related cultures

We’ll go into the era from the time of the flowering of cuneiform and hieroglyphics to around 900 BCE, when the pre-alphabet was starting to spread. In the next session we’ll travel quickly from the emergence of the alphabet in Greece and Rome through the establishment of printing in Europe. That took another twenty-five hundred years. Following that was a period in which missionaries or people in the tribes themselves started making up alphabets for previously non-literate people, or improving their writing systems, and developing other variations. Other topics will be woven in.

  Pre-writing-pictographic plus accounting commercially
  Early picture-sound writing
 Increasingly more phoneme signs as relevant and less picture
 Close to pure phono-graphy, the letters or signs  having little logo- or picto-graphic value
 Branching off codes, musical notation, mathematical operations, religious symbols, etc.
 Developing calligraphy, making writing more artistic, and printing too
 Related developments and technologies, printing, graphic design, illustration, developing a bit more science in evaluating the teaching and learning of reading and writing—two different procedures—. Books, libraries, dictionaries, the thesarus, bibliographies, hypertext, reference systems, publication guides, books about books and reading and libraries etc., librarianship as a profession, parallel developments in papermaking, ink, other implements and stuff to make marks with, neon light design, tattoos, charts, maps, taxonomies, etc.

What I’m trying to communicate again is the inter-disciplinary quality of writing. In Egypt it quickly developed as a form of art. Elements of balance and actual picture were part of the murals and inscriptions in stone. Color was important back then, too. I want to emphasize that writing is more than a matter of linguistics!

In the 3rd lecture we begin to consider the matter of spacing the words.

But the idea that there are such things as words is something that we should not take for granted. Talk, after all, is a continuous flow, and the breaking it up into words on one hand can make language more understandable in a certain way, but on the other hand one must also begin to recognize that words have contexts, different ways of pronunciation. More later.
 that have their own meaning rather than the meaning being embedded in a continuous flow of talk. The acrophonic principle, the sound a for apple, would become more pronounced in the second thousand years and the emergence at the end of this time, in the 2nd millennium before the common era, of the idea of an alphabet.

Writing during this time was either on muddy-clay surfaces that would be baked, etched on rocks, or etched in decorative stone—on the walls and obelisks of many early-kingdom Egyptian rules and other writings.

(The culture of Egypt can fill many classes, but regarding writing systems, the newest information that’s been emerging is that there’s evidence that the alphabet may have emerged not from the cuneiform, but rather from the Egyptian side of the two pronged development. The letters associated with the early Egyptian words became associated with the letters that would eventually become the Phoenician alphabet.
    Alphabet is a word that comes from the pairing of the two first words in the Hebrew and otherwise semitic script, a and b, aleph and bet, ox and house. )

Although we’ll be doing some history here, we can’t begin to do justice to the material in detail. Rather, what I’m trying to do is not go into much depth, but mainly to let you know the categories associated with scriptology. Last week I touched on the purposes of writing, on phonetics, directionality of writing, and then began to talk about the history. There, too, there are overlapping fields—archeology, media studies, what’s involved in the role of a scribe when the system is complex—and the better to appreciate moves that make a system simpler. A modern day example is the shift from program-code-based computing to the GUI, the gooey, the graphics-user-interface, the use of little icons to represent whole series of complex code, such as using the garbage can for a delete. Since Apple, who started it, along with Xerox, Microsoft has become more associated with the “windows”-like system, and other systems have included these features. What windows was to the DOS code-based system in the 1960s, the alphabet was to cuneiform.
     So from 2800 BCE when our story continues—I gave the earlier story last week—what we’re looking at is the way people took a medium and realized that you could do more with it than simple accounting. You could use it for religious propaganda and myth-building, tell hero stories and the stories of the gods and their adventures. You could tie that to the divine rights of kings and political heroes, and also talk on big inscriptions how your side is great, your king is great.

And the writing itself evolves, just as it did in the following two thousand years and the two thousand years after that. It evolves as language evolves in many ways.

At first the writing was pictographic. Then it became logographic. Let’s talk about how that happened.

The acrophonic principle: A is for apple. So if you don’t have alphabets yet and everything is sort of a pictograph and you need to make a word that doesn’t have a picture—it’s too complex or subtle for a picture—so you use the word. But how do you write it? Well, the word is, say, abstract. Starts with an a   and you don’t have an a picture, but you have an apple, so you write the word as a combination of a - and some other sound for a bsa sound, or bstr   so you show a bistro umbrella or something and a theatre stage with an arrow for act...

It sort of overlaps with the rebus principle.


What may have been be one of the last cases of smallpox.
Polio immunization in India.