The Lore of Scriptology

Lecture 2a: The Beginnings of Writing
in Mesopotamia and Egypt

Adam Blatner, M.D.

Posted March, 2011):     Given as part of Senior University Georgetown's pre-Springtime  2011 program.
   (This was the second part of the first lecture and the first part of the second lecture)         Lecture 1: an introduction and overview, with preliminary comments);    This is Lecture 2a: from about 3200 - 1900 BCE.         Lecture2b is  The Early History of Writing  from about 2200 BCE to around 900 BCE          3. Mid-History of Writing  from about 900 BCE to about 1400 CE .    4. Further Developments and Aspects.          5: Invented Writing Systems (e.g., Korean, Cherokee, etc.)            6a.  Codes and Writing as Play.       6b. Summary

Note also, written several years earlier, an overall introduction to Scriptology elsewhere on my website, along with further comments,
    and also on its own web-page, a rather full bibliography of books related to Scriptology.

Except for Mayan and Aztec, most writing began in the middle East. There’s still an argument as to whether China evolved its own approach

. More likely, travelers and commerce brought the idea of writing to the Far east over the thousand or more years that the middle East had it and not China. Yet China in the mid-2nd millennium BCE (around 1800 - 1100 BCE) did work out its own system, as did the civilizations of the Hittites in Anatolia (now Eastern Turkey) and the Mediterranean Sea islands of Crete and Cyprus. They probably realized that writing was a useful tool but also one that had to be adapted to their own language. Note in the table to the right that there have been thousands of years that writing has been happening---and all this was lost to history until the last few hundred years! Nobody could decipher the ancient scripts, nor did anyone have any idea how old they were. The poem Ozymandias, by Percy Bysse Shelly, written in 1818, was also when Europeans were still fairly new to the archeological riches of Egypt and the Middle East. Reports had been coming back from Napoleon's campaign there. It was all exotic and mysterious. A traveler comes upon on a statue in the stand and contemplates its significance. Much of the decipherment that elucidated the mysteries of Egyptian and other statutes happened in the following decades, as will be noted in the next lecture. (It should be noted that the process of addressing other writings continues today.)

This idea that writing was possible and also useful for reliable accounting and the bureaucratic management of religious and political organizations passed soon to Egypt---which also devised its own separate writing system, once it realized that it might be possible to capture language in two-dimensional space.


The earliest city-states of which we have any evidence were built in an area that is now southeastern Iraq. The Greeks called it the land between the two rivers---the Tigris and Euphrates---"Mesopotamia." (Meso---between; pot---as in pot, potable, hippopotamus---horse-river.) The civilization that first appeared was a people called the Sumerians. They didn't speak a semitic language, but something else. This  civilization, Sumer, consisted of a number of citiy-states that traded and sometimes made war among one another. Writing seems to have evolved from trade as a form of accounting.

On the map to the left, you might imagine a kind of crescent-shaped region arising along the Mesopotamian region, reaching up through Syria and down again through Lebanon, Palestine, and into Egypt. This region was more fertile, had more trees in the centuries before the tree-cutting depredations of civilizations in the recent millennia---especially in the last five hundred years under the Ottoman Empire. Historians of this region called it the "fertile crescent."  Much of the emergence of civilization in the pre-Greek and Roman era---and also the political processes of empire-building, happene in this region. (The middle empty area is the north Arabian desert.)

The next two pictures were drawn by Larry Gonick, a cartoonist who wrote a four-volume History of the World---worth ordering and getting!---and these two pages are so effective in communicating a number of important elements that I am showing them here:
      These maps show some of the first organized city states. This ancient civilization organized an irrigation system that involved vast underground channels---now being re-discovered by archeologists. Tigris river on top, Euprhates on the bottom. Writing made bureaucracy possible, taxes, uses of wheeled carts, state-organized religions, and so forth. The Sumerians also built large step-pyramids.

These temples may have been the origin of the legendary Tower of Babel. Below left is picture of what archeologists imagined the Temple of the Moon Goddes in Ur may have looked like, dated around 2200 BCE: l illustrates above, this picture of a large temple unearthed in what was then Ur, a moon-goddess temple, around 2200 BCE.

There were a number of these large temples scattered around that region, many l of which have not yet been explored by archeologists. Covered by the dust of millennia, they looked like big hills in the middle of an otherwise flat region. They're called "tell" in Arabic. Digging into them often produced lots of stuff. There are still hundreds of tells unexplored in the Fertile Crescent area.

It Began With Trade

Before the establishment of writing and the city states, however, there were smaller communities and trade---and this went on for at least a thousand years. To ensure honesty, they needed a method of accounting.

.So they used tokens to represent various products, animals, foodstuffs, beer, etc.

I guess it was a crude way of ensuring honesty

 On the upper right you see how writing evolved, first from crude pictures of various objects--- "ideographs"--- and then these were replicated as a series of impressions on mud surfaces (that hardened to be a firm record.)

Cuneiform means wedge-shaped, and that's how a more consistent system was developed. (Drawings could be very variable, depending on the skill of the accountant-artists, so a more standard set of impressions was evolved.

Over the years in China, too, more picture-like figures become more abstract, a set of lines or triangle-shaped impressions.

 Here are some more pictures that illustrate this early process.

So, to restate:  It began with tokens and pictograms and these evolved in their forms.

 To the right shows this progress of stylization, similar to what we'll be seeing with the evolution of other alphabets or writing systems later. (Further evolution of cuneiform will be noted in the next webpage about events in the mid-early period of around 2000 - 1000 BCE.

The Akkadians

Around  2400 BCE the Sumerians were conquered by a semitic-language-speaking people called the Akkadians or the kingdom of Agade. Apparently they absorbed the Sumerian religion the way the Romans picked up on the Greek gods a bit more than two thousand years later. Sumerian became a sacred language for rituals, like Hebrew did around 3-400 BCE (most people living in that area for several hundred years spoke Aramaic in everyday life, as did Yeshua---i.e., Jesus), or Latin in the Middle Ages. Cuneiform continued to evolve and become more stylized, in part as it began to be used to express another language. This pattern of a root writing system picking up other languages is repeated many times in many countries over the years.


Another start-up of writing began in Egypt around the same time. Although the majority think the idea came from Sumeria, there are some who wonder if it might not have begun in Egypt and spread the other way up and around the fertile crescent. At any rate, within a century or so, another form of pre-hieroglyphic writings have been found in Egypt and decipherment and archeology continues. Within a few hundred years, though, a more elegant type of early writing begain, and research continues to explicate this rich culture.

 The hieroglyphs kept their form for the most part for a thousand years, more stable by far than most writing systems! (look at

Near the end of this period, the beginning of a cursive form, Heiratic, begins:

the figure on the left from the bottom upward: There is some simplification of some figures, while others become more elaborate!

These figures were often colored and should be viewed not only as words, but equally as art, with composition, impact, elegance of form, and other elements also considered.
Egyptology is a vast subject, and the function of writing as an element in this early civilization should not be underestimated. It must suffice to note that this field exists and merits your attention. We might also say, though, that the writing system evolved  from early ideograms to increasingly using the mixture of ideograms and the rebus principle, or the acrophonic principle. Being a scribe meant that one was trained to read and write using a variety of cues. This is also true today, though less so, considering in English the variations of spelling that must be compensated for by syntax and context.

The Rebus Principle

To    be      oar       knot      two     be

Early writing often started with signs looking like what they stood for---the sign for snake was a snake. But some words didn't have clear objects they referred to, so parts of the words were used---usually the beginning. Another word that started with "sn" might begin with the sign of a snake but also be combined with other symbols. This is called the "rebus" principle, "re" being Latin for thing: So you might have a rebus that looks like the one ones on the left. Today it's kind of a kid's game, but that's all they had in those pre-alphabetic days.

(In the next webpage, we'll talk about how the alphabet gradually emerged).
One of the tricks they used was the technique of the "determinative," a name for indicating what class of  things are related to the word being used. Was it a religious idea, or one connected with food. Sort of "gimme a hint, here, what category are we talking about." On the right are some examples of ancient Egyption hieroglyphs that serve as "determinatives.

There was also a sort of Egyptian "alphabet" in that certan

terms were used according to their acrophonic principle. That's the "A" for apple, B for Ball, C for cat kind of thinking.

The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Great Flood

We'll wrap up this webpage by noting that by 2600 BCE the Sumerians had been using writing for a variety of purposes, one of which is to record the mythology---and just like Ancient Greece had its stories of Hercules, so two thousand years earlier there was another superstar whose fame lasted for millennia. His
name was Gilgamesh and the story of this guy is rich. He was a king of Uruk (see above---one of the first of the Sumerian city-states---, who went in search of immortality, and the epic tells of his encounters with Enkidu, a mountain-hairy-guy with whom he wrestled and ended up befriending. Stuff like that---the Superman of that era.

In  one episode, Gilgamesh encounters this old guy named Utna-Pishtim. (I don't know---that's the best some archeologists and linguists could to to figure out how to pronounce those syllables.) Utna-Pishtim tells the story within the story of how he did something sort of like Noah! There was this big ol' worldwide

flood and how he built a big ol' boat that ended up on the top of a hill as the waters receded. Of course the fact that a remarkably similar Bible story that emerged more than a thousand years later had similar themes may have just been a coincidence. There was even some flurry of excitement and controversy when George Smith in 1872 at the British Museum deciphered these rocks taken from archeological digs from Iraq and found this story. (The story of this discovery, who the people involved were, etc., itself makes for a book in the Austin Public Library.)  This picture on the left is about the flood story, from Smith's 1875 book, The Chaldean Account of

Genesis.  Later digs also discovered similar passages---the story was widespread in the Middle East through the Persian empire in the 7th century BCE!

Moving on to the History of Writing in the Second Millennium BCE
(2000-900 BCE)