The Lore of Scriptology

Lecture 3: Middle History of Writing 800 BCE - 1400 CE
(Including Developments in India, Central America)
AdamBlatner, M.D.

3/10/11  Given as part of Senior University Georgetown's pre-Springtime  2011 program.
       1.  Introduction              2a. Very Early History (3300 - 1900 BCE);                 2b. Early History (2000 - 900 BCE).       3. This is Lecture 3         4. Other Developments (Calligraphy, etc.)           5: Invented Writing Systems                  6a.   Codes and Playing With Alphabets.    6b>  Summary       

In the first session I gave an overview of some of the aspects of writing and noted that most of our systems originated in the middle east. In the second session I described some highlights in the first two thousand years of its development, in the Middle East and over into China.

    Now we reach the point in the time-line when the alphabet has begun to be used and rising toward the top (the future), this root form branches into the Indic, the Aramaic, the Canaanite- Phoenician (on the left) giving rise to Greek, Etruscan, and Latin and spin-offs from those. What was to become the alphabet emerged from from the ideographs and logograms of cuneiform in Iraq and hieroglyphics in Egypt. (The Chinese wriing system arose separtely around this 2nd millennium BCE). At first it was an abjad, a sort of alphabet without the alpha or vowel sounds..

Some Timeline Dates:

On the right is another way to view this map. The time line is as follows:
- 1700s BCE earliest pre-alphabetic writing emerging from Egypt
- 1300s BCE  quasi-alphabetic cuneiform script in Ugarit, north Syria
- 1361 - 1352 BCE  King Tut  (Tut-ankh-amun) reigns.
- c. 1285 BCE  Battle of Kadesh: Rameses II versus Hittites
- 1200 BCE Oracle Bone inscriptions in Early Chinese
- 1000 BCE Phoenician alphabetic inscriptions begin
- 730 BCE Greek alphabetic inscriptions begin
- 730 BCE Etruscan alphabet begins
- 650 BCE  Demotic inscriptions, derived from Heiratic, derived from Hieroglyphics, in Egypt
- 600 BCE  first glyphic inscriptions found in MesoAmerica.

Language Also Evolving

Before we go on, note that writing is co-evolving---though not too closely linked---with language. For example, many of the languages of Europe have an "Indo-European" root language that may have been spoken perhaps 2400 - 3500 years before the common era, and migrations brought those languages West and also South-East---so that Sanskrit was brought by the Aryans to Northern India at least 1400 BCE. Many languages developed that had no writing systems to begin with. The Semitic languages had a different root or way the words were organized. Writing from these languages were pushed aside as writing as a tool was made to work for the Indo-European languages. (Sanskrit is off to the right in Blue, off of the Indic).

Continuations of Cuneiform and Egyptian

It should be noted that cuneiform continued as a major official language during the first millenium before the common era, for the Assyrian empire, then the neo-Babylonians, then the Persians. Some inscriptions continued to the beginning of the common era. The emperor of Assyria, Ashurbanipal, made an effort to establish one of the first comprehensive libraries around 668-630 BCE. This picture to the right is of an inscribed clay tablet from a much older era that again, in ancient Akkadian, retells the Epic of Gilgamesh mentioned in the previous lecture---and offers one of the more complete versions.

Neverthless, cuneiform writing continued to evolve through many further generations. It branched and evolved as in the second and third pictures..especially in the period of 1000 -300 BCE. .


Cuneiform, for example, continued to branch and evolve. Over this period, kingdoms rose and fell, and around the 4th century, the Hellenistic empire expanded into Europe under Alexander the Great, following which the rulers of that country kept its Egyptian religious tradition, but also linked to the Greek. They developed simpler letters, including a kind of cursive writing. This is important when it comes to the stories of decipherment that follow.


The great empires of Persia followed the empires of Neo-Babylonia and Assyria (mentioned above), and these empires (but not their predecessors) were mentioned by the ancient Greeks. (Western civilization forgot that these earlier empires existed other than as shadows, near-lengends.) Under the Persian empire, Aramaic, a spin-off of the Phoenician, became a common language for business for the next seven or more centuries, until Greek begain to take that role (very gradually) following the conquests of Alexander the Great in the middle-East; and then around the period of 100 BCE to 800 CE and beyond, Latin. Latin began to take that role in the West and Greek in the EastThese kingdoms rose and fall in this period---eventful times that deserve to be noted for various developments. Elements of the Sumerian-Akkadian culture continued to be mythic sources. Around 680, King Ashurbanipal of Assyria sought to develop the first international library, integrating materials from many countries, and resources from the past. But cuneiform Persian was the kingly and religious language of the Persian Empire for around 500 - 300 BCE, and the decipherment of Persian Hieroglyphics opened up the way to decipherment of earlier forms of cuneiform. Remember that cuneiform became more phonemic as well as ideographic over time, but a given writing system can be used for many different languages, languages not always related in linguistic roots!


Figuring out what these ancient signs meant is a whole sub-chapter in this story---far too broad to give a detailed description. There were three major breakthroughs, and others built on them. First there was the "Rosetta Stone," (shown on the right) which you may have heard alluded to---sort of as a literary allusion: The actual stone was found by Napoleon's troops in Egypt and offered some clues that were finally figured out by a young man name Jean Francois Champollion (shown at left).  The stone has an inscription in three parts---and with some clever work, the keys may be found. On the top are hieroglyphics. Below that is a kind of semi-cursive Egyptian writing called "hieratic." And below that the letters are Greek! So the clues were there. On the left below, the hieroglyphic and its edge with hieratic; in the middle, the hieratic and its edge with Greek. On the right are some of the clues---because by this time the signs were also sound-symbols, "phonemes"


Before that time, Egyptian hieroglyphics were imagined to be highly symbolic ideographs. People had all sorts of mystical interpretations of them---the idea that they could stand for the sounds of one or two letters was not considered---but later hieroglyphics worked this way and made it easier for other archeologists to begin to decipher earlier texts.

11 Not only was the writing evolving, but languages were evolving, changing. Many of these languages were evolving in the millennia before the Common era and it’s not easy to trace, but most at that time did not have any writing... at least not to begin with...

12.  So from Phoenicia through early and classical greek to latin to Classical Latin, that’ll be the next series of slides...

13. Begin with Greek

14  I mentioned the isles of Crete and Cyprus and the ancient writing systems of Linear A and B on Crete— and how it related to really early Greek – and then there was Homer, the author of the Iliad and Odessy, if he ever existed as an actual person—he may have been a composite legendary figure, like Hippocrates, the father of medicine, or Thoth, the inventor of the Egyptian Hieroglyphs and the legendary inventor of writing itself.. Though that isn’t we have noted...

15, also know that the classical Greek didn’t really become somewhat national until after the Persian wars around 485 AD. Before that many different islands and city-states and colonies established on the Southwestern coast of Anatolia (which is now the big body of most of Turkey), all had slightly different forms of Greek. Both language and writing tends to develop dialects and differences in the years before there was printing and enough international organization to begin to promote standardization.

16. Persia still used cuneiform, though it had evolved. This writing system covered many different cultures.  There were by that time the early Aramaic scripts in use and becoming the actual lingua franca of the Persian Empire, and would do so for another several hundred years; Jesus probably spoke Aramaic. It was sort of like English is.. A language known by the intellectuals so they can travel or correspond among different countries..

17,. This is more in the mid Greek period, and there was teaching

18. Another part of that bowl   the were also writing not on stone, but on wax..

19. Throughout this time other languages were branching off, into Arabia and Africa— we’ll focus on Greek and Latin, but also acknowledge India

20, in the first lecture I mentioned that directionality hadn’t been established. There were no editorial boards or style books. Did you know there are scores of books on how to write clearly, punctuate, make reference lists. What’s interesting is that there are still many differences and little things being worked out, such as whether punctuation should happen within our outside of quotation marks...
    Anyway, early greek might go left to right as we know it, but also boustrophedon..
But it changed by 400 BCE   historically, CE instead of AD and BC Before Christ, out of a need to relate to scholars who weren’t Christian, it became the Common Era. That this calendrical standard emerged required that concession, instead of allowing all the different cultural calendars to be used—but calendars themselves could be a topic for a lecture or more.
    But note that words were not yet separated!  So you had to read out loud!

21 an example of Boustrophedon

22 in the following centuries the writing was tighter on stone inscriptions, but brushes and ink allowed curves to enter the letters.

23. I’ll be going away from pure history regularly because the whole point of scriptology is that we appreciate the interconnections of technologies.
     The computer was liberated in many ways by developments in not only transistors, but also in cathode-ray-tube technology—the simplicity or not of screens, which have advanced from big bulky heavy things to lightweight systems. Similarly, the appearance of scripts was affected by the main way they could be expressed, and this spoke to the surface, the ink, and the implement and their interplay.

    Again, I can’t begin to fully teach you about all this stuff—my goal is simply to open your mind to categories, to stimulate you to learn on your own...

24. The modern Hebrew script didn’t really form till a century or so before the Common Era. Before that it was more blended with Aramaic and phoenician.

25 Etruscan

26 Italy was full of a bunch of different tribes with slight to moderate variations of language. The Greeks had colonized a number of costal areas, set up cities, trade.
     North of the Romans—who weren’t really a civilization to speak of in the 6th century, were the Etruscans, a lively culture. Probably much of Roman culture derived from it as much as, say, American culture derived from Europe, or at least England.
27 map language here’s etruscan

28 picture Trajan’s column...  Lots of history, the early Roman empire, advancing through battles and diplomacy to take over all of Italy, and then broaden to a vast empire as big as the Persian, but mainly around the Mediterranean .. 400 bc -300 ad at its height, and at its height, the alphabet became beautiful.

29 This style begins the process of a lot of people working to make a script beautiful, the beginnings of calligraphy on a widespread level...

30 and there were many refinements during this era, although the dots between words didn’t really happen that much, but it did begin things. There was a great deal of importation of advances in Greek intellectual culture, sort of the way in the early 20th century that Europe was a source of sophistication and class for American high society...

31 Archaic was the Greek word, for archon, old... and reed writing in Egypt and later, brushes, so cursive and other materials to write more easily with. That clear clean writing in all capitals was only for inscriptions or more recently, comic books!

32 But the point is that everything was upper case, in all capitals, also called majiscules... even the relatively cursive..

33 But the need to write letters, made it more practical to write legibly but not too elaborately, or people couldn’t take dictation. When I talk about shorthand in a later lecture I’ll mention this again... There are so many aspects of what goes into reading and writing..

34 another roman letter...

35   The history of writing implements is another whole topic. Petroski wrote a thick book about the history of what we call the pencil, fueled by graphite and clay, improved, but only invented in fact in the last few hundred years!

36 wax stylus and quill: about writing implements again..

37 But the Roman writing system continued to evolve, as parchment or paper or papyrus was used. Lots of papyrus...

38. But the beginning of half-uncial, what we call smaller letters, lower-case, was starting to emerge in monastic scriptures, and other writing...

39 this was a rough time, some folks wrote, in monasteries, lots of civilization broke down while gangsters, the Goths, the Vandals, who did vandalize—though some of them established reather stable nation-states for periods of time– and most vandals and goths just took what they could as a matter of spoils of war, which the Romans and Greeks had done for a millennium before them... They were just less organized about it...

40 Let’s remind ourselves of the story of paper., and other writing surfaces...

41.. Before papyrus, there was stones, and marking on clay and pots, but pigment and pots didn’t work well together. Papyrus was paper-like, but came from the cores of rushes..

42, big grass that grew all around the nile. They found that you could slice it and make it into paper if you glued and pounded it and glued the sheets together into roles, and this they did for a thousand or more years...

43, parchment–the word came from the northern anatolian province of pergamon— couldn’t get papyrus for a time, so worked out a way of tanning and stretching and taking the hair and superficial skin off of a hide—calves and sheep were best— and cutting these...

44. During the dark ages and when the Muslims made it hard and expensive to get papyrus, parchment was increasingly used, and the techniques refined. Vellum is parchment from embryonic sheep. Even better. And it holds up much better than papyrus, so it became dominant; but it was still time-consuming and expensive to make.

45. Meanwhile, in China. You know, I grew up in a very ethnocentric, eurocentric world, the enlightened world. I still don’t know if most kids in America really get that it was the Chinese and Koreans who invented printing and gunpowder and cannons and paper, and many other things! Or that the South Asian Indians have a sophisticated theology and philosophy that would make most Europeans sweat with admiration and mind-boggling sophistication. But they didn’t have the weapons for a few centuries so we thought them backwards. Whew.

46 To summarize a long story—remember, the point of this lecture is to turn you on, as the Beatles sang, I’d love to turn you onnnnn... to someday reading more about the history of paper, how it spread very gradually, how to make it, how to refine it..   It took hundreds of years to get to Afghanistan, and

47 and a couple hundred to get to Cairo and Damascus...

48 and the commerce around the crusades and with the venetian and genoan and jewis traffic brought it to the outskirst of Europe. It made its way through Muslim Spain and Sicily gradually into Europe. Really there wasn’t much paper used until around printing, which really needed paper rather than parchment..  But as for making paper, that took longer..

49 These folks at the Fabriano factory in Eastern Italy were known for their quality. There was a free market and competition. Business was happening in the 14th century...

50 While in Asia some other paper-like substances were also used, bamboo, palm wood..

51 need to shift briefly to note that something like writing was happeneing during this time in Central America, southern Mexico, northern Guatemala,

52 map  and there’s no evidence that these had any influence from the middle east. The system grew slowly... and probably allowed for bureacracy and taxes and city-state organization over the following centuries, because that’s what it did in MesoPotamia...

53.. Gradually cities grew up that you read about, with impressive temples, which though superficially resembling the temples in Sumeria, were just a way to build something high—i.e. pyramids, before steel reinforcement.

54 as for the earlier scripts, they’re still working on decipherment!

55 but it was a rich culture, and fancy costumes

56, these are some of the earlier glyphs

57 Mayan became more complex starting around 200 bc, peaking around 700 AD, and then sort of dying out as the civilization mysteriously collapsed..

58 It was a very weird culture, complex, blood sacrifice, myth was thick, every day had its own auspicious and ominous possibilities.. Calendar figurations were big, and again there could be several classes just about Mayan culture—but the point to note is that major breakthroughs in decipherment have happened only in the last forty years!

59 I attended some lectures given by one of the foremost authorities at our own university of Texas in the 1980s and found the art fascinating! The culture too, but the art enriched my cartooning style...

60.. So we’ll just wrap it up, I edited out a number of slides—had to— but there was some remainders during the spanish conquest, though since it was heathen, most of it was destroyed...

61, I need to acknowledge and haven’t time to go into the evolution of many other alphabets during this time of 700 Bce to 1300 CE... other than to say lots of branchings and developments..

63: Runes & Ogham: In Northen Europe there were some alphabet-like systems called runes.

64  There are some tarot card systems based on these, sort of exotic. 

65 this is a casket cover in France.. Dated around 700 AD

66. Tolkien, who wrote Lord of the Rings and Hobbit, was a scholar of languages, and made up stories to go with his made up languages and writing systems, including is own made up rune-like script. I’ll show you others later.

67 Ogham is sort of like runes, some scattered in Ireland, Wales and Scotland more pict-ish and pre-roman, but found in 2nd to 7th century there. The thing about ogham and runes is that they clearly weren’t part of the general population, but more for insciptions, or name badges..

68. Let’s now shift from The West, including the Americas, to South and Southeast Asia.. at least beginning with India

69, Probably, as I said about how Egypt and China may have gotten the idea, there are spreads of definite forms, as throughout the Middle East with Cuneiform or Europe with the Roman Alphabet, and then there’s just getting the idea that writing can be done.

 70 It seems that Akosha, a king of India around 250 BC thought a more efficient writing system might be good for his empire.

71 Akosha’s realm

72   Brahmi 1   Perhaps there were writing systems, but there’s not much evidence for them. He constructed a relatively simple and rational system or two, Karosthri (which died out) and Brahmi, which caught on.

73 Brahmi 2 It was a system that continues today, the base sign and little marks to suggest the vowel, so it’s more of a syllabary, but simpler...

74 But over the centuries, the writing system evolved and diverged into dialects as empires rise and fell and smaller kingdoms worked out their own language forms..   Languages were also diverging in south asia just as they did in Europe, so that there was from Latin French, Italian, Sicilian, Spanish, and sort -of -mixed-with English, etc.

74 another view of the evolution of the south indian dominant writing system called devanagiri... which best expresses the dialect of Hindi

77 It’s a kick to write these alphabets. The other thing is that word order has some rationale to it, working from the back of the throat forward, comparing the silent and sounded letters, it’s the closest thing to the international phonetic alphabet in some ways...

 78 tree spread and just like Greek and Roman became used and adapted for all sorts of related alphabets, from Russian to Swedish, so too the Indian systems spread gradually through out other countries in South Asia... possibly also with the spread of Buddhism and Hinduism

79 map  Not as if devanagiri is all of India, there are variations! This is one reason English is becoming an important second language.

80 Another tracing of the evolution.. This will not be on the test!

81 but you can see the relationships of Ta in different parts of southeast asia. Khmer is camodia..

82.. Map

83 map of related scripts,

84, enough of that and to note but not to cover the way writing systems evolved in Persia, Mongolia, other countries

85 Tibetan
86 what it looks like
87 other southeast asian
88 Laos, Cambodia
89, Similar to Devanagiri, there is a holy script called Sanskrit, an ancient languag

90 but to return to Roman Script and Europe..

91 copy and illuminating

92 art in manuscripts, in initials. Notice the art, writing and art, another aspect of calligraphy
93, the art of celtic scrolls in Ireland’s monasteries reached a peak of beauty
   What can happen if there’s no television

94 but the dark ages were dark, non-separated words, then separating, and starting new sentences with larger letters..

95 splitting off in different ways, but less unfamiliar..

96 Time Line


In the 700s, a king of France arose, Charles the Great (also known as Charlemagne), who took on the mantle of the "Holy Roman Emperor" and managed to expand his kingdom into western Germany and northern Italy---neither of which were nations at the time, but regions. Charlemagne also sought to bring other benefits of culture to his people for administrative as well as humanitarian motives, and one of these sought some standardization of the many writng styles practiced in this kingdom. To this end around 781 CE., Charlemagne sent for Alcuin, a scholar-monk from Yorkshire in Britain.

Alcuin introduced a number of refinements to writing:  (1) a more unified script---now called Carolingian minsicule---the name for Carolus---the Latin name for Charles; (2) the monks in the scriptoria were to leave spaces between words (!); (3) divide phrases into sentences; (4) add punctuation; (5) bunch sentences into paragraphs that are clearly separate from one another. All this made writing far more readable---i.e., "legibility." These also occurred around the time of a shift from reading out loud to reading silently to oneself---a shift that took centuries.
Copying Manuscripts
Even with these changes, the copying of manuscripts was difficult and had become a definite craft. "The copyist should be given an ink qull, quill pens, chalk, two pumice stones, two horns, a small knife, two razors for scraping the parchment, one ordinary stylus and one finer one, a lead pencil, a ruler, some writing tablets, and a stylet."

There was
101 The job of manuscript copying was tough, a complex art. Not much time for composing or thinking of new ideas...

102 but again the writing forms evolved further to fit smooth letter -writing, copying

103 and slight variations in script cursive...
   A constant struggle for elegance, individuality, and standardization

104 Map of big picture


c! . The 5 Writing can be signs for head or deer or toilent—semiasography
      Or lexigraphy, signs for words, and that can translate for signs for words that don’t have sounds, like the dollar sign, or phonography, which means writing the sounds; and that can then be represented as syllables, as in Japanese or Cherokee or other writing systems, or the even more efficient alphabet...

6. Here’s a mixture of semiasography that blurs into phonography, blurring some sounds, like udder for other...

7   We can only touch on some alphabet systems; it would take several full school semesters to address all of them. See google writing systems, there are thousands of websites about this now.

8. It branches, like the history of all sorts of things from art to comic books to trees of different types of life

9. It began with the phoenician forming over hundreds of years from a type of hieroglyphic egyptian—we touched on that last time...

10 Timeline    and we’ll move gradually towards how it evolved, touching on some related lore..
    We’ll note how it came to be in Greek, in India, even in Meso-America, and talk also about how paper came to be used...


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