The Development of Ancient Systems of Writing in Iraq and Egypt
Ancient systems of writing in the Middle East arose when people needed a method for remembering important information. In both Ancient Iraq and Ancient Egypt each of the stages of writing, from pictograms to ideograms to phonetograms, evolved as a response to the need to express more complex ideas. Satisfaction of this need gave us the two most famous forms of ancient writing, cuneiform from ancient Iraq, and hieroglyphics from ancient Egypt. Both of these forms of writing evolved and their use spread to other peoples even after the originators of the scripts had passed on.
Some of the oldest writing found in the Middle East dates from 8000 to 3000 B.C. This corresponds to the approximate time period that the people of the region went from living a nomadic life to settlement in villages and trading among themselves. When trading large or varying types of commodities you need a method for recording. To meet this need developed a token system for the recording of financial data. These tokens were of varying shapes for various things, two to three centimetres in size, and used for enumeration and keeping track of goods and labour. These tokens eventually had to be stored so they wouldn’t be misplaced or lost. To secure them, they were placed in opaque clay envelopes. To indicate what was inside the envelope markings were made on it, eventually someone realized that all you had to do was mark on the clay what was in the envelope and you discard the tokens altogether. With this major development we get the first writing on clay tablets.
In Ancient Mesopotamia the most readily available material for writing on was clay. When writing on clay first arose, the scribe would try to make an artistic representation of what he was referring to. This is a logical first step in writing as if you wanted to record that you had three sheep, you would draw a picture of a sheep and then add to the picture some marking to indicate that you had three of them. Thus the earliest stage in writing arose, pictograms.
Pictograms, although not really writing in the modern sense of the term, do represent a method of communicating an event or message. They also “led to true writing through a process of selection and organization.” As people wanted to write more down and in a faster method, the pictograms lost their artistic look and took on a more “stylised representation of an object by making a
few marks in the clay” The writing was eventually written in “horizontal lines rather than in squares or in vertical bands . . . became smaller, more compact, more rigid, more ‘abstract’, finally bearing no resemblance to the objects they represented . . . .”
The next stage in the development of ancient writing was when the scribes wished to write more complex ideas down. In time a sign that had represented a tangible object, came to represent some word or thing. For example, the symbol representing the sun eventually represented over seventy different words. This caused some confusion as the reader could not be certain what the writer was using the symbol for.
A solution to this problem was the introduction of a method to indicate what the symbol represented. These new symbols were called determinative. For example, the Sumerians placed a symbol in front of, or sometimes behind, the word sign to give the reader an indication of how to interpret it. The sign for plow could have the sign for wood in front of it, this meant that the symbol for plow meant the tool, if there was a symbol of a man in front, the symbol for plow would be interpreted as plowman.
The most advanced stage of development was the phonetogram. A phonetogram is a symbol that represented the pronunciation of part of a word. Phonetograms developed from symbols for words that sounded like the syllables of other words. For example you could have the symbol “4” and “C” in modern writing go together to make the symbol 4C, which would represent four seas, but if you added the determinative ‘ to make it 4’C’ it could be read as the word “foresee”. Thus a transition from pictographic to phonetographic. With this, you could adapt a script to write the sounds of any word from any language.
In Ancient Mesopotamia these three stages in writing can be found in cuneiform. Cuneiform (Latin for ‘wedge’) writing is made on clay with the end of a wooden or reed stylus. The impression made by the stylus left a mark in the clay that resembled a wedge, hence the name cuneiform applied to the script. Originally the script was written on small clay tablets and read from top to bottom. When the scribes began to use larger blocks of clay, it became necessary for them to shift the position of the tablet in their left hand, thus rotating the script 90 degrees. (See Fig.
The use of cuneiform is seen in documents as far back as 3000 BC up to about the first century AD when astronomers still used the script. Of the documents found, more that 75% of the 150,000 are of an economic nature. This includes legal documents, text relating to sale and purchase, census and tax returns, and several other types of documents relating to matters of trade and commerce. The very number of documents found relating to economic activity shows that the script developed to satisfy the need to record these economic activities.
Cuneiform evolved from a pictographic form to idiographic and finally to a phonetographic form. It is in the final form that the script was adopted by other people in the region. When the Akkadians conquered Sumer they adopted the cuneiform writing system for their own language. First attempts at using the cuneiform script for writing Akkadian started sometime during the third millennium but wasn’t used extensively till the reign of Sargon I, then Akkadian was written till about 100AD.
With the adaption of cuneiform to write Akkadian, the number of different types of symbols shifted from pictograms in Sumerian to phonetograms. The main reason for this is that the Akkadian language is structured differently than Sumerian. The current number of Sumerian phonetograms was not enough to write the Akkadian language, therefore they had to make more symbols to write in cuneiform. Other symbols were adapted as they were, the picotograms that represent an object in Sumerian would represent the same object in Akkadian, the only difference would be the words would be pronounced differently. For example the Sumerian symbol for god, dingir, would be used to write the Akkadian word for god, ilu.
In time other people of the region adopted the cuneiform
Script as well. The Elamites, of south-west Iran, adopted it and reduced the number of symbols to about 100. The Hittites and Old Persians also adopted the script, with Old Persian the number of symbol reduced even further to 41 signs. The Ugaritic people of northern Syria also adopted the script, using 30 signs, which basically corresponds to the West Semitic linear alphabet. With each of these languages the original Sumerian script was adopted in such a way as to write the new language in the easiest phonetic form possible, hence the reduction in the number of signs almost down to the number of signs in an alphabet.
The use of cuneiform eventually died out around 100AD, with its death ended the ability for people to read the script. In the 18th century some progress was made with travellers to Persepolis, they copied short works in cuneiform that were thought to be from the Persian kings Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes. The first breakthrough in deciphering Old Persian was made by the German G.F. Grotefend. Using an assumption that Old Persian consisted of only a limited number of signs with single slanting wedges as word dividers, as well as observational evidence indicating that the script read from left to right, he recognized a series of repeating symbols. The text seemed to be referring to one King as the son of another and Gotefend theorized that it was Darius and his son Xerxes. Working from these names he derived from looking at Greek, Hebrew, and Avestan, he came up with a translation.
The most extensive cuneiform deciphering work done in the 19th century was by Henry Rawlinson. Rawlinson, in 1835 an English Military advisor in Persia with knowledge of Avestan and Sanskirt, copied a trilingual text of King Darius from a mountainside in Behistun in what is now western Iran. The trilingual text, written in Old Persian, Babylonian and Elamite, described King Darius’s victories in the 6th century B.C., gave Rawlinson a large corpus of material to work with. In 1847 he translated the Old Persian and was working on the Elamite, and in 1851 he had finished deciphering the meanings of about 200 Babylonian signs. He also used a list of all the people of Darius’s empire, from the text, compared it with information from Greek histories and used his knowledge of ancient languages to decipher a number of the signs. With the decipherment of cuneiform, the various economic and literary texts of Ancient Mesopotamia once again were able to be read by scholars, giving us a clearer picture of a once great civilization.
During the same time period that cuneiform developed, another great writing system of the Ancient Middle East appeared, the Egyptian Hieroglyphs. From the Greek ta hieroglyphica, meaning ‘the sacred carved (letters)’ comes our word hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphics are probably the most artistic scripts in the world, consisting of actual drawings or carvings of things from the real world and written continuously in either columns or in a horizontal line. This script was read from right to left, or sometimes from left to right, with upper signs being read before lower ones. (See Fig. 2 attached).
Like cuneiform, originally the hieroglyphs were pictograms. For example represented the sun, or a picture of a human face represented a face. As with cuneiform this made the writing system limited because it needed hundreds of symbols for all the words, making expression of complex ideas difficult. The hierogylphs went to a phonogram stage where the symbols were uniconsonantal (one consonant), biconsonantal (two consonants) and triconsonantal (3 consonants), greatly reducing the number of signs required to write. In its most advanced form hieroglyphics were composed of three types of signs, pictograms, phonetograms, and determinatives to help the reading understand a symbols meaning.
As the Greek name suggests, these hieroglyphics were mainly used for religious purposes rather than for economic as in ancient Iraq.