the write stuff
discovery
dispute
origins
interpretation
impact
this is the point.
Last word on first written word?
19 JAN 1999. Think of all the great reasons to use the written word: The Great American Novel. Princess Diana eulogies. Maya Angelou's poetry. Sex-drenched cigarette ads on bus behinds. The Yellow Pages. The ingredients on a package of pastrami. Seinfeld's shtick. Ann Frank's diary. Matt Drudge's Internet "journalism." Bob Dylan's lyrics. Ann Landers columns. Impeachment headlines.

These may be compelling reasons to write, but they're nothing like the ones that sparked the invention of writing itself. That milestone -- recorded independently as many as five times -- was rooted in the need to run empires. Instead of the 23d psalm, think divvying up real estate. Hamlet? No dice. How about lists of who paid what taxes? And forget the Gettysburg Address. Let's write tables of masons, farmers, kings and astrologers.

In modern terms, "The Color Purple" is optional. What's vital is tax forms.

The inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia, where Iraq now stands, are usually credited with the invention of writing. Clay tablets from slightly before 3,000 BC show a predecessor of the script called cuneiform, which records the affairs, and presumably the language, of the early Babylonians.

This bone tablet was among the new finds in Egypt. It indicates that the material in the attached container came from the estate of King Dog. Courtesy Gunter Dreyer, German Institute of Archaeology, Cairo.
A-Nile-ation?
But did writing really originate on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers? Not according to archeologist Günter Dreyer, director of the German Institute of Archaeology in Cairo. If he's right, the Earth-shattering invention occurred on the banks of the Nile.

In a December press release that was picked up by many wire services, Dreyer said he'd found writing on a group of small bone or ivory labels dating from 3,300 to 3,200 BC. Writing, here, means a symbolic representation of language, not pictures representing concrete objects.

The labels were attached to bags of linen and oil in the tomb of King Scorpion I in Egypt. They apparently indicated the origin of the commodities.

Like the symbolic systems of pictographs that preceded writing, the inscriptions contained symbols. Pictographs, however, are not truly writing, but rather drawings that represent specific words or objects.

Thus a pictograph of an eye might stand for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.

But Dreyer maintains that the labels he's studied carry inscriptions with phonetic significance. That would make them a symbolic representation of language -- true writing.

And if he's right, they are the earliest known writing.

Almost. In fact, he says the labels helped him decipher earlier inscriptions on pottery found in the same cemetery. If Dreyer is right, these inscriptions, dating from 3400 to 3,300, are the first known writing.


The sun-god tablet from Babylon, about 870 BC. The cuneiform writing tells how the king restored the statue of the sun-god to a certain temple. The relief shows the king being led to an altar, bringing symbol for the sun. Shamash, the sun-god, sits in a shrine, holding symbols of his power.
Courtesy Barry Powell, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

shamash on throne It's writing, right?
Writing and pictographs may look similar to our untutored eyes at The Why Files, but pictographs represent concrete objects or specific information -- an ox simply represents an ox, and a mark on a pot tells us "made by Joe."

In contrast, writing can represent everything -- well, the verbal part, anyway -- that comes from our mouths. Writing is so handy that, according to the conventional wisdom, it was probably invented many times: in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Pakistan and Central America.

The Sumerians -- inhabitants of ancient Babylonia -- are generally thought to have beat the Egyptians to the scribbling trade by a century or two. Now comes Dreyer's claim that ancient Egyptians were writing a century or two before the Sumerians.

What spurred the invention of writing? What should we make of Dreyer's claims?



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