the write stuff
Writing -- an Egyptian invention?
walk like an egyptian Last month, archeologist Günter Dreyer announced that labels in a king's tomb in Egypt carried inscriptions from 3,400 to 3,200 BC that are best understood as writing -- a symbolic representation of language.

In a telephone interview, Dreyer told The Why Files that the labels fall into three categories:

  1. Some carried unique symbols that do not appear in later writing, and thus cannot be deciphered.

  2. Some labels carried symbols also seen in later hieroglyphics, and could be deciphered. (Hieroglyphics are the original Egyptian writing system; hieroglyphic symbols can have a phonetic or a literal meaning).

  3. Some labels had symbols that can be understood in a general way. Thus the appearance of a symbol for a tree and an animal apparently meant "from the plantation [indicated by the tree] of the king whose symbol is this animal." With these labels, Dreyer says, "You can't tell the phonetic value, but you can understand them."

Dreyer is respected in his field, but conversations with experts on early language did uncover skepticism about his claims. (He says the research will be published in January, 1999. See "Das Prädynastische... " in the bibliography.) Unlike in Mesopotamia, the Egyptian markers do not emerge from a long history of symbolic inscriptions -- at least, so far as archeologists know.

This 15th century B.C. Mesopotamian tablet records a lawsuit between two men who claimed the same estate. The winner had written statements attesting to his ownership.
Courtesy of ©The Oriental Institute of The University of Chicago.

tablet and envelope

"The history of writing is so startlingly better documented in Mesopotamia," says Robert Englund, who studies Sumerian at the University of California, Los Angeles, "that I remain skeptical." In Mesopotamia, symbols on small clay objects that have numerical and conceptual meaning demonstrate that the roots of writing began millennia before cuneiform appeared. These tablets contained what he calls "administrative tools" with symbols representing such scintillating stuff as records of debts, taxes and ownership.

Around 3200 BC, these symbols developed gradually into what Englund calls the first examples of the proto-cuneiform. Within two centuries, southern Babylonians were using this writing system to represent literature with its necessarily complex representation of language. True writing appeared.

Lest you suspect that Englund, who is involved in the reprinting and distribution of almost 6,000 inscribed tablets from the latter 4th millennium in Iraq, is jealous of the priority of his specialty, Mesopotamia, John Baines, an Egyptologist at Oxford University, has his own doubts about Dreyer's finds. Arguing that the carbon dating was only accurate to within 200 years, Baines says, "I'm reluctant to be so very firm on the basis of such a margin of error. We simply don't have enough information to tell."

Baines also questions Dreyer's claim to have deciphered the inscriptions, which appeared on tags no larger than postage stamps. "He's claiming you can actually read Egyptian, and that it's more advanced than Mesopotamian [of the same period], that it contains phonetic elements," says Baines. "There are literally one or two signs per object, and I'm not confident you can read two signs."

have a seat
These insciptions show early writing making the transition from pictorial to phonetic meaning.
Courtesy Gunter Dreyer, German Institute of Archaeology, Cairo.

Dreyer responds that some of the labels carried up to four signs. He also echoes a common argument from those who decipher ancient writing: the inscriptions are nonsense if interpreted literally -- as pictographs. Thus Dreyer says the symbols for a stork and a chair found on one label "make no sense as symbols" literally interpreted. In subsequent hieroglyphics, however, they would have the phonetic significance of "Ba-fet," a city on the Nile Delta. Thus Dreyer concludes the symbols are actually writing that inform us that the commodity attached to the tag came from Ba-fet.

come up to the lab ...It's the economy, stupid
If Dreyer's report threatens the status of cuneiform as the first written language, it plainly invigorates the economic explanation for the yen to pen. According to Englund, the Mesopotamian script, cuneiform, was invented for the benefit of administration. "It was clearly the result of the necessity to keep records for a larger and larger bureaucracy" needed by central households of expanding cities.

Dreyer says the tiny ivory or bone labels -- despite being found in a king's grave -- recorded the deliveries of oil and linen. The labels, he says, record "either site names of different cities, or institutions, like a royal estate or granary."

...and see what's on the slabSo the sad truth is in: Homer-style epics of war and adventure were not the goal when the first person -- whether a Babylonian who took reed to clay tablet or an Egyptian who took knife to ivory -- invented writing. Far from seeking to express eternal truths, historic epic, or poetic justice, the first scribes wrote the equivalent of "Farouk delivered this bolt of flax!"

According to this explanation, the enlargement of the state required writing, and writing fed the enlargement of the state. "If you rule a larger area, you've got to collect taxes and redistribute goods," Dreyer says. Without writing, "there's confusion."

But how exactly did writing develop?

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