the write stuff
Get it in writing
Writing, as we've mentioned, developed as a way to keep track of people, money, and produce. But exactly how did it originate from the symbols -- or pictographs -- that preceded writing?

red, red wine?Through necessity. Making a pictograph of a bottle of wine is simple enough (although it might be hard to tell a fruity Chianti from a dry Chardonnay). Likewise, drawing a symbol for "king" is no big deal.

But how would you record this: "Breaking a long period of abstinence, King Tut opened an old bottle of pale champagne and pondered the significance of his 50th birthday"? Stringing together a series of pictographs would be awkward and would devour your writing medium (whether papyrus or clay tablet, medium was more difficult to prepare in ancient times). And to record whether King Tut or King Nut had passed that mid-century milestone, you'd need one symbol for each king.

Experts say that the need to record new places, new names and abstract thoughts probably sparked the need for writing. Thus it was no accident that writing appeared in Mesopotamia during a period of economic and political expansion. "Large households are reaching into the hinterlands for plunder," Robert Englund observes, "and you are seeing a number of foreign elements [with foreign names]. What do you call them?" How do you put it in writing?

That sounds familiar...
The best explanation for the transition from pictographs to writing was improvisation -- scribes improved on what they had, adapting symbols used for concrete objects to represent names and abstract thoughts. And the trick was to use phonetics -- the sound of the language.

Thus Englund observes that the word "Ti" (pronounced "Tee") in Sumerian means "to give life to" -- an abstract concept that's difficult to illustrate. But since "Ti" was also the Sumerian word for "arrow," scribes began using the "arrow" symbol to represent "give life to."

shhep tablets
This Babylonian tablet, about 3000 BC, accounts for two herds of sheep. The summation on the left seems to read: "840 (sheep inspected) in the morning ..., 540 (sheep inspected) in the evening ...; altogether 1380 sheep (inspected by) the chief accountant." The second column on the right includes entries representing products like butter oil and wool delivered by the shepherds.
Courtesy of Robert Englund, University of California, Los Angeles.

Similarly, the ancient Egyptian word for "scarab beetle" sounded like "to be" or "to happen." "That's a classic example -- you write a pictograph of a word that sounds similar -- a homophone," says Richard Salomon, a professor of ancient Indian languages at the University of Washington. "You can't write a picture of 'to happen' so you draw a picture of a beetle." He says this moment -- when symbols acquire phonetic value -- is "a key point" in the transition from pictographs to writing.

As symbols become associated with syllables -- word parts -- written language began to require fewer symbols. In many cases, the economy increased again as symbols begin representing individual sounds rather than syllables. These so-called "alphabets" are extremely flexible: The half-million or so words in English, for example, require only 26 letters, while classical Chinese required up to 50,000 "logograms" -- symbols representing whole words -- to write an equal number of words. (Interestingly, the last form of ancient Egyptian language, which began with hieroglyphics, was Coptic -- written in an alphabet of 30 letters -- most of them borrowed from Greek.)

The dream ream
Nobody knows how many media have been used for pictographs and writing, but we do know many that have survived the millennia. In Mesopotamia, the material of choice was clay -- cheap, abundant, and -- archeologists love this -- durable but difficult to reuse. Mesopotamian scribes cut reeds from the marshes and pressed them into the clay, making the characteristic wedge-shaped marks of cuneiform.

Ancient Egyptians wrote on ivory, bone, papyrus (a paper-like material made from tough reed fibers), leather, and linen, which they inked with ochre and carbon. For ceremonial occasions, the ancient Egyptians carved stone on monuments.

The Essenes, a Jewish sect that was on the lam when the Romans dominated Jerusalem, wrote their religious teachings on cloth, then hid them in clay pots in a cave. Two thousand years later, the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls produced some of the earliest documentation of Judaism, the first great monotheistic religion.

This first-century AD scroll may hold the key to the development of the Buddhist religion.
© British Library

better than its bite
Today, an even more fragile material -- bark -- may play an equivalent role in the understanding of early Buddhism. Texts from Afghanistan or Pakistan that recently came to light in the British Library are being deciphered under Salomon's direction. Written on bark in the ancient language of Gandhari, they apparently contain the first known Buddhist texts.

The Buddha died in 456 BC, yet almost no written record of his teachings is known until about the 7th century AD. By that point, Buddhism was widespread in Asia -- but the texts had been translated into Pali, Chinese and Tibetan. Thus the ancient barks offer what Salomon calls "the missing link" in Buddhist teachings.

Salve my soul
From these examples, we see that while writing was invented for economic reasons, it was soon pressed into service for spiritual, historical, and cultural reasons. In that vein, we offer this ancient Egyptian poetry, a timeless ode to humility:

Do not go to bed fearing tomorrow;
Day dawns and how will tomorrow be?
Man knows not how tomorrow will be.
God shall ever be in his perfection,
And man in his shortcomings.

How do they read all that dead writing, anyway?

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