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The Invention of Writing

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Most historians agree that more than any other human achievement, the invention of writing brought the seeds of “civilization” to fruition. The taking of this unprecedented step some 5000 years ago made it possible to preserve thoughts and expe

Most historians agree that more than any other human achievement, it was the invention of writing that untimately brought the seeds of “civilization” to fruition. 

The taking of this unprecedented step some 5000 years ago made it possible to preserve thoughts and experiences that had previously been entrusted to the realm of oral tradition, wisdom passed generation to generation with hopes that key elements wouldn’t be lost.  (Artifacts dated to 6600 BCE found at Henan, China, attributed to the Peiligang culture, show the use of a simple system of writing utilizing sixteen distinct markings which apparently never progressed into formalized writing.)

Essentially, the invention of writing provided a maintenance of social ideas that allowed complex societies to develop and empires to be built. 

The first written words were pictographs used by the Sumerians to record inventories.  (Most scholars believe the ancient Egyptians were using a comparable system of notation utilizing early hieroglyphic symbols at about the same time.)  The earliest known examples of written Sumerian date to about 3100 BCE, which are marks scratched onto small clay tablets that were attached like shipping tags to sacks of grain and other agricultural products.

These tags recorded the quantity and type of material the sacks contained. 

They were inscribed using a sharpened reed called a stylus which was used to scratch simple designs (often curving lines) into soft clay that represented the objects they described.  Wealthy Sumerians who owned large warehouses of grains and herds of livestock used larger tablets utilizing columns of pictographs to keep easy-to-read inventory.  Thus the size of the tag was often indicative of the level of wealth.

By the early 3rd millennium BCE, Sumerian book keepers began to change the basic technique by which symbols were made in order to write more quickly.  As cities of the Mesopotamian area grew in size, the demands of a growing economy necessitated a faster method of tallying. 

Replacing the sharpened stylus with one sharpened to a triangular tip, book keepers were then able to refine the crude and often irregular symbols into uniform and complex script capable of not only permitting faster notation, but allowing the expression of abstract ideas.  No longer drawing miniature examples of the objects themselves, the script became a series of shorthand symbols now known as cuneiform (Latin for “wedge-shaped).

 But so elaborate was the new script that developed (which employed more than 700 different signs), that it is said to have taken many years of diligent practice and study to learn it, elevating those who finally mastered it--known as scribes--to a professional status equated with high social and governmental office, and often connected with royal families.

One of the most impressive and enduring uses of this writing system can still be seen today on a mountain face in Behistun, Iran, where King Darius the Great of Persia commissioned a proclamation of his military triumphs about 500 BCE, hewn into the mountain some 340 feet off the ground.

For the next 500 years, most cultures of the Fertile Crescent/Mesopotamia area would use this system of writing--to varying degrees--with the cultures that followed, the Babylonians, Assyrians, and neighboring groups, stylizing the cuneiform method to include cultural variations. 

From this time forward, numerous other styles of writing began to merge as empires were built and cultures blended.





images via Wikipedia.org unless credited otherwise

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James R. Coffey

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