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Developement of ancient systems of writing in iraq and egypt

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


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.

1 attached).

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,


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

basicly 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


As the Greek name suggests, these hieroglyphics were mainly

used for religious purposes rather than for economic as in ancient

Iraq. The Egyptians believed th

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