Visible Language (Part II)

Inventions of writing in the ancient Middle East and beyond

Ceramic Pottery Fragments with Incised Signs (Dynasty 1, reign of Den, ca. 3100-3020 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

The Invention of Writing in Egypt

Writing appeared in Egypt around 3400–3200 BC. From the beginning, there was a more formal script which we today call "hieroglyphs"—a Greek term meaning "sacred carvings"—and a more cursive script we call "hieratic." The difference between hieroglyphic and hieratic is similar to the difference between printing and cursive writing today. Each script worked essentially the same way and was used to write the ancient Egyptian language. The ancient Egyptian language shares features with African languages still in use today, like Berber, Chadic, Omotic, and Cushitic, as well as Semitic languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, and the Akkadian language of ancient Mesopotamia. Such linguistic diversity within the ancient Egyptian language is a testament to Egypt's geographic location as a crossroads between the continents of Asia and Africa. In fact, scholars still debate whether the invention of writing in Egypt may have been inspired by people from Mesopotamia making their way to Egypt.

Vessel With Pot Mark (Naqada I, ca. 3750-3500 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Precursors to Writing

Beginning in the fourth millennium BC, people in the Nile valley and beyond manipulated symbols through rock drawings, decorated ceremonial objects, and pot marks. Like we saw for Mesopotamia, early Egyptian hieroglyphic signs often bore some resemblance to these other symbolic systems. Although scholars have sought the origins of Egyptian writing in these features, their relationship to true writing is often unclear. What is certain is that people in ancient Egypt were using these symbolic systems long before the emergence of writing at the end of the Predynastic Period (ca. 3320 BC).

Pot Marks

 Some vessels and sherds (fragments of vessels) bear marks that were incised in the moist clay before the vessel was fired. Despite the fact that some of the signs were incorporated into the later Egyptian hieroglyphic system, there is not always a clear relationship between pot marks and later corresponding hieroglyphic signs. This pot has a mark that looks like the later hieroglyphic number “ten.” However, because it dates to nearly 200 years before the emergence of Egyptian writing, it is not clear if the mark is really intended to signify the numeral or if it has another, unrelated, meaning.

Rock Art With the Serekh of King Narmer (-3150) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Rock Drawings

Rock drawings are the oldest precursor to Egyptian writing, tracing back to early habitation of the Nile Valley. The most salient examples date to the Naqada I period (3750–3500 BC). Some popular rock drawing motifs include boats, animals, and humanoid figures with feathers.

D-Ware Vessel (ca. 3500-3320 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum


The designs on pottery from the Naqada II period (3500–3320 BC), like this clay jar, share many similarities with rock drawings. The images on the rocks and vessels seem to evoke greater narrative contexts (which are unclear to the modern viewer).

While the images from rock drawings and pottery are similar to later hieroglyphs, they do not represent known words and cannot be considered writing. In order to constitute writing as defined in this exhibit, signs must be conventionalized and indexed to language. Otherwise, a picture of a boat could convey a generic message like "sailing" or "voyage" rather than a specific word or idea such as "boat."

The temple ruins at Abydos (circa 1900) by Photogr. Artistique G. Lekegian & CiOriginal Source: Image number: DIG 8065

The Earliest Writing in Egypt: Tomb U-J

The earliest known Egyptian writing was discovered in Tomb U-j at Abydos dating to 3320 BC. The size of the tomb, its contents, and the amount of labor its construction and furnishing required has led scholars to propose that it belonged to a proto-ruler who reigned over a sizable territory. 

Numerical Tag (Naqada III, ca. 3320 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

What Was Found inside Tomb U-j?

Tomb U-j is best known for three distinctive forms of administrative record keeping: ink-inscribed vessels, sealings, and incised tags. For example, this tag has six incised marks, perhaps denoting the quantity of linen in a cedar box in Tomb U-j. While the very brief written evidence from Tomb U-j—especially on the tags—probably denotes quantities of goods and localities in Egypt (and beyond), in general, texts on monuments later than U-j are more complex captions that relate to larger images and scenes.

Tomb U-j Tag With Bird and Elephant Signs (1998) by Günter Dreyer, Ulrich Hartung, Frauke PumpenmeierOriental Institute Museum

Are the Tomb U-j Materials Writing?

The Tomb U-j materials have often proved difficult for scholars to interpret. The tags and pottery found inside the tomb have a limited repertoire of signs, restricted to names and designations of places and prestigious beings. However, the inscriptions "look" like writing. Most of the Tomb U-j signs continue to appear in later stages of Egyptian writing, suggesting continuity of development. Additionally, the signs do not maintain their real-life relationships. For example, on this tag the bird is the same size as the elephant. Finally, some Tomb U-j tags display phonetic elements and rules for combining signs. Ultimately, scholars have argued that the Tomb U-j materials—particularly the tags—represent an early developmental form of writing.

Cylindrical Vessel (Dynasty 1, reign of Djer, after ca. 3150 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Why Did the Egyptians Invent Writing?

Historians and archaeologists used to believe that writing originated in Mesopotamia and spread to Egypt through trade and sustained cultural contact. However, the discovery of Tomb U-j pushed the date of the earliest Egyptian writing back a century, forcing scholars to reevaluate this argument. It is possible that the Mesopotamians and Egyptians both independently developed writing around the same time because of broad historical forces, like the emergence of regional political entities, trade networks, and urban societies. However, Mesopotamian writing and Egyptian writing developed along different trajectories because writing was invented for a distinct purpose in each place. 

Votive Plaque (Early Dynastic Period, Dynasty 1, 3150-2890 BC) by SemerkhetOriental Institute Museum

Mesopotamian Writing vs. Egyptian Writing

In Mesopotamia, writing was probably a response to the administrative complexities of growing cities. In Egypt, early writing seems to have served an important ceremonial function in addition to an administrative one. In Tomb U-j, for example, the vessels and tags involved a time-consuming production process. The tags were first carved, then filled with paste, while the vessels were painted with elaborate details. Neither the paste fill of the tags or the internal details of the painted signs served a practical purpose. However, these extra details often added to the value and symbolism of the item.

Cast of Narmer Palette (Dynasty 0, before 3150 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Because early Egyptian writing had ceremonial functions, some of the earliest hieroglyphs are found on palettes, mace-heads, and ceremonial tags. In the early Dynastic Period (3200–3000 BC), writing complemented pictorial compositions and asserted the power and authority of specific kings. Writing was also found on seals, funerary vessels, private funerary stelae, and in offering lists.

Unlike early cuneiform, which relied heavily on logograms, Egyptian hieroglyphs had a strong phonetic component from the outset. This may be because Egyptian writing, with its emphasis on ceremony, funerary rituals, and kingship, utilized many personal names. Names are difficult to express logographically and often require the use of the rebus principle, which allowed for phonetic spellings as the writing system continued to develop.

Papyrus Ryerson Inscribed with Book of the Dead Spells (Late Period, 400-300 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

An Egyptian Myth of the Invention of Writing

While one Mesopotamian myth related that writing was invented by a human king, an Egyptian myth relates that the god Thoth invented "numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters." A version of this myth was manipulated by Plato in the fourth century BC to make a philosophical point. In Plato's retelling, Thoth showed Amun, king of the gods, his invention of letters. Amun asked him what good they were. Thoth said, "This invention, O king, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories, for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered."

But Amun replied, "Most ingenious Thoth ... this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it ... Their trust in writing, produced by external characters that are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant ..., since they are not wise, but only appear wise."

Incised Tag (Dynasty 1, reign of Qa'a, ca. 2890 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

The Evolution and Uses of Egyptian Writing

The earliest Egyptian writing records mainly place names, royal names, and names and titles of officials on seals, sealings, and labels. By the First Dynasty, about two hundred years after writing first appeared, the features of writing had expanded significantly. By this time, scribes were using Egyptian writing to express more complex grammatical structures of their language. Beyond simple labels, the first complete grammatical sentences are attested in writing at this time—a step toward the first narrative texts in Egyptian history.

Seal Impressions with Animals (Dynasty 1, reign of Aha, ca. 3150 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Seals and Sealings

Cylinder seals and their impressions, called “sealings,” occur as early as about 3320 BC in Tomb U-j at Abydos. Their function was to secure access to ceramic vessels, papyri, or boxes, allowing the early administration to track the movement of goods throughout Egypt and beyond. Archaeologists have discovered sealings made by the same cylinder seal in different locations. Seals and their impressions did always contain written inscriptions, such as this seal impression, which dates to 3150 BC, bearing a "wild animals" motif. By Dynasty 0 (ca. 3200 BC), cylinder seals often included written inscriptions. Some are quite simple, for example, featuring only the king’s name in a serekh (a rectangle with a Horus falcon on top, indicating the use of a royal name), while other conveyed more complex information such as officials’ names and titles, and the names of royal economic domains.

Clay Sealing with Cylinder Seal Impression (Early Dynastic Period, 2686 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

By Dynasty 2, cylinder seals carried increasingly complex information, as well as finely carved hieroglyphic signs. This sealing was impressed by the official cylinder seal of the royal overlord of the place of provisioning. It bears the name of King Sekhemib.

Funerary Stela (Dynasty 1, reign of Djer, after ca. 3150 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Memorializing the Dead

Early Egyptian writing is best known from archaeological finds from graves and tombs. Writing often served not only to label the grave goods with which ancient Egyptians were buried, but also specifically to commemorate the deceased.

Egyptian Funerary Stela (Late Period, Dynasty 26/Saite, 712-332 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

The Potency of Writing

In ancient Egypt, writing was more than a means of communication because the written word had the symbolic power to create what was recorded. For example, a text in a tomb wishing for "a thousand of bread and beer" ensured that those provisions would be provided for the deceased forever through the permanence of the written word. In a similar way, writing a person's name on a stone statue identified it with that person and helped their memory to live on among their community, much as modern gravestones today.

Jar Stand Inscribed with Hieratic Letter to the Dead (First Intermediate Period, Dynasty 11, 2199-1976 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Communicating with the Dead

Writing in Egypt was considered to have such power that it could transcend the realm of the living. Like messages sent to friends and relatives in another town, ancient Egyptians wrote letters to those who had passed away. These "letters to the dead" are in the form of quasi-legal appeals asking the spirits to intercede on their behalf from the beyond. Most of these letters are written on pottery vessels that were left in the tomb chapel of the recipient.

This example is written on a jar stand that would have supported a dish of food to attract the spirit of the deceased. This letter is from a man to his deceased grandmother and father asking them for protection, to grant the birth of sons to his wife, and to act against two female servants whom he blames for his wife's infertility.

Stela of Horus on the Crocodiles (Persian Period–Ptolemaic Period, 400-300 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Writing Offered Protection

Egyptian protective texts were so potent that they were capable of effecting cures. This statue, which portrays the young god Horus standing on crocodiles, grasping and immobilizing dangerous creatures, symbolizes his ability to control wild and evil influences. The sides, back, and base of the statue are incised with hieroglyphic texts that refer to divine protection against threatening forces. Just as Horus the Child triumphed against the wild animals, the text could heal the sting and bite of wild animals. The power of the texts was transferred to the sufferer by dunking the statuette in water, thereby activating the liquid through contact with the words. The water was then consumed by the sufferer.

False Door Stela of Nisuredi (-2613/-2345) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

How Did Egyptian Writing Work?

Most words in the Egyptian language consisted of two or three consonants. The vowels changed depending on the form of the word being used (like English sing, sang, sung). This led to the creation of a writing system that wrote only the consonants, which were consistent among all forms of the word. A native speaker would have known which vowels to use, so there would have been little confusion. The Egyptians used different types of signs: logograms (signs representing a word or group of words), phonograms (signs representing a phonetic sound), and determinatives (signs that were not read aloud but provided contextual information). They also developed several scripts which could be used for different purposes.  

Slab From the Tomb of Nefermaat (-2613/-2494) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum


Hieroglyphs appeared about 3320 BC. The last dated hieroglyphic text is dated to AD 394. Hieroglyphs were generally used for texts on tomb and temple walls and on statues and stelae. The script could be written from left to right or right to left in columns or rows. Usually, signs and figures faced in the same direction.

Because they were used for ceremonial purposes, hieroglyphs could be quite ornate and time-consuming to execute. This led to the creation of cursive scripts like hieratic and Demotic, which allowed a scribe to write several signs without lifting his brush for more ink.

Papyrus Gardiner III Inscribed with Coffin Text Spells (Old Kingdom - First Intermediary Period, Dynasty 6-7, 2160-2055 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum


Hieratic, a cursive form of hieroglyphs, appeared about 3200 BC and continued in use until the third century AD. Because hieratic could be written more rapidly than hieroglyphs, it was used for legal, literary, business, and some religious texts. It was always written from right to left. Initially it was written in columns, but by about 2000 BC, it was more commonly arranged in horizontal lines.

Hieratic is neither a derivative nor an abbreviation of hieroglyphs. Despite their similarities, there is not a one-to-one correspondence in signs and writing between the two scripts. Hieratic even has some signs that are not found in hieroglyphs. Because hieratic appears so early, it probably developed alongside hieroglyphs.

Papyrus Inscribed with a Demotic Contract (Ptolemaic Period, 9 Dec. 311 - 7 Jan. 310 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum


Demotic was used from about 650 BC to AD 452. "Demotic" is from the Greek word for "popular," but the Egyptians themselves referred to it as "letter" or "document writing." Initially used for contracts and administrative texts, by about 300 BC it was used for literary, religious, and legal texts. For example, this Demotic annuity contract between a husband and wife was written between 311–310 BC. Demotic was a development from hieratic, and like it, Demotic was written only from right to left, in lines, most commonly on papyrus or on bits of pottery or stone. Like the hieroglyphic and hieratic scripts, Demotic used logograms, phonograms, and determinatives, but it incorporated many ligatures—signs that were linked together as the scribe wrote continuously without lifting their pen.

Demotic was the most cursive Egyptian script. Throughout the millennium during which it was used, it was never the sole Egyptian script available (hieroglyphs being retained for formal inscriptions and hieratic for literary and religious texts). Egyptians frequently used Demotic for legally binding texts through the central administration. Its administrative use led to many interactions between Demotic and other scripts and languages, like Greek and Aramaic. Demotic could also be used for adding translations, glosses, or notes to a hieroglyphic or hieratic text.

Fragment of a Funerary Shroud (Greco-Roman period, fourth-first centuries BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

Ptolemaic Hieroglyphs

The designation "Ptolemaic hieroglyphs" refers to the script employed by Egyptian temple scribes from Alexander the Great's conquest of Egypt in 332 BC to the end of the second century AD. Ptolemaic hieroglyphs are also called "figurative" or "cryptographic" hieroglyphs because words were often written with complex rebuses, obscure puns, playful puzzles, and innovative sign groups. By this time period, thousands of new signs had been added to the corpus of hieroglyphs, and individual signs could have several phonetic values.

While some have speculated that the temple scribes were attempting to conceal sacred knowledge from laypeople by using this script, it seems that Ptolemaic hieroglyphs were not an attempt to hide the meaning of the text. Rather, the use of these interesting hieroglyphs was an intellectual game on the part of the scribes.

Ostracon Inscribed with Coptic Text (Byzantine-Islamic Period, 28 Jan. 719) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum


Coptic, which appeared in about AD 250, is the latest phase of the ancient Egyptian language. The Coptic script is unique in ancient Egypt because it borrowed the Greek alphabet. Greek was the administrative language of Egypt from 332 BC onward and became common as a language of business and everyday life. Scribes experimented with writing the Egyptian language using the Greek alphabet; however, there are some sounds in Egyptian that are not represented in Greek. Thus when the Coptic alphabet developed in the second and third centuries AD, it combined several signs derived from Demotic with all twenty-four Greek letters.

Coptic differs from the other scripts in that it uses an alphabet, omits non-phonetic signs (determinatives), and writes vowels. Like Greek, Coptic is written from left to right only, marking a major departure from hieratic, Demotic, and hieroglyphs.

Ostracon With Uncial Coptic Script (Seventh-eighth centuries AD) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

The Coptic script developed as Christianity became the religion of Egypt, and its break with the pagan past probably helped to promote its use. Professional scribes wrote Coptic in cursive, with frequent use of ligatures (two or more letters joined together) and abbreviations. This ostracon (piece of pottery or stone) was written in a non-cursive, uncial script (like printed capital letters), probably by a Christian monk as suggested by the crossed rho at the beginning of the text. Coptic was replaced by Arabic in the seventh century for many official and legal purposes. However, it continues to be used in the Coptic church today.

Sandstone figure of a sphinx (-1800/-1800)British Museum

The Invention of the Alphabet

Although Egyptian hieroglyphs were not used after the fourth century AD, the hieroglyphic writing system inspired an innovation that we still use today: the alphabet. Alphabetic writing is a system in which every sign represents one or more sounds. The first alphabetic script was invented in about 1800 BC by Canaanites in the Sinai Peninsula who spoke a West Semitic language. They adapted Egyptian hieroglyphic signs to write their own language. Texts using this adaptation of the hieroglyphic script have been called Proto-Sinaitic. For example, the Egyptian hieroglyphic sign that looks like a hand is used for the consonant /d/ in Egyptian. However, in West Semitic languages, the word for hand is "kaph," and in the Proto-Sinaitic alphabet, the sign that looks like a hand has the sound /k/ through the acrophonic principle—deriving a letter's phonetic value from its initial sound.

Aramaic Incantation Bowl (Sassanian, third-seventh century AD) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum

By 1000 BC, the use of alphabetic systems had spread north into Palestine and then into Phoenicia, where scholars had once thought the alphabet was invented. Within a few centuries, alphabetic scripts were used to write Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, South Arabian, and Arabian.

Egyptian Origins of the Alphabet

Inscribed bone fragment ("oracle bone") (ca. 1300-1050 B.C.E.)Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

The Invention of Writing in China

The first Chinese writing with grammatical elements dates to about 1200 BC. These texts, written on turtle plastron (the underside of a turtle) or ox scapula bones, are records of oracles and divinations performed on behalf of the last kings of the Shang Dynasty. At present, about 4,500 distinct signs have been identified from this period. There is little evidence for the development of the script prior to the appearance of the oracle bone texts, and so it is not known if writing developed rapidly or gradually and if earlier examples of writing in ink on perishable materials have simply not survived.

Inscribed bone fragment ("oracle bone") (ca. 1300-1050 B.C.E.)Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

How Did Ancient Chinese Writing Work?

Many signs were pictographs, but signs could also be combined to create more descriptive words. For example, “mouth” could be combined with “dog” to write “bark,” reminiscent of the Sumerian example for "disbursement" from the beginning of this exhibit. The rebus principle offered a more fruitful method for writing new, often more abstract, words. For example, the pictograph of a human nose was used to write “nose,” but also the words “self” and “from,” since all three words were pronounced the same.

In the great majority of cases, however, two separate signs (or portions of signs) were combined to write a new word. One of the signs indicated the general category to which this new word belonged (like “tree,” “fish,” “sheep,” “liquid,” or “illness”) while the second indicated its pronunciation.

Today, of the 5,000 or so characters in common usage (not to mention the 50,000 or more distinct characters found in the largest dictionaries), only a relative handful remain pictographic. Most depict the sound of the word.

Yaxchilan Lintel 24 (723/726)British Museum

The Invention of Writing in Mesoamerica

Writing in Mesoamerica was probably invented by the Olmec in about 1200–600 BC. Other Mesoamerican writing systems include Zapotec, Isthmian (also known as Epi-Olmec), and later Aztec writing. The Maya, who lived in an area that encompassed the northern Yucatán, Chiapas, western Honduras, and El Salvador, may have been influenced by the Olmec. Their writing system emerged by about 300 BC. The best understood script of Mesoamerica is the late classic (about AD 600–900) Maya script, which was probably used to write a Mayan courtly language.

Yaxchilan lintel 16 (755/770)British Museum

The Maya Script

There were about 400 signs commonly used in the late classic Maya script. Some signs were syllables, while others were pictographs. Signs were arranged in blocks read from top to bottom and left to right, often in double columns. Maya inscriptions appeared on stone stela, buildings, murals, shell and jade objects, and pottery vessels. There were also texts painted on paper, wood, cloth, and skin, many of which have not survived.

Yaxchilan lintel 17 (770/770)British Museum

Among the most common inscriptions are those that record the day and month of rituals and events in the lives of the nobility, including births, deaths, coronations, calendrical cycle rituals, and the taking of captives in warfare. Many Maya inscriptions function as captions for the images they accompany. The Maya script generally fell out of use after the conquest of Mexico in the 16th century AD.

Wooden Writing Tablets Wooden Writing Tablets (500–700)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Written Revolution

As you have seen throughout this exhibit, the invention of writing led to new conceptualizations of how humans form and store knowledge, how we organize society, and how we express ourselves. The inventors of writing borrowed from earlier technologies, creating scripts that addressed their society’s unique administrative, ceremonial, religious, or practical needs. In the four civilizations that independently invented writing, this new form of communication and information storage permanently transformed society and culture, not just their own, but across the globe. Today it is hard to imagine our world of email, texting, big data, and binary code without writing to make language visible.

Credits: Story

Based on an exhibit displayed at the Oriental Institute Museum of the University of Chicago September 28, 2010–March 6, 2011.

Curator: Christopher Woods
Chief Curator: Geoff Emberling
Exhibit Coordinator: Emily Teeter
Curatorial Assistants: Oya Topçuoğlu and Elise MacArthur
Exhibit Design and Installation: Erik Lindahl and Brian Zimerle
Exhibit Interactives and Web Design: Thomas James and Allison Drtina

Exhibit Catalog:
Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond, edited by Christopher Woods, with the assistance of Emily Teeter, and Geoff Emberling. Oriental Institute Museum Publications 32. Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2010

Link to Exhibit Catalog:

For a list of contributors (arranged by initials), please consult pages 11–12 of the exhibit catalog.

Supported by: The Women's Board of the University of Chicago, Exelon, T. Kimball Brooker, David and Judy Harris, Julius Lewis and the Rhoades Foundation, Catherine Moore, Mary and Charles Shea, Toni Smith, Anna White, and the Rita Picken Memorial Fund.

The online version of Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond was compiled, designed, and arranged by Rachel Madden, Eric Aupperle, and Foy Scalf with text and images adapted from Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond, edited by Christopher Woods, with the assistance of Emily Teeter, and Geoff Emberling. Oriental Institute Museum Publications 32. Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2010.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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