Visible Language (Part I)

Inventions of writing in the ancient Middle East and beyond

Funerary Stela (ca. 2219-1995) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Can You Imagine a World without Writing?

Writing is a way of making language visible, allowing us to store and transmit messages across time and space.

Before the Invention of Writing

Consulting a fact, keeping a list, sending a letter, or preserving a legal contract required direct interaction with other community members, relying on their memories, and employing limited memory aids.

History and Literature

History and literature took on forms that were easily passed from one generation to the next through oral communication.

Social Bureaucracies

As such, social bureaucracies and power structures faced limitations in organizing large populations and resources—an obstacle that semiotic systems helped to overcome.

Introduction to the Visible Language Exhibit

Funerary Stela (ca. 2219-1995) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Pristine Writing Systems

There are four instances in human history when writing was invented with no previous exposure to, or knowledge of, writing: in Mesopotamia and Egypt at the end of the fourth millennium BC, in China during the second millennium BC, and in Mesoamerica by the middle of the first millennium BC. These writing systems are considered "pristine" because they were created independently.

Seleucid Legal Text (Sale Of A House Plot) (Hellenistic Period, Seleucid Dynasty, 10 July 223 BC) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

What is Writing?

Writing is a system of visual marks that represents speech. This definition of writing distinguishes writing from other types of visual communication, like cave paintings, international road signs, or mathematical formulae. Yet no writing represents speech completely, and early writing systems in particular are more like mnemonic devices, which depended heavily on context and background information to convey their messages. What distinguished early writing systems from other types of visual communication, however, was the "seed of phoneticism." That is, each sign had some bond, even if slight, to spoken language.

Inlay for Small Cosmetic Box (Early Dynastic Period, Dynasty 1, 3100 BC) by DjetInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

How Did Ancient Writing Work?

Most of the earliest scripts were largely "logographic" (each sign represented one word) and "pictographic" (each sign looked like the word it represented). Scribes also used other kinds of signs (called "determinatives") to tell readers what kind of word preceded or followed. But this system was very limited. How do you write an abstract concept that cannot be drawn?

These early writing systems also used signs that represent sounds but not meaning. Here are examples in English: eye = I, bee + leaf = Belief. Drawing objects in the world (like a bee and a leaf) to represent homonyms ("belief") is called the "rebus principle." Rebuses allowed scribes to permanently represent and record a fuller range of ideas by breaking the iconic bond between image and object, associating the sign with the sound of the word rather than the object itself.

Ur III Administrative Text (Receipt For One Dead Lamb) (Ur III period, ca. 2100 BC.) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

The Invention of Writing in Mesopotamia

Mesopotamian writing appeared suddenly in 3400–3200 BC. Because the writing system contains a complex set of both phonetic and logographic signs even in the earliest texts, it appears that the script was invented rather than having developed slowly.

Intact Clay Envelope With Seal Impressions (Late Uruk Period, 3350-3100 BC) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Precursors to Writing: Seals and Tokens

The invention of writing was partially motivated by the administrative needs of the first Mesopotamian cities that were expanding in the second half of the fourth millennium BC. Rulers and officials in these cities sought ways to keep track of people and goods. Pre-existing record-keeping devices were borrowed, adapted, and expanded, including cylinder seals to mark property and a system of hollow clay balls with tokens that recorded transactions. Writing seems to have developed out of these earlier administrative technologies. A closer look at these earlier practices can help explain and contextualize the appearance of writing.

Stamp Seal With Geometric Motif (Uruk Period, 3700-3100 BC) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Seals and Sealings

Beginning in the late seventh millennium BC, stamp seals carved with sometimes elaborate designs were used to mark ownership of goods in the ancient Middle East. With the development of urban economies in the fourth millennium BC, seals were used to denote ownership, origin, authorization, acknowledgment, or obligation, as well as individual responsibility for goods. The seals were impressed on wet clay that sealed containers and storerooms to secure the contents from unauthorized access. Early stamp seals have geometric designs carved on their flat surfaces. In the fourth millennium, elaborately sculpted, animal-shaped stamp seals with animal figures carved on their bases were introduced. 

Cylinder Seal With Arcade Design (Jemdet Nasr period, 3100-2900 BC) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Cylinder Seals

Stamp seals continued in use into the Late Uruk period (3350–3150 BC) when they were largely replaced by cylinder seals. Cylinder seals tended to have varied and complex scenes carved into their surface. By rolling them over wet sealing clay they could cover a larger surface area more quickly than stamp seals.

Cylinder Seal With Two Horned Animals and Temple Facade (Late Uruk period, 3350-3100 BC) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Seals and Daily Life in Mesopotamia

Seal iconography provides important insights into various aspects of Mesopotamian society, such as social organization, rituals, economy, architecture, and warfare. Seals depicting a "temple and herd" motif, like this one, have been tied to the functioning of the temple institution through their identification as temple herds. Temples were centers of ritual as well as major economic institutions, and the temple herds represented on these seals reflect both of these roles.

Cylinder Seal Depicting Fish (Late Uruk period, 3350-3100 BC) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

How Were Seals Used?

According to one theory, simple seals with repeating motifs of animals might have been used by low-level workers at a temple. Complex seals with elaborate imagery might have been used by specific high-ranking individuals within the administrative hierarchy.

Ancient Seal Impression With Seated Textile Workers and Animals (Late Uruk period, 3350-3100 BC) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Seals and Writing

According to another theory, seal images might refer to specific offices in a temple. For example, seal impressions depicting pigtailed ladies involved in industrial activities may have been used by temple institutions involved in production activities such as spinning, weaving, and pottery making.

So far there is no scholarly agreement on the specific cultural value of seal iconography. Nonetheless, seals used images to communicate information about ownership and access in a complex administrative environment, an approach that would later influence the invention of writing.

Complex Token With Incised Lines (Late Uruk period, 3350-3100 BC) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Tokens, Clay Balls, and Bullae

An information storage technology developed in the century before the first written tablets appeared in Mesopotamia was a system of hollow clay envelopes (also called "token balls") with tokens that could be sealed inside them. Tokens were a precursor to writing and part of the growing array of administrative devices used by Mesopotamian officials during the Uruk period. 

Pyramidal Tokens (Late Uruk period, 3350-3100 BC) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

How Do Tokens Relate to Writing?

In the 1990s, Denise Schmandt-Besserat argued that the token accounting system led directly to the development of cuneiform. She hypothesized that simple tokens made their appearance with the beginnings of agriculture in the ninth millennium. They were used as a way to track the sale and exchange of various goods.

Complex Crescent-Shaped Token (Late Uruk period, 3350-3100 BC) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Complex Tokens

According to Schmandt-Besserat's theory, complex tokens, those that have various markings and incisions, may have been a response to the burgeoning urban societies of the fourth millennium. Different shapes and markings could indicate different commodities. For example, this crescent-shaped complex token might have represented a transaction of silver.

Broken Clay Envelope With Tokens Inside (Late Uruk period, 3350-3100 BC) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Envelopes and Tokens

Tokens could be sealed in clay "envelopes" as a way to prove that nobody had tampered with a transaction. Impressions of tokens on the outside of the envelopes could be checked against the tokens inside in the case of a dispute. Schmandt-Besserat believed that Mesopotamians eventually realized they did not need to seal tokens inside of an envelope with impressions on the outside. Instead, they could simply flatten the clay into a tablet and inscribe numbers and information with less effort. This system of printing quantities and items on tablets led to the invention of writing.

Comparison of Complex Tokens With Cuneiform Graphs (2010) by Oriental InstituteInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

From Tokens to Writing?

According to Schmandt-Besserat's theory, after Mesopotamians realized that they could use tablets for accounting, the cones and spheres of complex tokens were translated to two-dimensional pictographs and were drawn with a stylus. By comparing the geometric shapes and designs of the tokens with those of the early cuneiform signs, Schmandt-Besserat assigned meaning to fifty complex tokens. For example, these three tokens (from top to bottom) correspond to the cuneiform graphs for sheep and goats, wool, and silver.

Broken Disk With Painted Cross (Late Fars phase, 4500-4100 BC) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Responses to Schmandt-Besserat

Schmandt-Besserat's theory has been criticized in recent years. It is difficult to accept that tokens found over such a vast time period and geographical range—from the Mediterranean to Iran, from the ninth to the end of the fourth millennium BC—comprised a uniform accounting system. Additionally, the idea that tokens look like certain cuneiform signs is subjective. Finally, Schmandt-Besserat's theory is at odds with the scholarly understanding of Mesopotamian economy and society. The alleged sheep token occurs only fifteen times over seven thousand years, which contradicts the importance of livestock in the ancient Middle East.

The only thing that is certain is that there is a relationship between the impressions on the envelopes and the numerical graphs of the cuneiform system. As for the origins of the word signs, or logograms, of proto-cuneiform, most of these were no doubt invented with the writing system itself.

Cuneiform tablet: administrative account with entries concerning malt and barley groats Cuneiform tablet: administrative account with entries concerning malt and barley groats (ca. 3100–2900 B.C.)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Early Writing in Mesopotamia: ca. 3200 BC

The first written tablets included simple administrative texts as well as pierced tags that labeled property, much like the first writing in ancient Egypt. However, the record keeping quickly grew in complexity, and soon writing documented transactions involving animals, oils, food, and beer that were offered to the temples, recorded in inventories, or given as rations to the workers. 

Figurine of Bull or Calf (Late Uruk period, 3350-3100 BC) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

This typical Late Uruk figurine shows special attention to the head of the bovid, detailing the eyes, mouth, and horns. In the proto-cuneiform system, graphs representing various bovids and equids were generally pictographs that only represented the head of the animal.

Art and Administration

Seals and tokens both used imagery to address different administrative needs, like asserting ownership or recording financial transactions. When writing was invented, its creators borrowed from this rich tradition of using iconography for practical purposes, formulating a script that included many pictograms (signs that looked like the word it represented). Over time, cuneiform graphs became more abstract.

Archaic Administrative Text (Amount Of Barley Needed For A Given Field Area) (Uruk III period, ca. 3100 BC) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Uruk and Writing

The earliest known Mesopotamian tablets were found at the site of Uruk in today's southern Iraq. They were not found where they were written or archived, but had been used to level a temple area known as Eanna for later construction. Among these archaic tablets, the very earliest are designated "Uruk IV" while the slightly later and more developed texts with somewhat more abstracted signs are "Uruk III." This Uruk III tablet is an administrative text describing the amount of barley needed for a field of about 16 acres. 

Gudea Votive Inscription (Ur III period, ca. 2100 BC) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Myth about the Origins of Writing

In the Sumerian story of Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, the legendary king Enmerkar invented writing on clay tablets to defeat his rival in a competition for the affection of the goddess Inanna. In the tale, Enmerkar gave his messenger a very long, eloquent, and complicated message to take to the Lord of Aratta:

"(Enmerkar's) speech was very grand; its meaning very profound. But the messenger's mouth was too heavy, and he could not repeat the message. Because the messenger's mouth was too heavy, and he could not repeat it, the Lord of Kulab (that is, Enmerkar) patted some clay and put the words on it as on a tablet. Before that day, words put on clay had never existed. But now when the sun rose on that very day—so it was! The Lord of Kulab had put words as on a tablet—so it was!"

Clay Tablet Inscribed with Cuneiform (Isin-Larsa Period, 1800-1600 BC)Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

By inventing writing, king Enmerkar not only showed his intellectual superiority over his rival, but also established that cuneiform writing was invented in Mesopotamia and that outsiders—like the Lord of Aratta—would need to learn and adopt the same writing system.

Thus the invention of writing in Mesopotamia is credited to humans, not gods—a view very different from that expressed in ancient Egyptian mythology.

Early Dynastic III Lexical List (Early Dynastic IIIb period, ca. 2500 BC) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Origins of Cuneiform

The earliest pictographic signs became more abstract as signs incised with a sharp stylus gave way to wedge-shaped impressions that later gave the script its name: cuneiform (which means "wedge-shaped"). Cuneiform was first written by impressing a reed stylus into wet clay. The script appears to have been developed to write the Sumerian language, which is unrelated to any other known language family. Among the first texts are also lists of signs and words, called lexical lists, that organized and preserved knowledge and also taught new scribes how to write.

The first writing: counting beer for the workers (-3100/-3000)British Museum

How Did Cuneiform Work?

At the root of the cuneiform writing system is the logogram, or word sign, which represents a single word or group of semantically related words. Logograms had both a semantic meaning, as representing words, as well as a phonetic value, expressing the pronunciation of those words.

More abstract concepts could be expressed through the rebus principle, where the phonetic value of one word, most often something that could be easily drawn, could be used to write another word that was identical or nearly so in pronunciation. For example, the sign for sar "garden" (a pictograph of a garden bed), could be used to write the more abstract verb sar "to write." Signs that represent sounds but not meaning are called "phonograms."

Beveled-Rim Bowl and "Disbursement" Cuneiform Graph (1990) by Unknown, Hans J. Nissen, Robert K. Englund, and Peter DamerowInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Creating Logograms

Some logograms were created from material culture, like the sign for "disbursement," which combines a head and a beveled-rim bowl used for food rations. Some emblems connected with deities and their cult centers, which possessed powerful symbolic value, were drafted into the cuneiform script as well. However, many logograms were probably invented with the writing system itself, representing a completely new mode of communication.

Mesopotamians also used determinatives, signs that were not read but were used to indicate the semantic class of certain words. For example, city names were often preceded by the sign for URU "city" and god names were often preceded by sign for DINGIR "god."

The Evolution of Cuneiform Signs (2004) by Jerrold S. CooperInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

The Evolution of Cuneiform

In the earliest written texts, scribes used curved lines and a pointed stylus. Over time, the lines of cuneiform grew straighter, and a stylus with a triangular cross section was used to create wedge shapes. Graphs were simplified and depicted more abstractly.

Development of Cuneiform Signs

Letter (Old Babylonian period, 2000-1600 BC) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

From Signs to Text

Mesopotamian writing was developed to address administrative needs. As a result, early cuneiform texts largely focus on economic matters. Based on currently preserved material, literature did not play a role in the earliest development of Mesopotamian writing. Religious texts, historic documents, and letters like this one are not included among the archaic text corpus. Rather, these genres arose later, beginning in the middle of the third millennium, some seven hundred or more years after the first written documents.

The Chicago Syllabary (-2000/-1000) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

From Sumerian to Akkadian

Cuneiform was a script, which means that it was not tied to a specific language. Most scholarship suggests that cuneiform was first developed to write the Sumerian language. Life in Mesopotamia depended on trade and Sumerian speakers were in close contact with speakers of other languages. Over time, cuneiform was used to write the names of these foreigners and then to write texts in those languages. The cuneiform script was borrowed to write Akkadian in the third millennium BC. Akkadian is a language in the Semitic family, which also includes Ugaritic, Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic. Because of the significant grammatical differences between Sumerian and Akkadian, Mesopotamian scribes increasingly used signs as syllables rather than whole words. 

Ornamental Peg With Trilingual Text (Achaemenid Period, reign of Darius I, 522-486 BC) by UnknownInstitute for the Study of Ancient Cultures Museum

Cuneiform was Used to Write many Languages

The cuneiform script was eventually adapted to write a wide range of languages, including Hurrian, Hittite, Elamite, and Old Persian. Scribes in Ugarit, on the eastern Mediterranean coast, took the basic shape of cuneiform signs and briefly used them to develop a cuneiform alphabet in about 1200 BC.

Cuneiform continued in use for over 3,000 years, until about AD 100. The script disappeared gradually over the course of several centuries. When the Achaemenid Empire took over Mesopotamia, the official administrative language changed from Akkadian to Aramaic. Eventually Greek became the lingua franca of the ancient world after the conquests of Alexander. The cuneiform script eventually disappeared from daily use as successive political administrations imposed administrative languages written in other scripts.

Please continue the story of the invention of writing in the ancient Middle East and beyond in Part II of this exhibition.

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:
https://oi.uchicago.edu/research/publications/oimp/oimp-32-visible-language-inventions-writing-ancient-middle-east-and

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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