A brief guide to the history of the written word.

Katie Harrow summarizes the timeline for the development of writing in Eurasia.

Language existed long before writing. We have probably been talking for between 50,000 and 100,000 years. But archaeology suggests that the first writing emerged around 6,000 years ago.

Pictograms (pictures whose meaning is directly related to the image: eg. a snake means a snake) were first in use in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. These pictograms evolved into Hieroglyphics when the meanings came to include verbs (image of an eye might now also mean ‘too see something’) and phonetics, (the snake image could mean an ‘ess’ sound).

illustration of mesopotamian tablet in the louvre museum by Chris BrownIt is no coincidence that we see the emergence of advanced written language in places like Egypt and the city states of the Tigris and Euphrates. The people here were no cleverer than their rural cousins, but their need to orderly record and store information increased as the cities grew and this provided the impetus to improve their writing systems. These in turn may have provided the capacity for further growth which would have been impossible without writing.

We can imagine that without writing, running a city, organising taxation and keeping control of a country is pretty much impossible. There is jyust too much confusion for a large well ordered state to function without written records.

Archaeology shows us a clear evolution from pictograms to cuneform from excavations of Uruk in Mesopotamia where the earliest cunefom are simply pictograms rotated through 90 degrees, formed of wedge shapes marks pressed into soft clay. Over time these become more and more stylised.

According to archeologist Günter Dreyer, director of the German Institute of Archaeology in Cairo, the earliest writing we know of comes from the ‘Dynasty Zero’ reign of a king we know as ‘Scorpion’ in Ancient Egypt around 3,300 BCE. In his tomb a number of small inscribed bone tags were found. These had grouped pictograms on them (for example a heron and a beetle) which seem to be the names of places where offerings in the tomb came from.

5,000 years ago in Egypt, the name of the early Pharoh NARMER was written on a palette using two images: A cuttlefish (NAR) and a drill or chisel (MR)(1). Names of the Pharohs were later always placed in a specific border known as a cartouche.

The Narmer Palette from Hierakonpolis is in the Cairo Museum ref: JE32169

heiroglyphics image by Chris BrownThe Egyptian Heiroglyphics included ‘ideograms’ where single images stood for whole words as well as images standing for sylables. They also had alphabet signs which were useful when a new word was needed. Foreigners names were often spelled out using these particular ‘alphabet heiroglyphs’.

Of course, once a little country develops writing it puts them at a massive advantage over all their neighbours. It is no surprise that writing emerges in the first cities of what were to become the first empires. Writing gave the Sumerians and Egyptians a massive advantage which they seem to have rigourously explioted.

The cartouche of Queen Cleopatra

cleopatra cartouche cartoon by Chris Brown
In ancient Egyptian heiroglyphics an oblong enclosure with a line at one end is called a cartouche and it, indicates that the text enclosed is a royal name. This cartouche reads from right to left.

cleopatra cartouche verticalC = triangle top right
L = lion botton right
E = Bird
O =
P = Square
A = Bird
T = Hand
R = Eye
A = Bird

On the right is another version of the same cartouche (thanks to FCIT).
The world forgot how to read cartouches for almost 2000 years until a frenchman called Champollion deciphered them in the early 1800s.

The ancient Egyptians used their heiroglyphics not only as information storage, but also as decoration, which leaves archaeology and history with a fabulous wealth of written data about the wars, politics, beliefs and daily lives of the peoples of the Nile.

3,600 years ago:

In the Levant, The Hyksos, Hittites, Canaanites and other groups are all writing in variations of cuneform scripts which had evolved from pictograms.

 (press F5 key for animation)

linear a - copyright chris brown3400 years ago, invaders from the east brought linear-a script to south western europe. In time this evolved through linear B into Ancient Greek. In the west, we use a variant of the greek alphabet today . Our numbering system comes from Arabic.