Writing is a record of spoken language. Unlike speech, writing is tangible – you can touch it. The sound of a voice is short-lived and lasts only a moment in the air. But writing allows words to be recorded and stored for the future. I write this now – in my present. You will read it somewhere else, in your present – my future.
Writing makes knowledge storable and portable, allowing it to be shared across time and space. Knowledge shared and added to is what civilization is built on. It's easy to take writing for granted now. Literacy rates are higher than they have ever been. Writing is commonplace and all around us. After all, you're reading right now. But it wasn’t always like this.
The invention of writing was a revolution that changed the world. It's no coincidence that the invention of writing coincides with the birth of civilization.
Prehistoric Picture Stories
Pictures have been part of visual story-telling since prehistoric times. The oldest pictographic drawings date back to the cave paintings of early man. These paintings depict stories of hunters and prey. It's easy to get a general idea of the story, but the details are illusive.
A drawing from a cave in Montignac, France dating back around 13,000 BC.
This 15,000 year old cave painting from a cave in France shows hunters ambushing a herd of deer. Who are the hunters? Where did it happen? Are the deer driven into a trap by other hunters? Or are the deer migrating and the hunters laying in wait? There's a story in the painting, but the specifics are not.
A picture can tell a story, but it can’t be as detailed as writing. Writing is a record of spoken language, which means anything that can be spoken can be written.
The Cradle of Civilization
The fertile crescent is an ancient agricultural belt that stretched across the mid-east. This hook-shaped region extended from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea and south to Egypt.
Agriculture was born here. This was a grain-producing region, predominantly barley, grown along major rivers.
In the east, Mesopotamia occupied the lands between the Tigress and Euphrates Rivers. Ancient Egypt was built along the Nile River in the west.
The lands of ancient Mesopotamia were at the eastern end of the fertile crescent and followed the Tigress and Euphrates River systems upstream from the Persian Gulf through modern day Iraq into the Syrian highlands.
Farmers grew grains in the fertile wetlands between the rivers. Abundant food production and the ability to store it meant freedom from the daily pursuit of food.
With their stomaches full, individuals had time to focus on larger, shared goals. Agriculture provided the necessary environment for the birth of civilization and the inventions that came with it: the sail, domesticated animals, the wheel, metallurgy…writing.
Invention of Writing
Around 3500BC in ancient Mesopotamia, near the town of Kish, the cut tip of a water reed was used to scratch simple glyphic images into a soft clay tablet. Pictorial drawing wasn’t new, but these icon-like images were. They didn’t form scenes. They are organized in ways that don't make sense visually – out of context to each other.
These glyphs don't represent the objects themselves as they would have in the past, they represent ideas associated with the objects shown. This was a new idea, using images to record ideas associated with things instead of the things themselves.
In addition to ideas represented with objects, sounds were also represented by objects. The use of images to represent spoken sounds, instead of as a literal reference to the object itself was new. Sounds could be combined to make words, but this was just the beginning.
The tablet would be unearthed a few millennia later by a team of Oxford archaeologists, led by Stephen Langdon, who excavated at the site of ancient Kish from 1923 to 1933. This small clay tablet was just one of many artifacts discovered, but it's importance is huge. This tablet would later be recognized as the earliest form of writing and become known as the Kish Tablet.
Accompanying the glyphs are angular indentation marks made with a cut reed in the soft clay. These marks are the precursors of cuneiform writing. Although glyphic writing came from Mesopotamia, it didn't catch on there. It would be replaced by cuneiform writing – a writing method using a series of hash marks.
Even though glyphic writing didn’t catch on in Mesopotamia, it did catch on somewhere else…Ancient Egypt.