Thursday, 14 May 2009

Early civilisation, part 4: Writing and literature

One of the many ground-breaking inventions of early civilisations was a method of recording spoken language: writing. This began as an indispensable bureaucratic tool, but was quickly put to cultural use. It is only because of writing that early literary works like the Epic of Gilgamesh have survived.[1]

Systems of writing were created in several cultures independently of each other. The various controversies over what constitutes early writing and what does not, such as the Vinča symbols excavated in the Balkans, needn’t concern us here. The first undisputed writing system seems to have appeared in Mesopotamia in around 3500 BCE. Egypt may have developed its own script independently, or it may have borrowed the idea from Mesopotamian cuneiform — there is a debate about which came first.

Two other centres of independent development were China (about 1200 BCE) and Mesoamerica (500 BCE). The Indus Valley civilisation (in what is now Pakistan) used a script from about 2600 BCE, but the surviving examples are only used for short inscriptions and they have never been deciphered.


Abstract symbols were being painted on rock as early as the Paleolithic, but there is no reason to believe that they represent a system of writing.

Peña EscritaPaleolithic rock art from Peña Escrita in Spain. Stylised imagery such as this may be one of the precursors of writing. Photo: Rafaelji.

Writing emerged in the wake of the Neolithic Revolution, and this is no coincidence. Advances in productivity and social organisation meant that large quantities of food and goods were being produced, stored and centrally distributed. Goods were being traded with other cities and the early state required tribute and taxes. Organising these transactions for populations of thousands of people demanded something more reliable than the memories of administrators. Priests needed to know who had paid their dues to the temple; storekeepers needed to record incoming and outgoing goods; farmers, craftspeople and merchants wanted to manage trade and debts. Needs varied across cultures, but in a more complex society, a record-keeping system was required to store information in permanent form.

The scripts that eventually resulted were built on the basis of already existing pictographic and other systems including Neolithic proto-writing. For example, in China, geometric symbols that may prefigure writing have been found at sites like Damaidi and Jiahu; and the Sumerians used clay tokens in different shapes to count agricultural goods and manufactures.

Writing in Mesopotamia

The early Sumerians put these tokens into clay vessels to keep them safely together, but hit the problem that once the vessel was sealed, there was no way to know what tokens were inside. Their solution was to inscribe pictures of the tokens onto the surface of the vessel to show its contents, and in time the tokens themselves became unnecessary. The Sumerians then devised the method of making marks in tablets of clay using a reed stylus, then baking the tablets to make the records permanent.

To begin with, their script used pictographs (aka pictograms), or simple representations of particular objects or people, together with numerical signs. By the middle of the third millenium BCE, the pictographs were becoming more and more abstract, coming to represent sounds instead of symbols, or a mixture of both. As Gwendolyn Leick explained:

The principle by which a form of writing based on symbols without phonetic characteristics may be converted into a system of writing that can also reflect parts of speech (phonemes) is quite simple. It is based on the fact that, in every language, there are words with different meanings that sound the same, such as ‘bee’ and ‘be’ or ‘dear’ and ‘deer’ in English. In Sumerian, many words were apparently monosyllabic, and quite a few consisted of just one vowel sound. The word for ‘water’ was ‘a’... The archaic sign for water consisted of two parallel wavy lines...

In Sumerian, any time the sound ‘a’ needed to appear in writing, two wavy lines were used, and context would make it clear whether it was meant to be read as ‘water’, a grammatical component or a syllable in a compound word. This principle, known as homophony, was the main structural device in the adaptation of the archaic cuneiform system for specific languages.[2]

Around 3000 BCE, we see the appearance of a cuneiform script which is one of the first forms of true writing. Cuneiform was written using a triangular stylus that left wedge-shaped impressions — the name comes from the Latin cuneus or ‘wedge’. This form of writing made neat marks without the ridges pushed up in clay by a pointed stylus, and was much faster as it required fewer strokes. It was to spread throughout Mesopotamia and was later adopted for their own languages by other peoples such as the Babylonians and Persians.

Sumerian cuneiformPart of an inscription in Sumerian cuneiform, 26th century BCE.

At around the same time, the use of writing was expanded to include not just accounts and contracts but historical, literary and other subjects. This was a remarkable turning point. For millennia, stories had been a uniquely oral phenomenon, recited or sung by poets and passed from the memories of one generation to the next, undergoing subtle changes in the process. Now, ancient stories could be preserved. Hundreds of thousands of tablets have survived from ancient Mesopotamia, thanks partly to the excellent preservative properties of baked clay and partly to their being collected into libraries, for example at Sultan Tepe and the Assyrian cities of Nineveh, Assur and Nimrud. The literary works preserved include The Legend of Narâm-Sin, The Curse of Agade and the Tale of the Poor Man of Nippur. The most important however is the cycle of poems that belong to the Epic of Gilgamesh. This heroic story exerted a powerful influence upon later myths, such as the Bible, until the age of Greece and Rome.

Another interesting work is the Nin-me-šara, one of several hymns by the Akkadian priestess Enheduanna. Enheduanna is noteable as the first female writer in history, and the first writer to be known by name.

Writing in Egypt

The Egyptians believed that writing was a gift from the god Thoth — the term ‘hieroglyphs’ comes from the Greek hieros, meaning ‘sacred’, and glypho, ‘inscriptions’. Although the idea of writing may have been imported from Mesopotamia, hieroglyphs were not. As in Mesopotamian cuneiform, hieroglyphs represented a mixture of pictographic and phonetic meanings. As in Hebrew, only consonants are written, which means that the vowel sounds provided today don’t necessarily tell us how the words were originally spoken.

As well as hieroglyphs, which were used for inscriptions in temples and tombs, the Egyptians used a ‘hieratic’ script for everyday uses such as letter-writing and keeping accounts.

Egyptian hieratic scriptEgyptian surgical text in hieratic script dating to 1600 BCE, written on papyrus.

This was simply a handwritten form of the hieroglyphs, which became increasingly cursive until its replacement in around 600 BCE by a ‘demotic’ script which bears very little visual resemblance to hieroglyphs at all. The meaning of Egyptian scripts was a puzzle until the discovery in 1799 of the Rosetta Stone, a granodiorite stele that conveniently listed a text in both hieroglyphic and demotic scripts alongside a translation in a known language — ancient Greek.

The text on the stone is a decree regarding taxes and temples, but alongside the scientific, administrative and other texts preserved from ancient Egypt there are also works of literature. These are of many kinds, both religious and secular, dating from the Old Kingdom to the period of Greek and Roman dominance, after which the ancient period of Egyptian civilisation died away. There are mythological stories like the Legend of Osiris and prose works like The Story of Sinuhe. There are religious texts, such as inscriptions found at pyramids, tombs or coffins, or the Book of the Dead. Poems that have survived range from the Pharaoh Akhenaten’s Hymn of the Sun (also known as Hymn to the Aten) to intimate love poems. There is also a wealth of proverbs, fairy tales, plays and songs — even an ancient version of the story of Cinderella. The works that have survived are evidence that the Egyptians created an outstanding literary tradition.

The Egyptians exploited a new material which was much better for writing than clay tablets. The papyrus plant was used for various things, such as mats and even boats, but by laying strips of the plant’s pith side by side and beating them flat, the Egyptians created a smooth surface which could be written upon with ink (giving us our modern English word ‘paper’).

Writing in the Americas

The only part of the Americas to develop writing independently was Mesoamerica, a region stretching from Mexico down to Nicaragua and Costa Rica, which was home to a number of pre-Columbian cultures such as the Maya and the Aztecs. Like civilisation itself, writing arose considerably later than in Africa and Asia.

Like Egypt, the Mesoamerican cultures used pictographs, many of which bore a stylised resemblance to real objects. The first examples appeared in the Olmec culture, who created giant stone heads of their rulers which, although facially very similar, were marked with unique symbols. These symbols are thought to be a kind of name-tagging — it seems that Mesoamerican writing was first used for political-religious purposes rather than accounting. A more substantial set of symbols was discovered on the Cascajal block, a small stone tablet engraved with 62 signs resembling those used in Olmec art — if genuine, this would be the earliest writing system found in the Americas.

Cascajal blockSymbols on the Cascajal block, ca. 900 BCE. You can see a photo of the block here.

Around 500 BCE, writing systems were created by various Mesoamerican cultures, principally the Zapotecs and Maya. These were well established by the late Pre-Classic period (400 BCE–200 CE). Several other cultures, such as the Mixtecs and Aztecs, acquired writing systems in the Classic and Post-Classic period which lasts until about 1500. The most developed of these scripts was the Mayan. Not only was this the longest-lasting writing system with a tradition lasting 2000 years, it is one of the most aesthetically striking scripts, and has the additional advantage of having been deciphered. Maya writing is hieroglyphic, organised as glyph blocks arranged on a grid, and is a highly complex mixture of logograms (representing a word or morpheme) and syllabograms (representing sounds).

An unusual case was the Incas of what is now Peru, who despite being a highly developed urban culture seem not to have developed a system of writing (the so-called ‘Inca paradox’). Archaeologists have yet to account for this — suggestions that the Inca system of knots tied into strings, called khipu (see image here), represent a form of writing are not yet widely accepted. Nonetheless the Incas had an oral tradition, some of which was recorded after the Spanish conquest.

The arrival of Spanish invaders had terrible consequences for Mesoamerican writing. Associating native scripts with paganism, the conquistadors systematically collected and burned manuscripts. Colin Renfrew wrote, “in the Americas, although there was indeed literacy among the Maya and the Mixtec of Mexico, the surviving texts are so few, after the severities of the Christian missionaries and the Inquisition, that the full light of history cannot be said to shine until the arrival of the conquistadores themselves.”[3] But the devastation was not total. Native Americans continued to write their own languages using the Latin alphabet. This helped to preserve many literary works which would otherwise have disappeared; others survived because they were engraved as inscriptions onto stelae or other structures.

Dresden codexPart of the Dresden Codex. Created in the 11th or 12th century CE, it is believed to be a copy of an older work.

Mesoamerican writings cover religion, astronomy, royal lineages, history, and a range of mythic and other literary works. One of the highlights is the so-called Dresden Codex, a Mayan astronomical text that may be the oldest known book of the Americas.

Literary texts that have survived from pre-Columbian times include the mythological narratives of the Popol Vuh, created by the K’iche’ (also written Quiché) Maya; the Aztec poems attributed to Nezahualcoyotl; the Mayan dance drama Rabinal Achi; and the Quechua-language poems of the Incas.

Writing in China

Chinese myth holds that writing was invented during the reign of the Yellow Emperor by a historian named Cangjie, who had the idea of imitating animal tracks to form written symbols. It first appears in China with the ‘oracle bones’ found at the prehistoric cemetery site of Anyang. Dating to the Shang dynasty at around 1200 BCE, the bones were inscribed with pictographic characters used to try to divine the future. These characters represent a developed script and are the ancestors of modern Chinese writing, revealing a continuity unique in the world.

Oracle bone, Shang dynasty. Photo: Dragonbones.

The development was not however straightforward and unilinear. Several scripts existed simultaneously in different parts of China, and even related scripts had idiosyncracies of their own. A key moment came in 221 BCE when China was unified under the Qin dynasty, whereupon the script used by the Qin was adopted for official writing.

Chinese script up until the 1920s was logographic, meaning that each character represents a spoken word. These characters, known as hanzi, began as pictures of the object referred to, and gradually became more and more stylised, while characters were sometimes combined to create new ones. Today there are over 50,000 characters, but for everyday use one only needs to know about 3000 to read the majority of texts.

The early Xia and Shang dynasties have no literature as such. Recorded literature begins in China during the Zhou dynasty from ca. 1027–256 BCE. In this period were written the Five Classics, a Confucian canon of poetry, history and ceremonial texts. One of these is the Shi Jing, sometimes translated as the Book of Songs, a collection of 305 poems that may have been composed as early as 1000 BCE. One of the four sections is about everyday peasant life, and another two about court life. Another of the Classics is the famous I Ching or Book of Changes, a system of divination dating to 800 BCE.

Writing and class society

Writing was a response to, in Childe’s words, “the peculiar practical needs of the urban economy” [4], and went hand in hand with a bureaucracy of scribes and administrators. It was also a social invention: its signs, and the meanings attached to them, were conventions accepted across a society. This required a system for teaching those conventions — i.e. schools — and these, as institutions within class society, were tied in to the class structure. A Sumerian who trained as a scribe in the edubba or tablet house, a school attached to the temple, was doing more than learning a set of signs. He was acquiring a place among the privileged classes.

Also, scripts like the Mesopotamian and Egyptian were complex systems that mixed pictographic and phonetic signs together, using special markers and dependent upon context. A full understanding of the complexities of these systems was limited only to high-ranking scholars, as Childe pointed out:

Under these conditions writing was inevitably a really difficult and specialised art that had to be learned by a long apprenticeship. Reading remained a mystery initiation into which was obtainable only by a prolonged schooling. Few possessed either the leisure or the talent to penetrate into the secrets of literature. Scribes were a comparatively restricted class in Oriental antiquity, like clerks in the Middle Ages...

Writing was, in fact, a profession, rather like metallurgy or weaving or war. But it was a profession that enjoyed a privileged position and offered prospects of advancement to office, power, and wealth. Literacy came thus to be valued not as a key to knowledge, but as a stepping-stone to prosperity and social rank.[5]

He goes on to quote an Egyptian document that illustrates the ancient attitude to literacy, in the form of wise advice to a young person deciding on their future:

Put writing in your heart that you may protect yourself from hard labour of any kind and be a magistrate of high repute. The scribe is released from manual tasks; it is he who commands... Do you not hold the scribe’s palette? That is what makes the difference between you and the man who handles an oar.

This privileged status accorded to scribes seems to have existed in all early literate societies — in some cases to the point of jealously handing literacy down from generation to generation within families.

Elitism features not only in the act of writing but in literary production too. Although literacy had a huge potential for education and passing on knowledge, ancient society was not willing or able to introduce it on a mass scale. Only much later did literacy become widespread, and even today, the production of literature continues to be dominated by people from privileged classes.


It is interesting to reflect that probably 99% of the humans who have ever lived were unable to read or write, and never had any need to. Yet the usefulness of the invention was such that it spread across nearly every civilisation. Where it was not invented independently, it was adopted and adapted, each culture shaping it in its own way. Childe commented:

The invention of writing... really marks an epoch in human progress. For us moderns it seems significant primarily because it offers an opportunity of penetrating to the very thoughts of our cultural ancestors, instead of trying to deduce those thoughts from their imperfect embodiment in deeds. But the true significance of writing is that it was destined to revolutionise the transmission of human knowledge.[6]

At the same time, it shows the unevenness of such processes: the lack of writing in cultures like those of the Inca and Moche, which could otherwise boast all the social and productive achievements of early civilisation, shows that mechanical readings of the base-superstructure relationship are never adequate. Reality is always more complex.

Further reading

Read Mesopotamian texts here and here.
Read Egyptian texts here.
Read the Popol Vuh or a selection of pre-Columbian poetry.
Read the Shi Jing or Book of Songs.

[1] How one defines ‘literature’ is of course a complex question in itself, which we will discuss another time.
[2] Gwendolyn Leick, Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City (2001).
[3] Colin Renfrew, Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007).
[4] Childe, Man Makes Himself (1936).
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.

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