Ancient History & Civilisation

2. Writing

Its possible ceramic origins—The “Mediterranean Signary”—Hieroglyphics—Alphabets

But by far the most important step in the passage to civilization was writing. Bits of pottery from neolithic remains show, in some cases, painted lines which several students have interpreted as signs.60 This is doubtful enough; but it is possible that writing, in the broad sense of graphic symbols of specific thoughts, began with marks impressed by nails or fingers upon the still soft clay to adorn or identify pottery. In the earliest Sumerian hieroglyphics the pictograph for bird bears a suggestive resemblance to the bird decorations on the oldest pottery at Susa, in Elam; and the earliest pictograph for grain is taken directly from the geometrical grain-decoration of Susan and Sumerian vases. The linear script of Sumeria, on its first appearance (ca. 3600 B.C.), is apparently an abbreviated form of the signs and pictures painted or impressed upon the primitive pottery of lower Mesopotamia and Elam.60a Writing, like painting and sculpture, is probably in its origin a ceramic art; it began as a form of etching and drawing, and the same clay that gave vases to the potter, figures to the sculptor and bricks to the builder, supplied writing materials to the scribe. From such a beginning to the cuneiform writing of Mesopotamia would be an intelligible and logical development.

The oldest graphic symbols known to us are those found by Flinders Petrie on shards, vases and stones discovered in the prehistoric tombs of Egypt, Spain and the Near East, to which, with his usual generosity, he attributes an age of seven thousand years. This “Mediterranean Signary” numbered some three hundred signs; most of them were the same in all localities, indicating commercial bonds from one end of the Mediterranean to the other as far back as 5000 B.C. They were not pictures but chiefly mercantile symbols—marks of property, quantity, or other business memoranda; the berated bourgeoisie may take consolation in the thought that literature originated in bills of lading. The signs were not letters, since they represented entire words or ideas; but many of them were astonishingly like letters of the “Phoenician” alphabet. Petrie concludes that “a wide body of signs had been gradually brought into use in primitive times for various purposes. These were interchanged by trade, and spread from land to land, . . . until a couple of dozen signs triumphed and became common property to a group of trading communities, while the local survivals of other forms were gradually extinguished in isolated seclusion.”61 That this signary was the source of the alphabet is an interesting theory, which Professor Petrie has the distinction of holding alone.62

Whatever may have been the development of these early commercial symbols, there grew up alongside them a form of writing which was a branch of drawing and painting, and conveyed connected thought by pictures. Rocks near Lake Superior still bear remains of the crude pictures with which the American Indians proudly narrated for posterity, or more probably for their associates, the story of their crossing the mighty lake.63 A similar evolution of drawing into writing seems to have taken place throughout the Mediterranean world at the end of the Neolithic Age. Certainly by 3600 B.C., and probably long before that, Elam, Sumeria and Egypt had developed a system of thought-pictures, called hieroglyphics because practised chiefly by the priests.64 A similar system appeared in Crete ca. 2500 B.C. We shall see later how these hieroglyphics, representing thoughts, were, by the corruption of use, schematized and conventionalized into syllabaries—i.e., collections of signs indicating syllables; and how at last signs were used to indicate not the whole syllable but its initial sound, and therefore became letters. Such alphabetic writing probably dates back to 3000 B.C. in Egypt; in Crete it appears ca. 1600 B.C.65 The Phoenicians did not create the alphabet, they marketed it; taking it apparently from Egypt and Crete,66 they imported it piecemeal to Tyre, Sidon and Byblos, and exported it to every city on the Mediterranean; they were the middlemen, not the producers, of the alphabet. By the time of Homer the Greeks were taking over this Phoenician—or the allied Aramaic—alphabet, and were calling it by the Semitic names of the first two letters (Alpha, Beta; Hebrew Aleph, Beth).67

Writing seems to be a product and convenience of commerce; here again culture may see how much it owes to trade. When the priests devised a system of pictures with which to write their magical, ceremonial and medical formulas, the secular and clerical strains in history, usually in conflict, merged for a moment to produce the greatest human invention since the coming of speech. The development of writing almost created civilization by providing a means for the recording and transmission of knowledge, the accumulation of science, the growth of literature, and the spread of peace and order among varied but communicating tribes brought by one language under a single state. The earliest appearance of writing marks that ever-receding point at which history begins.

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