When you ask how we define a ‘civilisation’, one of the common answers is the act of record keeping and therefore, writing. Indeed, writing developed across the world in different languages and styles, with the earliest examples reaching back 5,500 years ago. Items that display ancient inscriptions are some of the most sort after and can tell the best stories. Therefore, we want to run through different types of Ancient Writing to help you better understand the ancient past and the antiquities you might wish to buy.
Cuneiform was the script of the Sumerians who lived in Mesopotamia (modern day Iran). Found as early as 3200 BC its the oldest verified writing system. Formed of wedges made by reed styluses on clay tablets, the writing system had significant longevity with the latest example found in 75 BC. The system has over 600 characters, some of which represented words and others that represent syllables. Using clay tablets has its benefits, the clay was readily available and using to impress on. However, larger scriptures were heavy and unwieldy and once they’d dried the text couldn’t be changed.
Within Assyriologists there are debates as to who could read and write. Originally, it was thought writing was restricted to only elite classes. However, recently historians have found evidence that it was more widespread. As the historian J.N. Postgate argues the trivial content of translated letters and the sheer number of transcribed tablets suggests a larger proportion of the population were literate.
We see writing in Ancient Egypt from the late predynastic period, and by the first Ancient Egyptian dynasty the system has stabilised. This earliest script was very derivative of the Ancient Mesopotamian work and quickly lead to the development of papyrus. Then we have the famous pictorial script of Hieroglyphics, which we see inscribed in stone monuments and painted on the walls of tombs. This developed into a cursive form called Hieratic that was quicker and normally written with ink on papyrus. This involved into Demotic script which later became Coptic script after the influence of the Greeks in the 3rd Century AD. Even as different scripts evolved over time, they were used for different purposes. For example, demotic texts were more likely to be used for administration, where hieratic texts were likely to be used for religious scripture.
Unlike Mesopotamia, it’s very likely literacy was restricted to an elite class in Ancient Egypt. For the Egyptian kings, pharaohs and royal court, literacy was the ultimate mark of status. However, these elites didn’t necessarily do a lot of writing. Instead, lower ranked scribes had vocational training from a young age and recorded most written documents. Overall, it’s thought the level of literacy in Ancient Egypt was never more than around 1%.
We see the beginnings of writing in Ancient China in the Shang Dynasty (1700 BC) and there are arguments that there could be evidence for writing even earlier. Some of our earliest examples are not in stone or clay like we see in Western Asia and Egypt, but are on oracle bones and tortoiseshells. These oracle bones were part of a divination practice. In order to answer questions, statements would be inscribed on bone or tortoiseshell and then heated. When heated, they crack, and diviners would read answers from the cracks’ placement.
By 1400 BC, the script included 2,500 – 3,000 BC characters. Although some of these characters are readable today, the writing form wasn’t formalised as it is now until the Qin Dynasty (221 – 207 BC). Over time the script became less pictorial and the characters started to represent concepts instead of objects. During the Qin and Han dynasties the Lishu script, known as the Clerk Script, was developed. It was created to satisfy imperial China’s growing administration and bureaucracy. Officials wrote these early records on bamboo scrolls and boards. However, this would change with the invention of paper, traditionally attributed to Cai Lun in 105 AD. It’s thought the military could have been using it up to 100 years earlier and that Cai Lun more specifically made a reliable, reused recipe. This technology would develop to the first book in Ancient Chinese on paper dating from around 256 AD.
References and Further Reading
Great for learning about the untranslated ancient languages found like those from the Indus Valley and Rapa Nui.