I am learning the signs. I am seeing that the eye gives the breath of a sign into the ear by a stylus on clay [which is] dried [and] polished. The eye and the mouth, with the resting of the voice, have come to the splendour of old age. See, now I shall be seen for a thousand lifetimes of the world.
Serabit el-Khadem, Sinai Desert, 1850 BC. The Canaanite miners were jealous. They toiled in the merciless desert digging for turquoise in the Egyptian mines, isolated from their families and civilization. They watched as the Egyptian overseers prayed to their goddess Hathor, Mistress of Turquoise, in her temple, currently being renovated and enlarged by Pharaoh Amenemhet III, but to which they were barred. They saw the stelae dedicated to her, covered in small drawings they couldn’t understand but knew ensured the success of their enterprise by her divine hand. Some among their people could read a bit. Khebeded, their Canaanite workforce leader, official in the Egyptian mining operation, and esteemed “Brother of the Ruler of Retenu” (an ancient name for Canaan), spoke Egyptian and knew a little hieroglyphics. The pictures represent words and sounds, they learned. If we make our own inscriptions, they thought, we could ensure our own success by our goddess, our “ba‘alat” (mistress), Asherah. We, too, could make our names endure for eternity! Continue reading
Europeans long believed that hieroglyphics were purely symbolic picture-writing, a preconception that stymied translation efforts for centuries. Hieroglyphics is actually a complex mix of logograms, phonograms (signs that represent sounds), and determinants, robust enough to encode any verbal information, but vastly different than cuneiform or really anything else you may be familiar with. Continue reading
Nekhen (later, Hieraconpolis), Upper Egypt, c. 3100 BC. King Narmer was triumphant, having united the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt and ushering in the First Dynasty of ancient Egypt. In his honor, a ceremonial palette was carved out of siltstone illustrating his glory, smiting foreign captives with a mace. At the top of the Narmer Palette is a serekh—a designed enclosure for a royal name—framing a catfish (n‘r in Egyptian) and a chisel (mr). Using the rebus principle, Narmer’s name was one of the first ever recorded. Continue reading
Whatever its true origins, the earliest Mesopotamian writing was still largely pictographic, utilizing simplified drawings of objects to represent those objects. Drawing curved lines in wet clay was a challenge. Instead of drawing with the point of the writing tool, generally a reed, scribes began to imprint the flat edge of a cut reed into the clay to make distinctive wedge-shaped triangular marks. Their system of writing is known today as cuneiform, from the Latin cuneus meaning wedge. Continue reading
By this point, humans had been drawing pictures for 30,000 years, documenting animals and people on the walls of caves. But those were representative drawings, depicting animals and people real or imagined. The intellectual leap of the Sumerians was the use of drawings to represent the idea of sheep—and goats and barley and everything else that needed to be recorded. These early drawings of logograms, signs that individually represent discrete objects, quickly became simplified and abstracted as scribes realized that was more efficient than drawing detailed naturalistic illustrations each time. Continue reading
Apply yourself to writing zealously; do not stay your hand… Pleasant and wealth-abounding is your palette and your roll of papyrus.
Uruk, Sumer, c. 3400 BC. The civil servant was overwhelmed. With all of the sheep and goats going in and out of Uruk’s city gates, he was having trouble keeping track of it all. Had he collected taxes from that farmer already? How many sheep did that villager bring? It was all so much to remember. And what if the villager contested it? Continue reading