The Development of Ancient Systems of Writing in Iraq and Egypt
Ancient systems of writing in the Middle East arose when people needed a
method for remembering important information. In both Ancient Iraq and Ancient
Egypt each of the stages of writing, from pictograms to ideograms to
phonetograms, evolved as a response to the need to express more complex ideas.
Satisfaction of this need gave us the two most famous forms of ancient writing,
cuneiform from ancient Iraq, and hieroglyphics from ancient Egypt. Both of these
forms of writing evolved and their use spread to other peoples even after the
originators of the scripts had passed on.
Some of the oldest writing found in the Middle East dates from 8000 to 3000
B.C. This corresponds to the approximate time period that the people of the
region went from living a nomadic life to settlement in villages and trading
among themselves. When trading large or varying types of commodities you need a
method for recording. To meet this need developed a token system for the
recording of financial data. These tokens were of varying shapes for various
things, two to three centimetres in size, and used for enumeration and keeping
track of goods and labour.
These tokens eventually had to be stored so they wouldn’t be misplaced or
lost. To secure them, they were placed in opaque clay envelopes. To indicate
what was inside the envelope markings were made on it, eventually someone
realized that all you had to do was mark on the clay what was in the envelope
and you discard the tokens altogether. With this major development we get the
first writing on clay tablets.
In Ancient Mesopotamia the most readily available material for writing on
was clay. When writing on clay first arose, the scribe would try to make an
artistic representation of what he was referring to. This is a logical first
step in writing as if you wanted to record that you had three sheep, you would
draw a picture of a sheep and then add to the picture some marking to indicate
that you had three of them. Thus the earliest stage in writing arose, pictograms.
Pictograms, although not really writing in the modern sense of the term, do
represent a method of communicating an event or message. They also “led to true
writing through a process of selection and organization.” As people wanted to
write more down and in a faster method, the pictograms lost their artistic look
and took on a more “stylised representation of an object by making a few marks
in the clay . . . .” The writing was eventually written in “horizontal lines
rather than in squares or in vertical bands . . . became smaller, more compact,
more rigid, more ‘abstract’, finally bearing no resemblance to the objects they
represented . . . .”
The next stage in the development of ancient writing was when the scribes
wished to write more complex ideas down. In time a sign that had represented a
tangible object, came to represent some word or thing. For example, the symbol
representing the sun eventually represented over seventy different words. This
caused some confusion as the reader could not be certain what the writer was
using the symbol for.
A solution to this problem was the introduction of a method to indicate
what the symbol represented. These new symbols were called determinative. For
example, the Sumerians placed a symbol in front of, or sometimes behind, the
word sign to give the reader an indication of how to interpret it. The sign for
plow could have the sign for wood in front of it, this meant that the symbol for
plow meant the tool, if there was a symbol of a man in front, the symbol for
plow would be interpreted as plowman.
The most advanced stage of development was the phonetogram. A phonetogram
is a symbol that represented the pronunciation of part of a word. Phonetograms
developed from symbols for words that sounded like the syllables of other words.
For example you could have the symbol “4” and “C” in modern writing go together
to make the symbol 4C, which would represent four seas, but if you added the
determinative ‘ to make it 4’C’ it could be read as the word “foresee”. Thus a
transition from pictographic to phonetographic. With this, you could adapt a
script to write the sounds of any word