Introduction to Western Humanities - 1 - Invention of Writing


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First lecture for GNED 1202 (Texts and Ideas). It is a required general education course for all first-year students at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada. My version of the course is structured as a kind of Introduction to Western Civilization style course.

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  • Writing was invented independently in at least three places, Mesopotamia, China, and Mesoamerica. Recent discoveries might also provide evidence that writing was invented in Egypt and Indus independently of Mesopotamia.
  • Writing system have their genesis in accounting and the need for portable record-keeping.
  • Clay accounting tokens were used for accounting. Tokens would be placed inside envelopes – which were cumbersome clay pots. On the outside of the envelope would be indented the impressions of the number of tokens inside.  The first appearance of such tokens in the archaeological record of the Middle East coincides with the development of agriculture in the period from 8000 to 7500 B.C. The Sumerians, formerly hunters and gatherers, began settling in villages in the fertile valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Archaeological studies of the period show evidence of grain cultivation in fields surrounding villages, the construction of communal silos for storing grain, and a rapid increase in population. In such a setting, individual farmers needed a reliable way to keep track of their goods, especially the amount of grain stored in shared facilities. It seems they did it by maintaining stocks of baked-clay tokens -- one token for each item, different shapes for different types of items. A marble-sized clay sphere stood for a bushel of grain, a cylinder for an animal, an egg-shaped token for a jar of oil.
  • Bulla-envelope with 11 plain and complex tokens inside, representing an account or agreement, perhaps wages for 4 days' work, 4 measures of metal, 1 large measure of barley and 2 small measures of some other commodity. The bulla-envelope had to be broken to check the contents hence the very few (only 17) surviving intact bulla- envelopes. This simple system of data storage persisted practically unchanged for almost 4,000 years, spreading over a large geographic area. Eventually, the growth of villages into cities and the increasing complexity of human activities, especially in southern Mesopotamia, forced a shift to a more versatile means of record-keeping. The ungainliness of needing to carry a hundred little clay tokens to signify a 100-bale sale of wheat seems almost ridiculous to modern observers, yet this system lasted for nearly four thousand years. It wasn’t until around 4,000 BC that the plain tokens began to be replaced by detailed ones around the Sumerian region. 
  • These cylinder seals served as both a kind of amulet and as a mark of ownership or identification. Seals were either impressed on clay masses that were used to close jars, doors, and baskets, or they were rolled onto inscribed clay tablets that recorded information about commercial or legal transactions. From Pergamon Museum [Photo: Randy Connolly]
  • Cylinder seal with schematic workers , 3300–2900 B.C Cylinder seal with Contest Scene , 2350–2150 B.C Cylinder seal and modern impression: hunting scene , 2250–2150B.C. These cylinder seals served as both a kind of amulet and as a mark of ownership or identification. Seals were either impressed on clay masses that were used to close jars, doors, and baskets, or they were rolled onto inscribed clay tablets that recorded information about commercial or legal transactions. Source: Cylinder seal and modern impression: hunting scene [Mesopotamia] (41.160.192) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Markings were added to tokens to provide more meaning.
  • Once sealed in their clay cocoons, the tokens were hidden from view. It didn't take long for busy bureaucrats to realize that once the clay envelopes were marked, it was no longer necessary to keep the tokens. In fact, the marks by themselves, impressed on a clay tablet, were sufficient. Around 3,100 B.C., someone had the bright idea that, instead of representing, say, 33 jars of oil by repeating the symbol for one jar 33 times, it would be simpler to precede the symbol for a jar of oil by numerals -- special signs expressing numbers. Moreover, the same signs could be used to represent the same quantity of any item. Complex tokens couldn't be stored in clay envelopes as conveniently as simple counters because they often left indecipherable impressions. Instead, perforations allowed such tokens to be strung together, with special clay tags apparently identifying the accounts. In this case, the shortcut the bureaucrats discovered was to inscribe the incised pattern found on the surface of a complex token directly onto a clay tablet. For example, they could replace an incised ovoid token with a neatly drawn oval with a slash across it.
  • These possibly derive from the bulla-envelopes with counting tokens inside. The cubic tablets might represent the next logical step, the adding of pictographs representing the commodities involved, and adapted from the spherical shape of the bullas, to cubic shape, before being reduced to a thinner and more handy tablet. 
  • 6 different disk type tokens, actually drawn to represent real counting tokens. This represents the second stage in the development from counting tokens to actual pictographic writing on tablets. The first stage was to depress actual tokens into the wet clay on a bulla or tablet. Apart from the sheep token (cross within the circle, group 3:51), none of these tokens have been found so far. Before 2700, writing is only accounting. It’s only numbers and the thing counted. And then at some point, the name of who it belongs to.
  • This image shows the development of the sign SAG "head“. Stage 1 shows the pictogram as it was drawn around 3000 BC. Stage 2 shows the rotated pictogram as written around 2800 BC. Stage 3 shows the abstracted glyph in archaic monumental inscriptions, from ca. 2600 BC, and stage 4 is the sign as written in clay, contemporary to stage 3. Stage 5 represents the late 3rd millennium, and stage 6 represents Old Assyrian ductus of the early 2nd millennium, as adopted into Hittite.
  • Writing cuneiform on wet clay using a reed stylus.
  • By 2800 BCE the writing system started to exhibit use of phonetic elements. The Sumerian language had a high number of monosyllabic words that sound similar, so symbols that represented one concept could be used to represent a similar sound to that concept. E.g., the sign for arrow (ti in sumerian) was used for life (til in sumerian). Another interesting fact about Sumerian (and later cuneiform systems as well) is that the numeric system is both decimal (base-10) and sexagesimal (base-60).  The sexagesimal part of this system survives in the modern era in units of time (seconds and minutes) and of trigonometry (360 degrees).
  • Akkadian eventually became the common language of the Mesopotamian area, and completely displaced Sumerian. However, Akkadian scribes continued to use Sumerian cuneiform symbols.
  • Akkadian: Eventually became the common language of Mesopotamia. Sumerian and Akkadian are vastly different languages (like English and Chinese). Akkadian uses phoentic signs and was an extremely complex writing system. The number of signs used hover from 200 to 400 (although the total number of signs is between 700 and 800).
  • Greek alphabet used symbols from the Phoenician writing system, but added symbols for vowels, making it the first alphabet (around 800 BCE). More recently, some linguists have argued that other alphabets did in fact exist for languages that died out and which predate the Greek alphabet.
  • Pretend you were carving the words into stone. Now, grasp the hammer in your right hand and the chisel in your left and start to carve. Which way to you instinctively go? Right to left (assuming you are right handed, which most people are). Otherwise your arm would block what you had just written. But pick up a pen and start to write. Which way do you instinctively go? Left to right, so you don’t smear the ink of what you have just written. The technology dictates the architecture of the language.
  • Intact papyrus scroll
  • Making vellum from sheepskin. Skins were soaked in running water for several days; then immersed in a lime and water solution for as long again, with an occasional 'stir of the pot' to remove hair and dirt. Next they were rinsed, stretched taut over a frame, and dried in the sun and scraped with pumice and water over and over again. When dry, the skin was cut from the frame and ready for use. It was inevitable that manuscripts were taller than they were wide: animal skins were rectangular. Staying true to the rectangle was the most economical way to fold the skins into pages. When paper was later introduced, bookmakers could have chosen any shape, but opted for the convention, and today the tradition continues because a millennium ago monks used natural vellum.
  • Paper invented in China (about 100 CE), transferred and improved in Islamic world (700 CE), eventually made its way to Europe around (1400 CE).
  • Gutenberg Press ( Johann Gutenberg, ca. 1400-1468) and metal type
  • This woodcut from 1568 shows the left printer removing a page from the press while the one at right inks the text-blocks. Such a duo could reach 14,000 hand movements per working day, printing around 3,600 pages in the process.
  • Lithography press (printing on limestone, then on paper) – 19 th century
  • 1814 steam-powered printing press
  • Early 20 th century rotary presses
  • Modern offset printing press
  • Introduction to Western Humanities - 1 - Invention of Writing

    2. 2. The inventionofwriting(and reading)
    3. 3. *Writing independently inventedWriting possibly independently invented
    4. 4. Across every known writing system,writing began with two intellectualbreakthroughs.A third breakthrough did not happen everywhere.
    5. 5. First, was symbolic representation,the discovery that marked lines canrepresent something concrete(bread, sheep, beer) or somethingabstract (a number or a concept).
    6. 6. Between 8000 and 4000 BCE(that is, about 10,000 years ago)a form of accounting developedthat used little clay tokens torecord the sale or purchase ofgoods.
    7. 7. Payment for:Work/labour EnvelopeSignature/Seal 1 large measure of barley + 2 small measures of something else Contents of 4 days envelope 4 measures of metal
    8. 8. The first clay tokens were symbolicrepresentations of real things.Eventually, the tokens werereplaced by symbols representingthe tokens.
    9. 9. 1. Tokens pressed into envelope to indicatecontents 3. Token impressions replaced with pictograms for things represented by tokens. 2. Tokens pressed onto flat “sheet”, thereby eliminating need for tokens in an envelope.
    10. 10. Before 2700 BCE,writing is onlyaccounting.It’s only numbers andthe thing counted.
    11. 11. The second great intellectualbreakthrough was that astandardized simplified set ofsymbols could be used to preservewords and ideas across time.
    12. 12. Pictograms Glyph Cuneiform3000 BC 2800 BC 2600 BC 2600 BC (stone) (clay) 2000 BC 1800 BC
    13. 13. The Sumerian languagepictographic logographicSymbols pictorially Symbols arbitrarilyrepresenting concrete representing concretethings things and concepts as well as syllables
    14. 14. This Assyrian tablet tellsthe story of a plan by thegods to destroy the worldby means of a great flood.Ut-napishti, like the biblicalNoah, builds a huge boatto rescue his family andevery type of animal. Whenthis tablet was firsttranslated in 1872 itcaused a sensation.
    15. 15. Both cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphicswere logosyllabaries that required a greatdeal of memorization.For instance, in Akkadian, the total numberof signs was between 700 and 800. Theearlier Sumerian cuneiform had about 1000.It had different symbols not only fordifferent ideas/things but also for differentsyllables. Sumerian Cuneiform Akkadian Cuneiform
    16. 16. Akkadian
    17. 17. Linear B – circa 14th C BCE Linear A – circa 19th C BCELinear A and Linear B (used by Minoan andMycenaean Greeks) were also logosyllabaries (aswas Chinese with its thousands of symbols)
    18. 18. The third great intellectualbreakthrough did not occureverywhere: it was sound-symbolcorrespondence.This was the recognition that allwords are composed of tiny soundunits and that all words can thus berepresented with symbols for thosesounds: i.e., by an alphabet
    19. 19. Greek alphabet usedsymbols from the Phoenicianwriting system, but addedsymbols for vowels, makingit the first alphabet (around800 BCE).More recently, some linguists have arguedthat other alphabets did in fact exist forlanguages that died out and which predatethe Greek alphabet.
    20. 20. WritingTechnology
    21. 21. While stone and clay have excellentlongevity (indeed we probably have moreexamples of writing from 2000 BC than wedo from 100 BCE thanks to it), it is notvery transportable or quick to work with.Papyrus, made from a reed-like plantnative to Egypt, became the writingmedium of choice in the ancient world.
    22. 22. Papyrus Fragments Languages written in clay were right-to- left Languages written in ink were left-to- write. Why?
    23. 23. Thousands and thousands of papyrusfragments have been found in theancient world. Some are letters, someare government correspondence, andsome are poems, plays, philosophy, etc.The vast majority of ancient literaryworks are lost, and we only have smallfragments or snippets.
    24. 24.
    25. 25. The Ilias Ambrosiana. The only illustrated Homer from antiquity is thought tohave been produced in Constantinople during the late 5th or early 6thcentury, specifically between 493 and 508.
    26. 26. After the collapse of theunified Roman Empire,papyrus was no longerreadily available.
    27. 27. Vellum or Parchment, made from calf,sheep, or goat skin, became the newmedium for writing. It is laborious tomake and was always an expensivematerial.
    28. 28. Vellum (Medieval)
    29. 29. Making vellum from sheepskin.
    30. 30. Paper invented in China (about 100 CE),transferred and improved in the Islamicworld (700 CE), eventually made its wayto Europe around (1400 CE). Paper wassignificantly less expensive than vellum.
    31. 31. Paper (Renaissance) the oldest dated printed paper book in the world, from 868 CE.
    32. 32. Gutenberg Press(ca. 1400-1468) and metal type
    33. 33. This woodcut from 1568 shows theleft printer removing a page from thepress while the one at right inks thetext-blocks.Such a duo could reach 14,000 handmovements per working day, printingaround 3,600 pages in the process.
    34. 34. Lithography press (printing on limestone, then on paper) – 19th century
    35. 35. 1814 -- steam-powered printing press
    36. 36. Early 20th century rotary presses
    37. 37. Modern offset printing press
    38. 38. Imagine you are stuck here at theUniversity during the Zombie Apocalypse.The Zombie virus has the unfortunate side-effect that it makes paper dissolve. As faras you know, you may be the onlysurvivors.Luckily, someone in your group knows howto make vellum from the rabbits that arecommon around the University but areunmolested by the zombies.You figure that you only have perhapsseveral weeks before all the paper in thelibrary dissolves.Which books will you save by writing themback out on vellum, much like Dark AgesMonks did with works from antiquity afterthe collapse of the Roman Empire?