Mesopotamian and Egyptian Writing
Cuneiform and Hieroglyphics

So far as we know, most societies developed some form of writing sooner or later.  But it apparently was not easy, nor rapid.  In the Middle East, writing was first invented in Mesopotamia around 3,500 BCE - about 3,000 years after the establishment of Catal Hoyuk. [designer - all links on this page should appear in "b", upper left] So for at least 3,000 years, agricultural society not only existed but thrived without having any writing or apparently any need for it.  

Several major museums and archeological organizations have put together useful accounts of both of these forms of writing.  Please click on the links as we go along on this page to better follow the discussion on both cuneiform and hieroglyphics.
  • The University of Pennsylvania has a world-famous museum of anthrolopology and archaeology and has, over the years and past decades, supported research in Mesopotamia and Egypt uncovering and discovering evidence of ancient societies.  Their website on Cuneiform is especially good.
  • Obviously, since cuneiform was developed in and used in Mesopotamia, this means that today's Iraq is the site of much of that activity.  The great Baghdad Museum of Art, which was looted in the days after the American invasion, contained one of the world's great collections of cuneiform tablets.  An online article by Robert Biggs,  from a journal which focuses on stolen art, gives much information about this tragedy.
  • Just as the University of Pennsylvania sent research teams to the Middle East for research on ancient societies, so too did the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.  Today that Institute still organizes research expeditions [though not to Iraq at the moment!] and has a wonderful museum of ancient art.  
  • British researchers have long been in Iraq digging and finding and preserving archaeological sites.  Some of their findings are housed in the famous British Museum in London. The Flood Tablet is sometimes called "the most famous cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia."
Why do you think the development of writing was an important step in the creation of "civilization?"  Some historians argue that writing, as a technology of communication and information storage, gave societies the means to create more complicated political institutions since they were then able to send messages and store information more easily.  This made it easier to organize tax systems, make contracts and keep other sorts of records.  

These societies also were able, with writing, to "stand on the shoulders" of past humans, to take advantage of what earlier peoples had discovered so they did not have to always start from "scratch."  Knowledge no longer had to be stored entirely in human memory and then passed down from generation to generation as is customary in societies without writing.  But writing is hard to learn and only in fairly recent times have large numbers of people been able to read and write, that is to become "literate."  Those who were literate had a skill that was in great demand by growing governments, and thus came to occupy high social status in such societies.

One of the outcomes of the fact that writing seems to have been developed only in larger societies, and came to be used by the elites of those societies is that we know much more about these societies than we do about those which did not develop writing.  For written materials have often been the most widely used by historians to reconstruct the past.  Indeed, until the past several decades, historians used to call the very long period in human history before the invention of writing as "pre-history" and all societies and events from those times as "pre-historic," that is, before history, at least before written history.

Click on Cuneiform for a discussion of Mesopotamian writing. [both of these links should be in upper right "b"

Click on Hieroglyphics [to designer - I would like, if possible, for the following link to itself be divided 50/50 vertically - so that cuneiform is on the left and hieroglyphics on the right - is this possible for just this one link?] for a discussion of Egyptian writing.

As you look at both of these forms of writing, you might well ask how did we ever learn how to read them?  Since of course there would have been no dictionary or language textbook to use.  Each was figured out [we use the term decipherment - which is just what code breakers did during the last wars] in different ways, and the stories of their decipherments are really exciting - I encourage you to read them here:  cuneiform decipherment and hieroglyphics decipherment.  

In future units will will examine other societies who also "invented" writing.