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