Hieroglyphics & cuneiform
Much of what we achieve as human communities depends on our social organization and social organization depends, in turn, on how efficiently we can transfer not only goods and services but also ideas – the communication of information.
We store and transmit information using a variety of media – like painting or the spoken word. When writing began it was convenient to fragment the world into simple units like table, bird, or cow and representing these units with symbols.
In ancient Egypt the system of symbols (each symbol usually a simple picture of what it represented) was known as hieroglyphics mostly used to communicate about matters of trade, government, and religion. The control and use of these symbols was the preserve of a priestly class and their scribes (writers) because the symbols could not be understood by most of the people.
At first the symbols were of two kinds inscribed on rock, those representing objects and those representing sounds and there were over 1500 (only 140 were sound signs and of these just 33 represented consonants). Later strips of reed stems, Cyperus papyrus, were woven together to form paper used for writing using inks. Now there was a portable source of information available to a wider range of people. To facilitate writing the symbols were simplified and more flowing, creating a cursive script known as hieratic as seen on the Ebers Papyrus, the oldest medicinal text dated to about 1600 BCE. By this time the number of symbols had reduced to about 700 and by about 650 BCE the simplification had continued, resulting in a script now known as demotic which contained a greatly increased number of sound symbols but decrease in number overall making written language much more easyto learn and therefore accessible to a broader sector of society.
In Mesopotamian Sumer the system of writing known as cuneiform, developed between 3500 and 3100 BCE, consisted of wedge-shaped symbols impressed on soft clay tablets that were baked hard if the record was to be kept. As in Egypt cuneiform was first used as a form of contract, recording commercial transactions. About 2000 symbols were used, also divided into word signs and sound signs. Akkadian replaced Sumerian as the spoken language and as early as 2300 BCE there were dictionaries comparing the Sumerian and Akkadian languages, the Akkadians reducing the number of symbols to about 600 achieved by increasing the number of sound signs.
The Sinai inscriptions, dated to about 1700 BCE, are important in the history of writing because they consist entirely of consonant signs. When spoken correctly these symbols would produce words in ancient Semitic. This was a revolution since it created meaning by using only sound signs.
Between 1200 and 1150, within a single generation, civilizations of eastern Europe – Egypt, the Hittites occupying the region of Anatolia, and the palace civilization of Mycenae that occupied Greece and Crete were all had cities raised. This period of civilization disintegration is known as the Bronze Age Collapse. Trade broke down, pottery assumed an earlier simple form, there was no construction of stone buildings and literacy was all but lost. A collapse would also occur in Assyria to the east but 100 years later.
Wandering semitic tribes so much a part of Egyptian civilization built cities in the eastern Mediterranean (the Levant) and when Assyrian civilization collapsed it was these people, known as the Phoenicians that, using papyrus, revived the lost written language, developed a new alphabet, and re-built trade routes
In this way, over several millennia, language evolved into a powerful method for transmitting and storing information. Over time humanity has, perhaps unconsciously, looked for ever more efficient ways of communicating information over ever-wider spaces.
Cuneiform evolved from Sumerian pictograms, the oldest tablets being recovered from the city of Uruk.