A Brief History
On July 15, 1799, French soldiers in Egypt discovered The Rosetta Stone, which is inscribed with three versions of a decree issued at Memphis, Egypt in 196 BC during the Ptolemaic dynasty on behalf of King Ptolemy V Epiphanes. The top and middle texts are in Ancient Egyptian using hieroglyphic and demotic scripts, while the bottom is in Ancient Greek. The Because the decree has only minor differences among the three versions, the Rosetta Stone became key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, thereby opening a window into ancient Egyptian history, especially its system of writing.
Writing is a major part of our lives. We simply could not go through our lives without it. There would be no news, no social media, and no mass information being spread. We couldn’t readily communicate with one another using text messages, but few people stop to think about the evolution of writing. At some point, it did not exist. Someone, or a group of someones, had to create it. But how did it happen? How did we go from nothing to a plethora of words being written every moment of every day?
Overview – A Chart of the Evolution of Writing
|Time and Place||Materials|
|Before ~3,400 B.C., Various||Bone, Stone, Clay|
|3,400 B.C., Mesopotamia||Stone and Clay Tablets|
|~3,400 B.C., Ancient Egypt||Clay, Papyrus Scrolls, and Buildings|
|~400B.C., Greece and Rome||Clay, Papyrus Scrolls, Pottery, and Buildings|
|~300B.C., Mesoamerica||Bark Paper, Clay, Stone|
|600A.D., Europe||Parchment and Cloth Paper|
|1300A.D., Europe||Parchment, Paper, Printed|
|1837-1950, Worldwide||Paper, Printed, Typewritten|
|Current||Electronic, Paper, Printed|
Two Different Birthplaces
The first thing to understand is that writing is ancient. It is much older than paper or parchment. There are two places that experts agree invented the concept of the written word separately of one another: Mesoamerica and Mesopotamia. These two civilizations seem to have led the way to the written word that we now know. Ancient Sumerian writing is, by far, the oldest, starting around 3,400 B.C. Normally, it was written on clay tablets and pottery. It is from this most scholars believe Western writing came from.
Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics
Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics form perhaps the most well-known ancient system of writing in existence. The Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics seem to have come into being just after the Ancient Sumerian writings. These were usually written on walls, papyrus, and clay, making it a fairly widespread system. It was complex, as well, with the ways to spell out names that can still be seen today on the walls of tombs.
Perhaps it is the Greek and Roman writing style that is more likely to remind people of “our” writing. After all, our alphabets and languages are often based off of the Roman style and Latin. The alphabet, however, seems to have been originally taken from the Phoenicians and adapted by the different cultures. Here, the standard method of writing was with ink on papyrus scrolls, though practicing on clay pots and broken pottery was still common. Writing on walls, and even mosaics, was a common decoration, as well.
Writing in Mesoamerica
Most scholars usually put the discovery of the written word in Mesoamerica around 300 B.C., making it a late bloomer; however, it is not something to be discarded. The Mayan civilization, in particular, was an impressive one. We can still read the glyphs today. The usual medium for writing was different colored inks (usually red and black), as well as either rough paper or smoothed, polished one. These were often made from bark and wood fiber, being closer to the modern type we have today.
The Middle Ages
During the Dark Ages, literacy and writing lapsed with the fall of Rome; however, as things began to pick back up in the Middle Ages, putting words to papers once again occurred. The most commonly written book was, without a doubt, the Christian Bible, often written in Latin. Most people still could not read or write; it was often only the clergy that were capable of this. Parchment and quills were commonly used at this point.
With the Renaissance, the world turned its attention towards the arts and education. More people learned how to read and write, though it still was far from being universal. The printing press came into being and made printing books and other reading material easier than ever. Paper and parchment were still in use, and the favorite writing utensil was still the quill, but fewer books were being made by hand-copying them by clergy, and more were being made on the printing press. This dissemination of information pushed the world forward.
By the Victorian period, the act of writing was finally beginning to settle down into an exact science. Spelling and grammar were being set in stone. Paper was most widely used, and fountain pens came into existence towards the end. As we entered the Edwardian period, typewriters appeared, making the act of composing texts faster than ever. Typing became a marketable skill, the one that allowed women to work outside of their homes for the first time. It also made it easier to do research and make recordings of events.
Today, we have moved beyond the humble beginnings of clay tiles and ink brushes. In fact, we scarcely even write on paper anymore. Many schools, workplaces, and businesses have chosen to go “paper-free,” using computers or the internet instead. According to Paperell.com, 85% of US people use the smartphones and PC to share information. 90% of students write their papers using the laptop.. Rather than ink, pixels have become the means for putting down words. Almost everyone is literate to some degree, and most people write something every day. We have certainly come a long way, and it makes you wonder where we will end up in the future.
Though the act of writing is something that we take for granted, it is one of the most important inventions in human history. It allows us to communicate, record, and share information. From ancient Sumerian written in clay to modern slang sent through text messages, writing has marked itself on our species forever.
Question for students (and subscribers): Can you write in any language other than English? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Clayton, Ewan. The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing. Counterpoint, 2014.
Robinson, Andrew. The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs & Pictograms. Thames & Hudson, 2007.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Chris 73 at Wikimedia Commons of Demotic script on a replica of the Rosetta stone on display in Magdeburg, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.