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Writing and World History

David Burzillo
The Rivers School

     The study of ancient writing deserves an important place in world history courses because the use of writing is one of the behaviors that distinguishes humans from other species of animals.1  Other animals eat, build shelters, use tools, and even, in some cases, practice agriculture and create art; but the use of writing, like the burial of the dead, is a behavior that has not been observed in other animal species.2  The fact that this behavior is uniquely human in and of itself warrants its discussion in a course about human history.  Moreover, for the world history teacher, writing is a particularly significant topic because of the changes in human culture that followed in the wake of its development.  Writing is intimately linked with the proliferation of complexity in most aspects of human society in the ancient world and with the complex religious, economic, and political practices that would become hallmarks of many human societies.  Writing enabled temple priests in Sumeria and Egypt to write down prayers and keep accurate calendars, ensuring that citizens showed the gods the respect and reverence that were their due.  In China the use of writing permitted rulers to question the gods, by means of oracle bones, about issues ranging from childbirth to weather.   Writing allowed the Sumerians and Babylonians to record their laws so that their legal codes could be accessed by all citizens.  In Egypt writing allowed the maintenance of tax collection records, while in Sumeria writing made recording the distribution of grain, beer, and wool from temples possible.   All of these activities represent significant leaps in the complexity of human behavior and an expansion of human potential from what was possible before the invention of writing.
     Despite the fact that most teachers readily acknowledge the importance of writing to human history and culture, writing does not always receive the attention it deserves in world history classes.  Textbooks generally pay lip service to the importance of writing in the development of complex society, treating it as just one of the many defining characteristics. Writing deserves a better fate.  Devoting more time to the study of writing can, among other things, shed light on the concerns and values of early human societies and help illuminate how human life became more complex.  In addition, the study of writing can put modern language and writing in a new perspective for all students, enhancing how they view the medium through which they pursue their academic studies. While there are many ways of approaching ancient writing in the classroom, there are four issues related to the study of ancient writing that teachers should address with their students: complexity, flexibility, writing as lingua franca, and decipherment.


The Complexity of Early Writing Systems


     Complexity is probably the most important characteristic of ancient writing systems for students to confront. The issue of complexity is important not only to an understanding of writing itself, but also to an understanding of how early writing systems impacted the level of literacy in a society, the social status of those who could write, and, in more recent times, the decipherment of those writing systems.

     When considering how to address this issue of complexity with students, it is important that teachers first acknowledge the perspective their students bring to the study of ancient writing and language.  While there is tremendous diversity in the backgrounds of students in American schools today, the vast majority of students will approach the study of ancient writing and language from the perspective of English or Spanish.3   The symbols used for writing these languages and the conventions for the direction of writing are the lenses through which students will first explore ancient writing.  It may appear obvious that ancient writing systems are very different from modern ones, but it is critical that teachers not underestimate the importance of this simple fact.  Ancient writing systems can have hundreds or even thousands of signs, texts that move in different directions, and signs with multiple, often unrelated meanings.  As a result, English and Spanish, with their alphabets and left-right direction, are not the most helpful models for students confronting ancient writing for the first time.  The bottom line is that the differences between ancient and modern writing systems go well beyond the fact that the older writing looks different from the writing with which students are familiar. 4
     First and foremost, most ancient writing systems are not alphabetic in nature.  Nevertheless, writing systems like hieroglyphics and cuneiform do contain signs that appear to be alphabetic in nature; for example, the hieroglyphic symbol   has the value of n.  The vast majority of signs in hieroglyphics and cuneiform are syllabograms, which stand for two or three phonemes, or logograms, which stand for whole words.4  In some cases a sign can be either, depending on the context.  The hieroglyphic sign  has the value pr and can also stand for the word house, while the sign has the value htp.  In cuneiform the sign   has the value an in Akkadian, but it can also mean god in Sumerian or Akkadian.
     In addition to these signs, writing systems like hieroglyphics and cuneiform also contain a class of signs called determinatives, which are written as part of a word but not pronounced and which classify a word as being part of a more general group of things.  In Akkadian the cuneiform symbol  discussed above is a determinative used to indicate the name of a god.   Likewise, in Egyptian the hieroglyphic symbol  is one of the determinatives used to indicate a god.
     While the number of signs in many ancient writing systems increased because of the use of determinatives, the number of signs in many of these systems was also high due to presence of homophones, signs that differ in appearance but have the same sound value.  In Egyptian both the signs  (the lotus plant) and  (the oxyrynchus fish) have the phonetic value , which is pronounced cha. The presence of homophones gave some flexibility to scribes, but it posed a number of problems to those who would decipher these languages.
     Further adding to the complexity of the situation, many of the symbols in ancient writing systems can have multiple, seemingly unrelated sound values, a characteristic known as polyphony.  For example, in the Akkadian language, the cuneiform symbol  has the values bad, bat, ba , be, and til.  While the first three of these sound values are clearly similar, the final two do not bear a resemblance to them. While today's students are used to long and short values for the same vowel, or hard and soft pronunciations of certain letters like the letter c, there is no equivalent example of a symbol with multiple, unrelated values in either English or Spanish that would help them grasp this characteristic of ancient writing.  An additional complication arises in many of these writing systems when the same symbols are used for both words and numbers.   The cuneiform symbol  can mean one or sixty in some contexts, while in others it might serve as a determinative to indicate a male personal name.
      All in all, many of the world's earliest writing systems consisted of hundreds--and, in the case of Chinese, thousands--of signs.   The complexity that results from the sheer number of signs is acknowledged today in most history books, and it was acknowledged by ancient peoples as well.  It was understood in the ancient world that learning to write was a significant challenge.  Students today live in a climate with very different attitudes about education and literacy.  Most people value education and the goal of literacy for all, and the educational standards movement has focused attention on the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic.  At the same time, expectations for rigor, quality, and high standards in our schools have risen as well.   The situation was very different in the ancient world.  The goal of literacy for all people was not realistic in ancient societies, given the nature of their writing systems.  With the many demands that religion, government, and survival put on these people, it was just not possible for a large portion of the population to devote the time and energy needed to master the art of writing.5  While most historians are reluctant to put a specific number on the level of literacy in ancient societies, it is clear that in most ancient societies literacy was not a realistic expectation for the vast majority of the people.6
     Given the limited literacy levels in ancient societies, the social status enjoyed by scribes was clearly related to their possession of valuable skills obtained through lengthy study and training. Scribal education involved learning signs and copying word lists and texts, a process impacted by the complexity of the writing systems; however, the end result of scribal training was not simply the knowledge of a set of signs and words. Scribal training, particularly in western Asia and Egypt, also had a significant vocational component. The palace and temple bureaucracies needed scribes not only to maintain their administrative records but also to carry out their many other important functions.  Thus, the status of scribes was due in part to literacy, but it was also due to their training in mathematics, economics, and divination, among other things--knowledge that was  critical to the operation of the temple and palace administrations.   In short, scribes possessed skills and knowledge critical to the operation of complex societies.
     Many primary source documents help shed light on the importance of the scribe in the administration of early complex society, illustrate the esteem in which ancient scribes were held, and show how the scribes themselves viewed their profession.  Many are easily accessible for use with students.7   In a papyrus from New Kingdom Egypt, for example, the scribe Nebmare-nakht reprimands an apprentice scribe Wenemdiamun for neglecting his responsibilities.  He begins by reminding him of the drawbacks of other occupations and concludes by emphasizing the uniqueness of the scribe's: "The scribe, he alone, records the output of all of them.  Take note of it!"8   Scribes also recognized the unique ability of a written text to preserve the memory of the writer.  Further on in the same papyrus, Nebmare-nakht reminds his comrade that it was only the man with skills, like the scribe, who would be remembered.9  Another New Kingdom papyrus echoes this theme, weighing the value of a scribe's work against other acts of human creation:

Man decays, his corpse is dust,
All his kin have perished:
But a book makes him remembered
Through the mouth of the reciter.
Better is a book than a well-built house,
Than tomb-chapels in the west;
Better than a solid mansion,
Than a stela in the temple!10

The ability to write, in the eyes of the ancients, brought both social status and the possibility that the scribe would live on through the texts that he--and sometimes she--had created.  Scribal training, though demanding, conveyed skills and knowledge critical to operation of early complex society, and this helps explain why the art of writing-- and those who could write-- were so highly valued.


The Flexibility of Ancient Writing Systems.

     While the complexity of early writing systems made learning them a challenge, these systems also possessed a remarkable degree of flexibility and malleability that allowed for their use by neighboring societies even when the languages were unrelated.  Since the invention of writing some five thousand years ago, distinctive writing systems have developed in a number of regions of the world, and these distinctive writing systems have often been adopted or adapted by neighboring societies as the media for their own languages.  This has led scholars to debate whether or not writing was "invented" once in human history, with the idea of writing then diffusing to other areas, or whether it was "invented" in a number of different regions independently of the others.11 12
     While the question of one invention versus many is an interesting one, it is probably not resolvable to anyone's satisfaction given the limited evidence available about the origins of many of the world's earliest writing systems.  The more important question for world history teachers and their students regards what happened next.  Once a distinctive writing system was adopted by the Chinese, for example, what was the impact of this fact beyond China's borders, on societies that did not possess a writing system?   A number of examples from history show that the initial development of writing in one society often led to its development in neighboring societies, and it is clear that these neighboring societies often adopted the existing neighboring system.  The borrowing of writing systems within different regions of the world was driven to a certain degree by cultural, religious, and political concerns, but it owes much to the flexibility of the earliest writing systems, a characteristic that facilitated this borrowing.
      Cuneiform, originally developed for the Sumerian language, is perhaps the most versatile of all the available candidates to illustrate this characteristic. Traditionally considered to be the earliest human writing system,12 cuneiform proved remarkably flexible, serving as the written form not only for languages in multiple language families, but also for languages that were conveyed logographically as well as languages that were conveyed alphabetically.  While the influence of the Sumerians on west Asian history came to an end with the fall of the Ur III Dynasty, their writing system continued to play a role for another two millennia through its use by the Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, and others.
     The Sumerian language for which cuneiform originated, like Basque and Etruscan, has no known connection to other languages, living or dead, and, as a result, cannot be placed in any known language family.  When the Akkadians conquered the Sumerian city-states around 2300 BCE, their language came to dominate the discourse in the region for the next thousand years.  The Akkadians, whose language is part of the Semitic family of languages,13 adopted cuneiform. Later still, cuneiform was adopted as the writing system for Old Persian, the language during Darius the Great's time and one of the languages of the inscription on the Behistun Rock.  Old Persian is not a Semitic language but a member of the Indo-European family of languages.  Given these facts, cuneiform was the writing system used for languages in two known language families (one Semitic and one non-Semitic) and one unknown.
     Similarly remarkable is the fact that cuneiform--which consisted of hundreds of logographic signs when used to render languages like Sumerian, Akkadian, or Babylonian--was also adapted as an alphabetic system for the Ugaritic and Old Persian languages.  Ugaritic, a short-lived cuneiform-based alphabet of about thirty signs, was created sometime after 1400 BCE. The Old Persian version, another short-lived example of cuneiform script, consisted of about forty signs.  While neither of these scripts were used for extensive periods of time, each gives further evidence of cuneiform's amazing flexibility and adaptability.
     Most students who are familiar with an Indo-European language know that Latin, English, French, and Spanish share a writing system, the Latin alphabet.  While students who are only familiar with English might not understand Spanish or French, they would recognize the letters used to write words in French and Spanish and, given some common vocabulary words, would recognize the sharing among these languages on at least a very basic level.  This sharing of signs, as well the sharing of sounds, words, and grammar, has been happening for a very long time.  The study of this sharing and its consequences has enriched the story that world historians can tell. The sharing of a writing system like cuneiform across language families is quite extraordinary when we compare it to the sharing of the Latin alphabet within the more recent generations of the Indo-European language family.  In contrast to the sharing of cuneiform, the sharing of Latin occurred among languages of the same language family, and the words in these languages were expressed alphabetically using the Latin alphabet.  The importance of Latin and the Latin alphabet in European and world history cannot be underestimated, but the extent of this sharing differs dramatically from that which occurred with cuneiform.
      East Asia provides a further example of the flexibility of early writing systems.  The Chinese writing system consists of thousands of characters and is highly complex.   John King Fairbank has described the nature of Chinese characters in this way: "Most Chinese characters are combinations of other simple characters.  One part of the combination usually indicates the root meaning, while the other part indicates something about the sound."14   After their development in the second millennium BCE, Chinese characters were adopted by neighboring societies, serving as the basis of the writing systems of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.  Both the Korean and Japanese languages are found in different language families than Chinese.  Chinese is in the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, while Korean is assigned by many linguists to the Altaic family.  Japanese, in contrast, remains mysterious in origin: some linguists consider it an isolate, some believe that it is linked to the Altaic family, and still others believe that it is of mixed origin.  Whatever the case may be, the adoption of the Chinese characters by these unrelated languages is akin to the adoption of cuneiform by Akkadians, Babylonians, and other West Asian peoples. Although ultimately the linguistic differences proved too great and each society modified or abandoned the Chinese-based scripts, each employed them for a significant period of time.
    Prior to script reform during the Choson Dynasty, the Korean language was conveyed by means of Chinese characters. With the reforms of King Sejong, the Koreans adopted a script known as hangul in the mid-fifteenth century CE, a phonetic script consisting originally of twenty-eight signs, later reduced to twenty-four.15 Written Japanese language changed along lines similar to Korean; in the ninth century CE the Japanese developed a set of some forty-six syllabic characters, the kana syllabary, for use in conjunction with Chinese characters.16  19
    In East Asia the nature of Chinese writing facilitated its borrowing by neighboring peoples, but this borrowing was also driven by interest in China's religious and philosophical traditions as well as their government; use of Chinese characters made sense in so far as it enabled these cultures to access written materials relating to these topics.  In the long term, however, Chinese characters were not a good fit for the spoken languages of China's neighbors, and the Koreans, Japanese, and Vietnamese reformed their scripts to better reflect the nature of their native languages.
      The development of distinctive writing systems in West Asia and in East Asia, with their borrowing by neighboring societies, is an excellent illustration of the significance of cross-cultural interactions in world history.17  The borrowing and modification of writing systems was facilitated by the nature of these writing systems, which allowed a great deal of flexibility in how they were used.


The Lingua Franca of  International Relations and Trade 


     Cross-cultural interactions require communication and thus have always been dependent to a certain degree on language and writing.  At different points in history, individual languages have dominated these interactions, a fact that has given rise to the phrase "lingua franca."18   Writing, as the medium of spoken language, has played a similarly important, though perhaps less celebrated, role in the history of these interactions.  While verbal communication was clearly critical to cross-cultural interaction among people of differing classes and levels of literacy, some interactions could not have been undertaken confidently without the aid of writing.   Merchants needed to record the specific details of economic transactions; government officials needed to record the various elements of treaties; monks needed to copy and preserve sacred texts; and all of these actions depended on writing.

     High school students may have some familiarity with the idea of a lingua franca. Students who have taken a modern world history course may know that the French language dominated international relations for almost three hundred years prior to World War I.  Many more students will recognize that during the last century English displaced French as the lingua franca of international relations and trade.  Before French and English, Latin was the lingua franca of the Mediterranean basin, dominating the religious, intellectual, and political discourse for almost a thousand years.  To this day it remains the medium of communication at the Vatican.  The identification of a lingua franca for a given age is not a modern development; it is possible to point to such a medium of communication in much earlier periods of history as well.19  23
      During the second millennium BCE, Akkadian was the lingua franca of West Asia and Egypt.   Akkadian dominated the diplomatic discourse of Egypt, and the famous   Amarna letters are written almost exclusively in Akkadian.20   According to Shlomo Izre'el, "Until relatively late in the second millennium, in many societies of Western Asia, it was the main language used to preserve knowledge and information; for some of these cultures, in fact, it may have been the only language they wrote."21  The use of Akkadian required scribes in Canaan, Anatolia, Egypt, and other parts of western Asia to learn Akkadian and the cuneiform script it was written in as well as their own languages and scripts. 24
      A number of large caches of tablets illustrating the importance of Akkadian and its cuneiform script were discovered in the last one hundred years.  One important cache comes from Mari, a trade center on the Euphrates through which timber, wine, cloth, and copper passed in the second millennium BCE.  Over twenty thousand tablets have been found at Mari.   The other cache was discovered accidentally at Tell El-Amarna, the site of Akhetaten, the capital built by the Eighteenth Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten.  This correspondence consists of over three hundred texts.22  A third cache was discovered in Ras Shamra, the ancient port of Ugarit.   According to H. W. F. Saggs, although some letters among the Amarna correspondence were written in Hittite cuneiform or in Hurrian, and some of the documents found at Ras Shamra were written in Ugaritic, Akkadian and its cuneiform script dominated the correspondence even when Akkadian was not the "mother tongue" of either of the correspondents.23 It is not entirely clear why Akkadian was the language of choice for correspondence in this period, but an analysis of these caches of tablets, from different periods within the second millennium BCE, testifies to the importance of the language and its script.
      The historical and cultural value of these documents is great.  Some of the texts provide important information about domestic life, and some provide information about palace business.  Perhaps the most important information that historians have gleaned from these texts concerns foreign trade and how rulers related to one another.  The Amarna letters, for example, contain the correspondence of the Egyptian ruler with the rulers of the Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians, Mittanians, and vassal states in Syria and Palestine.  Saggs cites a text sent by the king of Cyprus to the pharaoh of Egypt in which he apologizes for not sending a representative prior to an important ceremony:  "You wrote to me saying, 'Why did you not send your messenger to me?'. . .  I did not hear when you were performing the cermonial.  You should not take it to heart, for now that I have heard I am sending my messenger to you."24  The frequent references in these letters to "brotherhood" and "love" between these rulers may seem disingenuous or insincere, but  Professor John Huenegard has written that, "it was also a code for diplomatic relations.  'Brothers' were allies, and to 'love' one's brother was to be in a treaty relationship with the other king."25
     All in all, while these texts have enhanced our understanding of the historical periods that produced them, they also testify to the importance of Akkadian and its written medium, cuneiform.   Egyptian scribes, or at least some of them, had to learn Akkadian and the cuneiform script in order to undertake diplomatic communications on behalf of the pharaoh.  Not only is this remarkable in and of itself, but it also further testifies to the high level of education and years of training required of scribes who studied such different, complex languages and scripts.


The Decipherment of Ancient Writing


     Many of the writing systems that dominated the world of the ancient scribe fell into disuse long before modern times.  Ancient languages died, and, as a result, the writing systems that had been developed to convey them were abandoned.  One of the most interesting aspects of the story of ancient writing systems is how these lost writing systems have been recovered.  Key to understanding this story is recognizing the significant challenge these writing systems pose to would-be decipherers.

     The story of the great decipherments has been told in numerous books and articles and is readily accessible to students and teachers alike.26  While some of the most well-known decipherments took place in the nineteenth century, a number of scripts have been recently deciphered, including Linear B by Michael Ventris in 1952 and, more recently, Mayan.27  There are, nevertheless, a number of scripts that have eluded decipherment despite the efforts of many scholars, including Meroitic, Linear A, the Indus script, and Etruscan.28
     The story of decipherment should be shared with students in a world history class both because it clearly illustrates the way that humans have faced a difficult intellectual challenge and because successful decipherments have made significant amounts of evidence about ancient societies available to historians.  In some instances this evidence has resulted in a significant revision of the historical narrative as well.  For example, prior to the 1880s scholars had recognized logograms that seemed to be in the Sumerian language in a variety of texts, but it was not until the 1870s that tablets written exclusively in Sumerian cuneiform began to be unearthed in large numbers at the cities of Lagash and Nippur.  Sumerian came to be accepted as a unique language, forcing scholars to acknowledge not only the existence of the Sumerians but also their priority in the history of the Mesopotamian region.29  More recently, the decipherment of the Mayan script has caused historians to revise the view that the Mayans were essentially peaceful stargazers and to acknowledge that, in addition to their mathematical and astronomical achievements, they had a darker side that involved violent rituals and human sacrifice.30
     The decipherment of an ancient writing system requires confrontation with a number of problems, some attitudinal and some methodological.  Jean-François Champollion, the key figure in the decipherment of hieroglyphics, and others working with ancient scripts provide examples of decipherers facing these challenges.  The first of these challenges is the attitude that the scripts do not serve as the media for actual languages but are simply pictures or perhaps magical signs. The long-held belief about Egyptian hieroglyphs, characterized by Peter Daniels as a persistent myth "that they were some kind of arcane symbolism, encoding mystic secrets,"31 reflects this view as does older scholarship on Mesopotamian and Mayan societies.32
    Moreover, many scholars working with early scripts approached them through the lenses of their own writing systems.  In many cases this challenge included viewing their own languages and writing systems as superior to earlier ones and letting this knowledge impede their work with ancient scripts.  Getting past these prejudices was often a major hurdle to decipherment.
      Another important attitudinal issue was articulated by Maurice Pope, who argued that "confidence in the ultimate solubility of the problem" was a critical factor in the story of any successful decipherment.33 Even though some were willing to acknowledge that the signs they were investigating conveyed an actual language, they were not always able to make the leap to the idea that the writing could be deciphered.  In some cases, students of ancient scripts concluded, for example, that the names of rulers could be deciphered but that represented the extent of what could be learned from a particular script.34  Today scholars face the challenge of unknown scripts with the knowledge that many scripts have indeed been successfully deciphered, and they have models available for understanding how other scholars have successfully worked with unknown scripts.  This knowledge has clearly ameliorated some of the attitudinal obstacles that earlier scholars faced.
    Methodologically, scholars today possess a number of tools and strategies that have changed the way unknown writing systems can be approached.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in how the issue of complexity can be addressed by would-be decipherers.  Writing systems fall into three rough categories based on the number of signs they contain.   A writing system with twenty to forty signs can be spoken about with confidence as being primarily alphabetic in nature.  Likewise, a system with forty to ninety signs can be termed a primarily syllabic system, while a script with hundreds or thousands of signs suggests a primarily logographic system.35  When Champollion began working with hieroglyphics, or Rawlinson and others began working with cuneiform, they could count signs in the available inscriptions, but this more general understanding of writing systems--the idea that the number of signs might convey important information about the structure of the writing system--was not understood.

    In many instances the availability of bilingual or trilingual texts that provide the decipherer with a text in multiple scripts and languages, some known and some unknown, has been critical to the decipherment of unknown writing systems.   The Rosetta Stone is perhaps the most familiar example.  It contains an inscription praising the thirteen-year-old pharaoh Ptolemy V, and the same inscription is presented in two versions of Egyptian (one in hieroglyphics, the other in demotic, a simplified form of the script) and in Greek.   The final line of the Greek inscription, and of the other inscriptions it turned out, translates as follows: "This decree shall be inscribed on a stela of hard stone in sacred and native and Greek characters and set up in each of the first, second and third rank temples beside the image of the ever-living king."36 Scholars are rarely this lucky, but those working on the Rosetta Stone knew from this line that the stone held out the promise for unlocking the mystery of hieroglyphics because of the stated relationship among the texts in the inscription.

    The Behistun Inscription played a similar role in the decipherment of cuneiform. Henry Rawlinson, a British military officer and diplomat, recognized the inscription on the Behistun Rock as holding promise for the decipherment of cuneiform, even though it did not have a language that could immediately be read, like the Greek of the Rosetta Stone, nor did it contain a line similar to the one just cited in the Rosetta Stone that equated the inscriptions.  Nevertheless, Henry Rawlinson copied the inscriptions over the course of several expeditions between 1836 and 1847.  The inscriptions, he discovered, celebrate the rise and early reign of Darius the Great and tell the same story in Babylonian, Elamite, and Old Persian.37  All three languages used cuneiform as their script, but the Old Persian version was the first to be worked out because of its kinship to modern Persian and Rawlinson's familiarity with the language. 36
    Although the existence of multilingual texts was a great aid in the decipherment process of cuneiform and hieroglyphics, the lack of a bilingual inscription has not always been an obstacle.  Michael Ventris's work with Linear B provides one such example. Ventris worked by assigning number values to the signs and then analyzing the frequency of these signs and their combinations on a detailed grid, working out the meaning of the signs in this way. 37
    Most of the major decipherments have first involved the search for proper names in available texts; the identification of proper names, and the knowledge of the signs that could be gleaned from an analysis of these names, was then systematically applied to other sections of available texts with the goal of discovering the phonetic characteristics of other signs.38   The first breakthroughs in the decipherment of hieroglyphics were royal names like Ptolemy, Cleopatra, and Alexander.   Similarly, before Rawlinson attacked the Behistun inscription, others had deciphered Persian royal names like Xerxes, Darius, and Hystaspes.39 38
    The accomplishments of Champollion and Ventris make clear that the story of decipherment cannot be fully told without celebrating the role of the individual in the process. While the story of every great decipherment has involved the contributions of many individuals, often separated by time and space, no decipherment has been accomplished without the efforts of a key figure. Furthermore, the breakthrough has more often than not been the result of the decipherer's systematic approach.  Champollion was very much a scientist in his methodical approach to hieroglyphics and his determination to test his ideas against newly available evidence.40  This set him apart from contemporaries trying to solve the same problem. Ventris took up the challenge to decipher Linear B despite the lack of a bilingual text, and despite the fact that both the script and the language of the Linear B tablets were unknown.  Like Champollion, what distinguished Ventris from most of his contemporaries working to decipher Linear B was his method.  He adopted a complex, syllabic grid, which allowed him to assign, test, and revise possible consonant and vowel pairings of the Linear B signs.  Upon completion of the fourth revision of his grid, he had settled on a series of values for these signs that has stood the test of time.41  Thus, through the work of Ventris and others like him, we are now able to read scripts and understand languages that had been dead or lost for as many as three millennia.  Undoubtedly, the motivations that drove Ventris, Champollion, Rawlinson, and others to work on undeciphered scripts will continue to motivate others to work on the many undeciphered scripts that remain.




     Writing is a recent development in human history.  Many distinctively human behaviors such as burial of the dead, the creation of art, and the control and use of fire, all of which developed in the Paleolithic Age, have roots much deeper in human history.  Agriculture and a sedentary lifestyle, while more recent developments, can still be placed in the Neolithic Age, originating some ten to twelve thousand years ago.  By contrast, the oldest forms of writing are much more recent, having originated only about five thousand years ago in western Asia and Egypt.  The development of writing in other parts of the world took place even more recently.  Thus writing is a new human behavior, having appeared very recently in evolutionary terms.

     Yet the role that writing has played in human history belies the relative youth of this behavior.  The written evidence of early societies confirms the ubiquity of writing in the essential features of human life. It was clearly a critical component in the efficient functioning of the temple and palace in Mesopotamia and Egypt.  For these reasons it is critical that teachers introduce students to the key themes that have characterized this human behavior.  Students need to know how the languages they use differ from the languages used by people in ancient times.  Providing students with images of texts and tablets, which are readily available in books and at museum and college Web sites, will provide students with a basis for visual comparisons of ancient and modern writing systems.42  Similarly, providing students with information on the numbers and types of signs in these writing systems will allow for comparisons with the numbers and types of signs in the writing systems students know.  These issues need to be addressed early on in a world history course, certainly during the study of the early history of Mesopotamia and Egypt.  Beyond the study of the writing itself, providing students with examples of the variety and types of documents produced by scribes in early societies will help them to understand the role of writing in many facets of complex society.43 Again, a wide array of documents are readily available in books and on the Internet.44 41
     Although the study of documents on scribal education may not be as critical a topic to cover in the early stages of a world history course, it would provide a potentially fruitful contrast with students' own educational experiences and thus be worthy of inclusion.  Sumerian documents on the reality of scribal education and stories about generational tension over attention to studies will certainly resonate with many students.45 42
     Finally, it is critical that the process of decipherment be discussed as well.  Students need to know how ancient writing systems, conveying languages that were for all intents and purposes lost, were recovered.  Historians are limited in the extent to which they can understand the worldview of a particular culture without being able to read their writings.  Besides making the thoughts of many little-understood peoples accessible, the process of decipherment has revealed the existence of lost societies, like that of the Sumerians.  There are a number of appropriate contexts in which a discussion of decipherment could occur in a world history class.  Clearly, it could be part of a discussion of early writing, when the world's first writing systems are being taught. Decipherment could also be taught much later, as part of a unit on the nineteenth century. This period, characterized by competition both for colonies and for material remains from the ancient past to fill major European museums, was the backdrop for the great decipherments.46  A more general presentation of decipherment would present it as an example of a great intellectual achievement, worthy of discussion on its own merits.   The discovery of the evolutionary process, the expansion of our knowledge of elementary particles, the changes in human comprehension of the size of the universe--these are achievements that are rightly celebrated in history books.  The decipherment of an unknown writing system is a similarly impressive accomplishment, and Champollion, Rawlinson, and Ventris deserve the same recognition and historical status as figures such as Einstein, Hubble, and Darwin. 43
     While the nature of early writing may seem complex and inaccessible, there are a number of key issues that teachers can readily study, understand, and confidently present to their students.  The story of human history, and the history of complex societies in particular, cannot be fully told without including the story of writing. 44

Biographical Note: David Burzillo teaches world history at the Rivers School in Weston, Massachusetts.


The author gratefully acknowledges the comments provided by his colleagues Cathy Favreau, Jennie Jacoby, Jack Jarzavek, and Ben Leeming.

1 At the outset it should be made clear to students that language and writing are not the same and developed at different times in human history. Hieroglyphics and cuneiform, which will be discussed later in the article, are writing systems used for a variety of languages but are not themselves languages.

2 Although it is not possible to say when humans began nonverbal communication, human groups clearly needed this ability very early in their history in order to hunt and survive in a group setting.  Speech is a more recent development.  Current evidence suggests that humans were physically capable of speech about fifty thousand years ago. Writing was first used approximately five thousand years ago.

3 According to U.S. Census reports, English is the language spoken at home for 81.5 percent of the some fifty-three million school-aged children in the country.  For 12.8 percent of the remainder, Spanish is the primary language spoken at home.   United States Census Bureau, "Table 2. Language Use, English Ability, and Linguistic Isolation for the Population 5 to 17 Years by State: 2000," Summary Tables on Language Use and English Ability: 2000 (accessed 25 November 2003).

4 Linguists define a phoneme as the smallest unit of distinctive sound in a language.  They define a morpheme as the smallest meaningful unit of speech, consisting of one or more phonemes.

5 While scholars have acknowledged the difficulty of confidently placing a value on the level of literacy in ancient societies, they have not necessarily viewed the complexity of ancient writing systems, in and of itself, as placing a limit on the extent to which literacy could permeate a society.  According to Herman Vanstiphout, "In any case, the relative complexity of the writing system will have had little or nothing to do with the spread of literacy.  Japan has the highest degree of literacy by very far in comparison to some other industrial giants, which goes to prove that literacy is far more dependent on a nation's political and social priorities than on the intricacies of the script" ("Memory and Literacy in Ancient Western Asia," in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, vol. 4, ed. Jack M. Sasson [New York:  Charles Scribner's Sons, 1995], 2188-89). For the discussion of scribal training see chapter three of C. B. F. Walker, Reading the Past: Cuneiform  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989); chapter one of Samuel Noah Kramer, History Begins at Sumer (Garden City: Anchor Doubleday, 1959); chapter five of A. Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977); and chapter five of H. W. F.  Saggs, Civilization before Greece and Rome (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

6 Saggs relates the story of the Ur III King Shulgi, who instructed his scribes to read his hymns out to singers so that they could perform them (Civilization before Greece and Rome, 104-105).  J. Nicholas Postgate concludes that prior to the introduction of an alphabet, "Literacy surely reached its peak in Old Babylonian times . . . both in the variety of roles it played and, one suspects, in the number of people who could read and write" (Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History [London: Routledge, 1994], 69).  Barry J. Kemp has written that Old Kingdom Egypt was divided into three classes: "literate men wielding authority derived from the king, those subordinate to them (doorkeepers, soldiers, quarrymen, and so on), and the illiterate peasantry" ("Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period c. 2686-1552 BC," in Ancient Egypt: A Social History, ed. Bruce G. Trigger, Barry J. Kemp, David O'Connor, and Alan Lloyd [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996], 81).

7 It must be noted that these documents were written by the scribes themselves, so there is clearly significant bias in them.

8 Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976),  170. 

9 See Kramer, History Begins at Sumer, 1-16, for material on the Sumerian view of education and scribes.

10 Lichtheim,  Ancient Egyptian Literature, 177.  Additional primary sources on Egyptian scribes can be found at James B. Pritchard, ed., Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 431-34.

11 The way we make sense of the origin of writing is similar to how we deal with similar issues regarding the development of agriculture.  The available evidence suggests that agriculture was independently invented in at least seven of the world's regions and diffused out from them.  In each of these seven regions a specific combination of animals and crops were domesticated.  See Bruce Smith, The Emergence of Agriculture (New York: Scientific American Library, 1995).  See also C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky and Jeremy Sabloff, Ancient Civilizations: The Near East and Mesoamerica (Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1995), 60.  With regard to writing, Assyriologists have tended to support the idea of a Mesopotamian influence on the development of Egyptian writing, given the evidence of other cross-cultural influences that preceded the development of writing in Egypt.  See Henri Frankfort, The Birth of Civilization in the Near East (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1956), 129-32; Saggs, Civilization before Greece and Rome, 72; and Postgate, Early Mesopotamia, 56.  Lamberg-Karlovsky and Sabloff take the position that "writing may have evolved independently in both areas as a result of the convergence of a parallel evolution" (Ancient Civilizations, 134). A brief summary of the debate over the relationship of hieroglyphics and cuneiform can be found in Trigger, Kemp, O'Connor, and Lloyd, Ancient Egypt, 37-38.

12 Historians have generally considered Sumerian and Egyptian to have been developed at about the same time, with Sumerian usually being given a slight edge.  Recent discoveries in Egypt have caused many to revisit this, and some Egyptologists have suggested that hierogylyphs predate cuneiform. In recent years much has appeared in the press on the topic.  See John Noble Wilford, "Carving of a King Could Rewrite History," New York Times, 16 April 2002; Elizabeth J. Himelfarb, "First Alphabet Found in Egypt,"  Archaeology, January/February 2000, 21; Larkin Mitchell, "Earliest Egyptian Glyphs," Archaeology, March/April 1999, 28-29; and Vijay Joshi, "Ancient tablets show Egyptians may have been first to write," Boston Globe, 18 December 1998.

13 The Semitic language family has two major branches, the East Semitic and the West Semitic.  Akkadian is considered part of the East Semitic branch of the family, which also includes the Akkadian dialects of Babylonian and Assyrian.  The West Semitic branch includes many more languages, including Hebrew and Arabic, with which some students may be familiar.

14 John King Fairbank, China: A New History  (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), 42-43. 

15  Joshua Fogel writes of Korean, "The very fact that the Koreans, a culturally advanced country in numerous ways, did not develop an alphabet of their own (hangul) until the fifteenth century, well over a millennium after adopting Chinese, speaks volumes about the honored place of the Chinese written language in their lives" ("The Sinic World," in Asia in Western and World History, ed. Ainslee Embree and Carol Gluck [Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1997], 684). Fogel also discusses the significance of the religious, cultural, and political ideas and institutions that came into each of these countries as a result of the adoption of Chinese characters, connections that helped unify East Asia.

16 Edwin Reischauer has described the situation before the Japanese undertook script reform in this way: "The great cultural advance in Japan during these centuries is all the more remarkable for having been achieved through the medium of an entirely different type of language and an extraordinarily difficult system of writing" (The Japanese [Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1977], 47).

17 Besides the examples cited here, there are other perhaps more familiar examples available, including the borrowing of the Phoenician alphabet by the Greeks.  In addition, the Latin alphabet was borrowed from the Greeks, perhaps by way of the Etruscans. 

18 The first usage of the phrase "lingua franca," according to the Oxford Old English Dictionary, is by John Dryden.  The other examples provided come from both Mediterranean contexts. 

19 Given the recent publicity about Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ, many students may know about the existence of Aramaic.  This language replaced Akkadian as the lingua franca of western Asia and was in turn later displaced by Arabic. 

20 For a brief overview of the Amarna texts see Barbara Ross, "Correspondence in Clay," Aramco World, November/December 1999, 30-35.

21 Shlomo, Izre'el, "The Amarna Letters from Canaan," in Sasson, Civilizations of the Ancient Near East., vol. 4, 2412. 

22 Four letters from the Mari archive and twenty-eight letters from the Amarna correspondence are reproduced in Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament.

23 Saggs, Civilization before Greece and Rome, 182.

24 Saggs, Civilization before Greece and Rome, 184.

25 Ross, "Correspondence in Clay," 31-32.

26 C. W. Ceram, Gods, Graves, and Scholars: The Story of Archaeology  (New York: Bantam Books, 1972).   Though originally written in 1949, this book has been reissued and is very accessible to high school students.  Ceram describes the decipherment of cuneiform and hieroglyphics in detail. 

27 For Linear B see John Chadwick, The Decipherment of Linear B (London: Cambridge University Press, 1990); and Andrew Robinson, The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris (London: Thames and Hudson, 2002).  For Mayan see Michael Coe, Breaking the Maya Code (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999), and "A Triumph of Spirit: How Yuri Knorosov Cracked the Maya Hieroglyphic Code from Far-off Leningrad," Archaeology, September/October 1991, 33-44 ; and David Roberts, "The Decipherment of Ancient Maya,"The Atlantic, September 1991, 87-100.

28 See Andrew Robinson, Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts (New York: McGraw Hill, 2002). Robinson devotes chapters to the current thinking about the undeciphered scripts of Meroitic, Linear A, Etruscan, Proto-Elamite, and Rongorongo.

29 Samuel Noah Kramer, The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 19-26. 

30 See Michael Coe, The Maya (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999).

31 Peter Daniels, "The Decipherment of Ancient Near Eastern Scripts," in Sasson, Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, vol. 1, 82.

32  With reference to Assyrian, Daniels reports, "The interpretation of Sumerian proved to be the work of many decades, during which a serious controversy arose as to whether or not it was an actual language or a code devised by Assyrian priests to conceal the sacred mysteries" ("The Decipherment of Ancient Near Eastern Scripts," 86).   Coe cites similar attitudes among mid-twentieth century Mayanists, such as Richard Long and Paul Schellhas, who doubted that the Mayan glyphs represented language (Breaking the Maya Code, 137-44).

33 Maurice Pope, The Story of Archaeological Decipherment: From Egyptian Hieorglyphics to Linear B (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1977), 186. 

34 See Pope, The Story of Archaeological Decipherment, and Coe, Breaking the Maya Code.

35 See Coe, Breaking the Maya Code, 43-44, for a nice summary of this and other general issues related to decipherment. See also Robinson's introduction to Lost Languages, esp. 40-43; and Chadwick, The Decipherment of Linear B, 41-43.

36 Stephen Quirke and Carol Andrews, The Rosetta Stone: Facsimile Drawing with Introduction and Translations (London: British Museum Publications, 1988).

37 Rawlinson's transcription involved a good deal of risk, as the inscription was made on the side of a rock cliff about 340 feet above ground. George Cameron of the University of Michigan studied the inscription and made latex molds of it in 1948.  His work and many close-up photographs from his study can be found in George Cameron, "Darius Carved History on Ageless Rock," National Geographic, December 1950,  825-44.

38 Pope, The Story of Archaeological Decipherment, 162.  The decipherments of Ugaritic and Linear B did not follow this pattern.

39The identification of individual words in an unknown writing system can be an important step in the translation of the language behind it, but it does not always guarantee that decipherment will follow.  Etruscan is a good example of this fact.  Because the Etuscan alphabet is related to the Greek alphabet, Etruscan words can be read, including many personal names. But because of the types of texts available, mostly funerary, and length of available texts, scholars have not been able to move from this very basic level of understanding of words to an understanding of the language as a whole. 

40 Pope, The Story of Archaeological Decipherment, 189.

41 Pope writes of this method, "But what made the Linear B decipherment unique and caught the imagination of the world was the abstract phonetic grid initiated by Kober and greatly extended by Ventris.  Its effect was to define the employment of the syllabic signs more closely than before.  Instead of saying 'sign x stands for a syllable' it became possible to say 'sign x stands for a syllable sharing one element with the syllable represented by sign y.' So the writing rules were known more precisely, and this made up for the smallness and imprecision of the target area" (The Story of Archaeological Decipherment, 188).

42 See the suggested Web sites at the end of the article for examples.

43 In at least one case, that of the Myceneans, the existing corpus of documents is entirely administrative in focus.  Since most students will probably associate Homer and his Iliad and Odyssey with the Myceneans, it would probably be worth reminding students that Linear B was not the Greek of Homer, and that Homer's works are not examples of Mycenean literature. 

44 For example, Paul Halsall maintains a large number of excellent websites with downloadable, primary source documents relating to many historical periods and themes.  The address of his Ancient History Sourcebook is ancient/asbook.html.

45 See Kramer, History Begins at Sumer, 1-16.

46 Pope makes clear that Thomas Young was very jealous of Champollion and both was critical of his method and took credit for his ideas (The Story of Archaeological Decipherment, 66-68, 84).  This jealously was certainly due in part to the fact that Champollion got credit for the breakthrough that Young claimed, so it had a personal aspect to it.  It would not surprise me, however, in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and Anglo-French competition in Asia, if some of the jealousy that Young felt resulted from the fact that a Frenchman rather than an Englishman was responsible for the decipherment.

Suggested Reading

Ceram, C.W. Gods, Graves, and Scholars: The Story of Archaeology.  New York: Bantam Books, 1972.  The sections on the decipherment of hieroglyphics and cuneiform are very accessible for high school students. 

Chadwick, John.  The Decipherment of Linear B.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.  Chadwick, who worked with Michael Ventris, wrote this brief account for the general reader.

Chadwick, John. Reading the Past: Linear B and Related Scripts.  Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1997.  Each volume in the Reading the Past series contains a roughly sixty-page survey of the topic with excellent descriptions and illustrations.  See Davies and Walker below for other volumes from this series.

Coe, Michael. Breaking the Maya Code. London: Thames and Hudson, 1999. An excellent history of the decipherment of the Mayan script.

Davies, W.V. Reading the Past: Egyptian Hieroglyphics.  Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1987.

Erman, Adolf ed.  The Ancient Egyptians: A Sourcebook of Their Writings.  New York:

Harper Torchbooks, 1966.  Contains some primary sources on education in New Kingdom Egypt. 

Friedrich, Johannes.  Extinct Languages.  New York:  Philosophical Library, 1957.  A very readable treatment of decipherment and ancient scripts.  This book was in press when the author heard about the work of Ventris, so an appendix on Linear B was added.  

Oppenheim, A. Leo.  Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.  Contains good sections on writing and scribes. 

Pope, Maurice. The Story of Decipherment: From Egyptian Hieroglyphics to Linear B. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975.  Coe calls this the "best general book on decipherment." 

Postgate, J.  Nicholas.  Ancient Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History.  London: Routledge, 1995.  Section on the evolution of writing in Mesopotamia. 

Robinson, Andrew.  Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts. New York: McGraw Hill, 2002.  Robinson has written many books on writing and language.  He also published a biography of Michael Ventris in 2002.

Saggs, H.W. F.   Civilization Before Greece and Rome.  New Haven: Yale, 1989. Chapters on writing and education. 

Sasson, Jack ed. Civilizations of the Ancient Near East.  Volumes 1-4.  New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1995.  Volume 1 contains a section on decipherment by Peter Daniels.  Volume 4 contains a section devoted to language, writing, and literature, with contributions form Denise Schmandt-Bessarat, D.O. Edzard, John Huehnegard, Edward Wente, and Laurie Pearce.  Many valuable articles can be found in this reference work. 

Von Soden, Wolfram.  The Ancient Orient: An Introduction to the Study of the Ancient Near East.  Grand Rapids: William B. Erdmans, 1994.  Chapter on writing and writing systems. 

Walker, CBF.  Reading the Past: Cuneiform.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Suggested Websites  The Sumerian Language Page The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature  The Cuneiform Digital Literary Archive of UCLA List of Sites on Hieroglyphics The Duke Papyrus Archive  The University of Michigan Papyrus Collection  Website of Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, which has a section featuring opinions about the Indus Script, script resources, and an Indus "dictionary"



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