Assignment 25 Writing Systems In Early Civilizations


Sumerian      (back to top)

The Sumerian language was not deciphered until the nineteenth century of our era, when it was found to be different from both the Indo-European and Semitic language groups. Fifteen hundred cuneiform symbols were reduced in the next thousand years to about seven hundred, but it did not become alphabetic until about 1300 BC. By 2500 BC libraries were established at Shuruppak and Eresh, and schools had been established to train scribes for the temple and state bureaucracies as well as to legally document contracts and business transactions.Schools were regularly attended by the sons of the aristocracy and successful; discipline was by caning.

Sumerian, the oldest known written language in human history, was spoken in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and peripheral regions) throughout the third millennium. BC and survived as an esoteric written language until the death of the cuneiform tradition around the time of Christ. The Sumerian language, which is related to no other known tongue, was only properly deciphered this century. A considerable literature in Sumerian is currently being reconstructed from fragmentary clay tablets housed in the museums of the world. A logogram is a meaningful cuneiform sign.

The most important words in Sumerian had their own cuneiform signs, whose origins were pictographic, making an initial repertoire of about a thousand signs or logograms. Sumerian was an agglutinative language not just in its verb construction, but also in its noun or morpheme construction. The earliest known writing comes from Uruk and has been dated to about 3,300BC. It took the form of 'word-pictures' drawn with a stylus on tablets of damp clay. Each word-picture represented an object. Much later, the complete system had more than 700 signs. Tablets measured about 5cm wide and 2cm thick.
Writing developed as a convenient way to keep records of produce and accounts of trade. It much later became used to record literature and history. The word-pictures from Uruk developed into the script now called cuneiform. The pictures gradually became 'ideographs', an object also meaning an 'idea'. Then came 'phonograms' representing sounds as well as the meaning of a picture. Cuneiform was a syllabic script with hundreds of wedge-shaped signs that developed from these pictures. The Sumerians were the earliest to write in cuneiform, closely followed by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Elamites, Hittites, Hurrians and the Urartu from Anatolia.

Cuneiform was the language of politics until the fifth century BC. It died out and was replaced by the 22 letter Aramaic in about 900BC. The Sumerians of southern Mesopotamia, who assigned their own word-sounds to the symbols, wrote the earliest known documents in cuneiform. Tools included clay tablets and a wedged shaped stylus to produce writing.
Over 200,000, many from city of Mari, have been preserved. Sir Henry Rawlinson deciphered writing after finding the "Rock of Behistun" in present-day Iran.

Egyptian      (back to top)

The language consists of approximately 121 bi-literals, 75 tri-literals, and various determinants and phonetic complements. The bi-literals were individual symbols which expressed two sounds and the tri-literals were individual symbols which express three sounds. Phonetic complements are monoliterals found in front of and/or behind multi-consonantal signs in order to provide clarity and also to complete the meaning of the word. They normally repeat sounds already found in the word, but have no separate sound value.

Special attention was given to the Aesthetics of the language. The sentences were not written with one individual symbol after another. All words took a quadrangular form which some scholar call the square principle; the symbols are placed in an imaginary square and the upper ones take precedence over the lower. The majority of the language was written from right to left except for occasional specific purposes. The determinants were symbols which had no sound value and were used at the end of the word to decipher the meaning between two words with the same symbols. The determinant normally came at the end of the word and demonstrated the meaning of the entire word. Many of the determinants which were added to the words (sometimes more than one per word) did not seem to be relevant to the word's meaning to most European scholars, but I will show that there is a connection with the language to the spiritual beliefs of the people who spoke the language.

These symbols, "Medu Netcher" [Mdw Ntr], cannot be understood without understanding African spirituality and African spirituality cannot be understand without understanding Medu Netcher. The language had to be deciphered in two ways; first it had to be transliterated from symbols to orthographic text and then translated into English.


Harappan      (back to top)

Archaeological and linguistic evidence indicates that the Dravidians were the founders of the Harappan culture which extended from the Indus Valley through northeastern Afghanistan, on into Turkestan. The Harappan civilization existed from 2600-1700 BC. The Harappan civilization was twice the size the Old Kingdom of Egypt. In addition to trade relations with Mesopotamia and Iran, the Harappan city states also had active trade relations with the Central Asian peoples.

To compensate for the adverse ecological conditions, the Harappans first settled sites along the Indus river. (Fairservis 1987:48) The Dravido-Harappans occupied over 1,000 sites in the riverine Indus Valley environments where they had soil and water reserves. The Harappan sites are spread from the Indus Valley to Ai Kharnoum in northeastern Afghanistan and southward into India. In Baluchistan and Afghanistan Dravidian languages are still spoken today. Other Harappan sites have been found scattered in the regions adjacent to the Arabian sea, the Derajat, Kashmir, and the Doab.

The Indus region is an area of uncertain rains because it is located on the fringes of the monsoon. Settlers in the Indus Valley had to suffer frequent droughts and floods. Severe droughts frequently occurred in the Indus Valley so the people dug wells to insure for themselves a safe supply of water.To compensate for the adverse ecological conditions, the Harappans settled sites along the Indus river.The Mature Harappan civilization is divided into two variants the Sorath Harappan and the Sindhi Harappan. The Sindhi Harappan sites are sites characterized by elaborate architecture, fired brick construction, sewage systems and stamp seals. The Sindhi Harappan styles have been found in Gujarat, Kutch, the Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. The major Sindhi cities include Mohenjodaro, Lothal, Rangpur, Harappa, Rangpur, Desalpur, Shirkotada, Manda, Ropar, Kalibangan and Chanhudaro.

The Sindhi Harappans possessed writing, massive brick platforms, well-digging a system of weights-and-measures, black-and-red ware (BRW), metal work and beads. (Possehl 1990:268) The Harappans were masters of hydraulic engineering.They were a riverine people that practiced irrigation agriculture. They had both the shaduf and windmills.(Fairservis 1991) In the Harappan sites domestic quarters and industrial areas were isolated from each other. The Sorath Harappan sites lack stamp seals, ornaments and elaborate architecture. Sorath is the ancient name for Saurashtra. The Sorath Harappan sites are located in Saurashtra, Kulli, and the Harappan style of Baluchistan and Gujarat. The Dravido-Harappans occupied over 1,000 sites in the riverine Indus Valley environments where they had soil and water reserves. The Harappan sites are spread from the Indus Valley to Ai Kharnoum in northeastern Afghanistan and southward into India. In Baluchistan and Afghanistan Dravidian languages are still spoken today. Other Harappan sites have been found scattered in the regions adjacent to the Arabian sea, the Derajat , Kashmir and the Doab.


Mayan      (back to top)

The Mayans evolved the only true written system native to the Americas and were masters of mathematics.The Maya writing system (often called hieroglyphics from a vague superficial resemblance to the Egyptian writing, to which it is not related) was a combination of phonetic symbols and ideograms. It is the only writing system of the Pre-Columbian New World that can completely represent spoken language to the same degree as the written language of the old world. The decipherment of the Maya writings has been a long laborous process. Bits of it were first deciphered in the late 19th and early 20th century (mostly the parts having to do with numbers, the calendar, and astronomy), but major breakthroughs came starting in the 1960s and 1970s and accelerated rapidly thereafter, so that now the majority of Maya texts can be read nearly completely in their original languages.With the decipherment of the Maya script it was discovered that the Maya were one of the few civilizations where artists attached their name to their work.

The Maya developed a highly complex system of writing, using pictographs and phonetic or syllabic elements. Their writing was highly sophisticated. Most likely only members of the higher classes were able to read their symbols.Maya writing was composed of recorded inscriptions on stone and wood and used within architecture. Rectangular lumps of plaster and paint chips are a frequent discovery in Maya archaeology; they are the remains of what had been books after all the organic material has decayed.Folding tree books were made from fig tree bark and placed in royal tombs. Unfortunately, many of these books did not survive the humidity of the tropics or the invasion of the Spanish, who regarded the symbolic writing as the work of the devil.

The Maya also carved these symbols into stone, but the most common place for writing was probably the highly perishable books they made from bark paper, coated with lime to make a fresh white surface. These 'books' were screen-folded and bound with wood and deer hide.They are called codices; codex is singular. Unfortunately zealous Spanish priests shortly after the conquest ordered the burning of all the Maya books. While many stone inscriptions survive - mostly from cities already abandoned when the Spanish arrived - only 3 books and a few pages of a fourth survive from the ancient libraries. Only four codices remain today. The contents of the codices must have varied, but some of them were evidently similar to astronomic almanacs. We have examples of a Venus table, eclipse tables in a codex in Dresden. There is a codex in Paris that seems to contain some kind of Maya Zodiac, but if it is and how it must have worked are still unknown.

Another major example of Maya almanacs are present in the Madrid Codex. The fourth codex is called the Grolier and was authenticated as late as 1983. These codices probably contained much of the information used by priests or the noble class to determine dates of importance or seasonal interest. We can only speculate as to whether or not the Maya developed poetry or drama that was committed to paper. The codices probably kept track of dynastic information as well.Mayans had a voluminous literature, covering the whole range of native interests either written, in their own peculiar "calculiform" hieroglyphic characters, in books of maguey paper or parchment which were bound in word, or carved upon the walls of their public buildings.

Twenty-seven parchment books were publicly destroyed by Bishop Landa at Mani in 1562, others elsewhere in the peninsula, others again at the storming of the Itzá capital in 1697, and almost all that have come down to us are four codices, as they are called, viz., the "Codex Troano", published at Paris in 1869; another codex apparently connected with the first published at Paris in 1882; the "Codex Peresianus", published at Paris in 1869-71; and the "Dresden Codex", originally mistakenly published as an Aztec book in Kingsborough's great work on the "Antiquities of Mexico" (London, 1830-48).

Besides these pre-Spanish writings, of which there is yet no adequate interpretation, we have a number of later works written in the native language by Christianized Maya, shortly after the conquest.Several of these have been brought together by Brinton in his "Maya Chronicles". The intricate calendar system of the Maya, which exceeded in elaboration that of the Aztec, Zapotec, or any other of the cultured native races, has been the subject of much discussion. It was based on a series of katuns, or cycles, consisting of 20 (or 24), 52, and 260 years, and by its means they carried their history down for possibly thirteen centuries, the completion of each lesser katun being noted by the insertion of a memorial stone in the wall of the great temple at Mayapan.


Chinese      (back to top)

Preamble (from Keightley)

The origins of Chinese writing are closely associated with the great shift from Neolithic culture to Bronze Age civilization. This shift is of particular interest in China, where it occurred roughly in the second millennium B. C., because it lies at the genesis of one of the world's great civilizations and because it largely occurred in isolation. The writing system that emerged was, like most of the features of China's Bronze Age civilization, indigenous. The origins of writing in China are also of particular interest because there have been few cultures where high literacy, high civilization, and aesthetic prowess have been so intimately combined. Literacy in China involved not only a profound knowledge of the written classics but also the ability to wield a brush effectively, either to paint a landscape, usually with a poem inscribed at its side, or to write Chinese characters in a way that conveyed not just their meaning but also their aesthetic vitality and the taste of their composer. As Michael Sullivan has put it:

From the merchant who hoists up his newly written shop-sign with ceremony and incense to the poet whose soul takes flight in the brilliant sword-dance of the brush, calligraphy is revered above all other arts. Not only is a man's writing a clue to his temperament, his moral worth and his learning, but the uniquely ideographic nature of the Chinese script has charged each individual character with a richness of content and association the full range of which even the most scholarly can scarcely fathom.

A man absorbed with writing was absorbed not just with words but with symbols and, through the act of writing with the brush, with a form of painting and thus with the world itself. To the lover of high culture, the way in which something was written could be as important as its content. There is still a third reason why the origins of Chinese writing are of interest: namely, the seminal and overriding importance of Chinese script in the general history of East Asia. It is hard for us today to conceive of the cultural dominance that imperial China exerted over Korea, Japan, and much of Southeast Asia. China was to this area what the Near East, Greece, and Rome were to Europe. China was the source of all high culture, and its influence, including that of its writing system, was accordingly great during the early periods when civilization was developing in the neighboring countries. This influence derived in part from China's early start. China was developing an advanced Bronze Age civilization by about the middle of the second millennium B.C., well before the surrounding areas reached such a stage. The influence also derived from the remarkable attractiveness of Chinese civilization, including its writing system. The majestic words with which Edward Gibbon opened his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—"In the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth and the most civilized portion of mankind"—might equally well have been applied to the empire of China in the middle of the second century before Christ, and certainly to several high points of the dynastic cycle since. China's impact on Japan from the Nara period of the seventh century onward, to cite but one example, was immense. Nara was modeled on the T'ang capital of Ch'ang-an, and its administration, law codes, court rituals and ceremonies, and even Buddhist religion, were all based on Chinese prototypes. The Chinese writing system, with its multistroke characters and its emphasis on elegant calligraphy, was a key element in this wave of sinification.

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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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