Written language distinguishes humanity from the animal world, but the knowledge of writing is the hallmark of civilization. Writing and even language itself, is a form of cultural expression. Both reflect our individual and collective cultures.
Pictures Mean Words
To the historian the greatest achievement in human history is the development of graphic images or signs as a system of recording a spoken language and hence the preservation of a window into ancient life itself. Written artefacts from archaeological excavations demonstrate that humans were knowledgeable writers as early as the 4th Century BC. The earliest inscriptions use pictures to express single words.
Ancient writings have been found at various sites throughout the Near East. This picture writing slowly developed into a wedge-shaped script that used clay tablets as the medium. Known as cuneiform writing it was produced by marking soft clay with a chisel-tipped stylus to form triangular impressions that stood for syllables and words.
Meanwhile, the Egyptians were developing a different set of scripts. Known as hieroglyphs it consisted of word pictures, syllable pictures and refined letter pictures.
Not Many Literate
By the 2nd Millennium BC there were four major writing systems in the world all based on pictographic or cuneiform methods. The number of symbols required for each language to function was nearly as great as words being used. This narrowed the knowledge and extent of writing to a privileged, limited few. As writing evolved the number of signs was reduced until there were sufficiently few (perhaps 20 – 30) that could be known by a wider majority of people. This condensation of symbolic style marked the introduction and recognition of the alphabet and a common education was then possible.
Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta …
Alpha and beta are the first two letters of the Greek alphabet and join together to bring us the word. The term has come to mean a limited number of letters listed in a fixed order. The first list of letters to have been discovered was found in Ugarit belonging to the 14th Century BC. It is strikingly similar to that of Hebrew and Greek.
The Hebrew Script
The Hebrews adopted an alphabetic script around the 12th Century BC from the Canaanites but developed their own national script before the 9th Century BC. Hebrew script is evidenced on the The Gezer Calendar, The Stele of Mesha and the Seal of the Servant of Jeroboam. As the symbols developed they became more cursive in style. There were 22 letters in the Hebrew list.
The Aramaic Script
The Aramaeans adopted the Phoenician script and this developed to look more like shorthand compared to Hebrew letters due to it being widely used by trading nations. Archaeologists have located early Aramaic inscriptions at Armazi, Georgia; on an ostracon from Nisa, Turkmenistan; and on papyrus at Elephantine.
The Roman Alphabet
The Latin or Roman alphabet has played the most important role in the history of modern civilization. Latin inscriptions have been found, while excavating in the Roman Forum, on a bronze brooch from the 6th Century BC. Latin adopted the local Greek script as had been used in the Italian colonies. The Romans dropped or altered a few of the archaic Greek symbols and their alphabet consisted of only 23 letters, as they were still to add J, U and W.
The ancient scripts on clay, stone and papyrus surrender a wealth of information to the historian. It remains the role of the archaeologist to sift the sands of time in order to rediscover those events that the ancients thought worthy of recording.