Assignment 2 – Early writing systems

DUE 1 Feb 2010 at 2pm via bSpace.

Go to visit the exhibit on the Development of Written Language in the Ancient Near East in the Brown Gallery of Doe Library (just inside of the main entrance). After the visit, answer one of the following questions in a paragraph or two (200-300 words), referring to specific items on view.

1. How did the origins of writing in Sumer grow out of concerns about the secure transmission of data?

–5000 years prior to any Sumarian writing system had developed, Sumarians were using clay tokens to count both agricultural and manufactured goods. They realized the problems that there were too many token lying around so they then developed a system of clay containers to hold all the clay tokens. Years later, the Sumarians began marking the outside of these containers to depict which type of tokens were inside, making it much easier to manage the tokens. This technology was updated once again, this time the clay tablets were replaced by impressions of clay tablets into clay. During this time, the Sumarians also implemented a counting system so they did not have to make one impression for every one token, they created groups. Somewhere between 4500 and 4000 BCE, Sumarians develop the beginnings of a written language with a series of pictures of physical items next to a set of letters and numerals denoting the person who owned the object depicted. Finally, Cuneiform (latin for “wedge-shaped”) was invented in Mesopotamia by the Sumarians around 2600 BCE. Sumarians used this language to send written messages, document their history, legends, mathematics, astronomy, and other pursuits. This exhibit also demonstrated the wide range of different mediums on which cuneiform was put on. For example, there was clay tablets of medical documents used in the first millennium BC, pictures of large stone obelisks telling the stories of great kinds and the battles they won, leather sheets with laws written on them, writings impressed into different types of metal, and even multi-lingual inscriptions by 525 BC. –-Eric

–As described in class, the origins of writing in Sumer evolved from the clay tokens marked by symbols, used as a counting system for “agricultural and manufactured goods.” This system evolved from the need for these financial transactions to be sound and secure, to ensure the recipients were getting all they were entitled to. The exhibit shows printed images of these clay tokens as they progressed to containers with the pictographic symbols on the outside, and eventually to clay tablets with just the symbols. The concern over the security of the transaction, or transmission of data, led to the creation of a cuneiform script that would eventually be written on clay tablets such as the one shown in the exhibit, where offerings made to temples had a written receipt that would catalogue everything the temple should have received.From these early cuneiform pictographs Sumerians evolved their system of writing further, advancing their ability to transmit data securely from one person to another. The exhibit showed a clay tablet where the symbols were believed to have been a prescription for medicine. Nowadays, such information would be considered private and necessitate a need to be secure; perhaps Sumerians thought similarly of medical information and developed a system of cuneiform symbols to represent their range of remedies and guarantee a patient got the right medicine. The exhibit also shows the various other secure documents, such as the 1870 BC legal code and the lists and ledgers of commodities, that demonstrate how the Sumerians’ concern over the accuracy of their informational records led to the increased development of their writing system. This culminates in their need to train scribes to transcribe their own “history, legends, mathematics, astronomy” to help preserve their cultural data. – Elliot

— The Sumerians developed a writing system whose wedge-shaped strokes would influence the style of scripts in the same geographical area for the next 3000 years. Eventually, according to the exhibition, all of these diverse writing systems, which encompass both logophonetic, consonantal alphabetic, and syllabic systems, became known as cuneiform.

For 5000 years before the appearance of writing in Mesopotamia, there were small clay objects in abstract shapes, called clay tokens, that were apparently used for counting agricultural and manufactured goods. As time went by, the ancient Mesopotamians realized that they needed a way to keep all the clay tokens securely together to prevent loss or theft, so they started putting multiple clay tokens into a large, hollow clay container which they then sealed up. However, once sealed, there was a problem of remembering how many tokens were inside the container.

To solve this problem, the Mesopotamians started impressing pictures of the clay tokens on the surface of the clay container with a stylus. Also, if there were five clay tokens inside, they would impress the picture of the token five times, and so problem of what and how many inside the container was solved. Subsequently, the ancient Mesopotamians stopped using clay tokens altogether, and simply impressed the symbol of the clay tokens on wet clay surfaces. They also added other symbols that were more pictographic in nature, something that resembles the natural object they represent. Moreover, instead of repeating the same picture over and over again to represent multiple objects of the same type, they used different kinds of small marks to “count” the number of objects, thus adding a system for enumerating objects to their incipient system of symbols. –Jamin

— Bullea to Berkeley
Modern scholars hypothesize that the origins of writing stem from trade. Professor Nunberg’s lecture and a display card at Doe Library, En Syria: aux orinines de l’ériture by Charles Bettin, made the point stated above, only Nunberg’s lecture was a little more specific and detailed. Outlining the progression from tokens to writing, I will reference from and summarize Nunberg’s lecture and the card from the Doe Library. This brief summary will also address Sumerian concern for the secure transmission of data.
Sumerians exchanged iconic tokens as contracts for trade: for example, one farmer gives another farmer three sheep tokens for two cow tokens—now the tokens serve as a contract to their deal and a later transaction of actual sheep and cows. As Nunberg described, a technology emerged that revolutionized humanity—the bullea. The bullea is a hollow ceramic ball that served as a seal to the deal, i.e., people secured the contract’s integrity by placing their tokens in the ball at the time of verbal agreement. In addition, people began signifying the token types on the outside of the ball and—eventually—noted their deals on a clay tablet without the exchange of tokens. This is how scholars hypothesize the genesis of writing: from iconic tokens to the impression of icons and symbols on clay tablets. The point is: Sumerians were concerned about the secure transmission of data over time—between meetings—and thus developed tokens, bullea, and the first system of writing. Not since the ax has a technology revolutionized man’s triumphant march to Berkeley as the bullea. – Joel

–As the Sumerians developed their irrigation and agriculture systems and became more prosperous, they needed a way to communicate and preserve trades in writing. About 5000 years before the beginning of writing in Mesopotamia, the Sumerians used clay tokens to represent the trades and deals they were making. In order to prevent tampering, they then sealed the tokens in clay jars. This ensured that the data would remain untouched by any people and would securely preserve data over time. Later the Sumerians also started imprinting images of the tokens directly on the outside of the clay containers, and eventually they did away with the tokens and jars all together and started stamping symbols directly on wet clay tablets.

In the Doe Library exhibit there is a replica of a Sumerian tablet depicting the acquisition of land to a person in the household or temple of deity and the division of that land into four fields. This tablet authorizes ownership of the land and perhaps describes how the land will be cultivated. Using clay tablets also prevented any tampering as the symbols on the clay could not be changed once it dried. These symbols were pictographs often with more iconic signs to symbolize agricultural and manufactured goods. They also began using small marks as a form of a counting system rather than stamping a symbol over and over.

In addition to trades, writing developed to communicate and preserve contracts, land divisions, and legal codes. A medical tablet was also on display listing the prescriptions used by a pharmacist in the Nippur region of Mesopotamia. All of these things needed a way to be preserved over time without being altered, and thus the Sumerian’s writing system developed as a way to securely transmit data between people and time.  –Rachel

2. How does the exhibit illustrate the range of functions to which early writing was put?

–When looking at the exhibit on the Development of Written Language in the Ancient Near East in the Brown Gallery of Doe Library, one can see the wide range of functions to which early writing was put. As we discussed in class, one of the displays showed the clay tablets on which stamps and indexing were used to record payments in Mesopotamia. Additionally such a system was used to record inventory. A legal document written in Sumerian cuneiform was displayed that dated back to 1870 BCE. This was an important use of writing, as it allowed for a standard set of laws that could be maintained over time and shared across the country. Another unique use of writing was demonstrated by the tablet in the shape of a sheep’s liver. The inscriptions on the anatomically detailed shape helped Babylonian diviners train their successors. Writing was also used as a method of differentiating the public; although Akkadian was the spoken language in Mesopotamia, Sumerian was still used as the written language of sacred literature, meaning these writings were only accessible to a certain portion of people.

The importance of writing in ancient times is highlighted in the social standing of scribes in Egypt. They underwent rigorous training and composed a complete level of the bureaucracy in their time. Scribes served many critical purposes, such as recording laws, collecting taxes, writing letters and marriage contracts, recording harvest levels and food distribution data. However as time passed, the ability to write and read was passed on to more of the population. Balls of clay were displayed that demonstrated ancient vocabulary and handwriting homework, showing that the methods of teaching language to youth hundreds of years ago is not all that different than they are today. Ancient writing was used for such diverse purposes, many of which can be still seen in modern day. —Michelle

–The exhibit in Doe library depicted how written language was used in recording data and oral traditions in growing communities. The changing economy and culture in Ancient Egypt required many new methods of communication that could be transmitted to many different people. The fertile lands Ancient Egyptians settled around supplied them with greater resources and created a new culture and social development. The State encouraged trade with other nations, created construction projects, and formed a military. All these developments required a way to transmit messages and ensure instructions were carried out and given correctly. This growth allowed for a new independent writing system, hieroglyphics, both phonetic and logograms. Scribes were trained to master the written language and were used to record laws, note food supply, collect taxes, create contracts and licenses, and note harvest production. The Rosetta Stone from the Ptolemic era is exemplary of how written language was used. It holds King Ptolemy’s orders for certain tax repeals and construction projects for temples and royal statues.

Early writing was also used for religious and spiritual inscriptions. In the Near East, bowls contained inscriptions that symbolized protective spirits and dangerous spirits. These bowls were used for protection and in prayer. The different figures were used to determine which bowls to use and for what purpose. The Dead Sea Scrolls also show how written language was used for religion. The scrolls are written in a mixture of Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew and do not contain punctuation or word-spacing. They include many biblical stories, psalms, hymns, and record their beliefs, codes, and laws. In Mesopotamian Sumer, cuneiform was carved into wedges as clay and used as medical tablets. They included both spiritual and physical pains, cures and prescriptions.  –Alejandra

–The exhibit on the development of writing systems presented in Brown Gallery of Doe Library illustrates that various cultures utilized written language in a wide range of functions even in relatively early stages in the development of their respective writing systems. It is shown that early writing systems were integrated into the respective religious and artistic cultures of the peoples that invented them. There are items that evidence the importance of writing in the recording and communication of religious beliefs and practices, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as totems that were used directly in the practice of religion, such as ceremonial bowls found throughout the Near East that feature written prayers. The Egyptians used their hieroglyphic system to write mortuary texts with spells and magic formulas that were applied to serve the spirits of the dead. Early writing was utilized in artistic endeavors as well—the Akkadians wrote musical staff and the Persians wrote poems.
The exhibit also showed that early writing systems also played tremendous roles in the maintenance of secular social functions, such as in government, commerce, and scientific study. Aramaic documents from Egypt show records of land ownership and tenure and legal conflicts over resources. There is also evidence that the Egyptians developed a bureaucracy of scribes whose function it was to record marriage contracts, harvest levels, food supply, and tax collection. The Sumerians used written language to record medical prescriptions, legal codes, and receipts for commercial transactions. The secure transport of documents depended on the use of personal and official seals on envelopes of clay. Still other uses of early writing are found, such as astronomical observations and diplomatic agreements between kings in cuneiform. –Yi

–The exhibit at the Doe Library illustrates many of the principle uses that early writing was put to after its origins in Sumer. These examples of writing and the uses they were put to reflect the classes of people who were using writing. The technology of writing was, after all, a tool for the upper classes, who had the time and exposure to learn

Writing was useful in state craft. The Assyrians used writing to create an homage to kings–an early form of propaganda and media for those classes able to read. Obviously, as the origins of writing in Sumer show, writing was also put to use in business transactions and in state records keeping and inventories, where fixed symbols and records became of indispensable use. The Babylonians created a code of laws which may have been the first stirrings of political justice in the Code of Hammurabi. Once “set in stone”, even the King would find it difficult to change the law, one assumes. At the very least, the King would have to face loss of credibility as he violated the very laws that he had commanded to be recorded. Written  text, in this case, became a way of preserving the rule of fixed law, rather than relying on the capricious whim of a despot.

Writing also became a useful tool for creating and invoking magic on a daily level and in the creation of idols and talismans, as the exhibit shows. Religion was perhaps the most eager to accept and utilize writing, since its texts, once written, could take on an air of finality and reality that simple oral repetition could not. There were many examples of early religious texts in the exhibit, such as: the Dead Sea Scrolls, early Caananite homage to Baal and versions of the Talmud. –Omar

–The exhibit in Doe Library details the development of early writing. The cases around the hall describe the historical development of different writing systems, although some writing systems were adopted for use by multiple spoken languages.  The displays highlight examples of these early writings, but the text focuses on relaying history through a loose chronology of developing writing cultures, rather than details about the uses and form of early writing itself. However, from looking carefully at the variety of sources displayed, it is apparent that early writing was used for a wide range of functions.

The earliest functions of writing were Sumerian clay records of transactions. The exhibit emphasizes this early use, and continues to display many ancient records of business and administrative transactions, between individuals, temples, and even Kings. Other prominent sources reveal that early writing was also used to record religious systems, pass messages between generations, record victorious triumphs, and send diplomatic messages. Yet the exhibit also illustrates a wider range of uses for early writing. I was most surprised by the volume of poetry record in writing. Early writing also recorded geometry and vocabulary records used to educate students. One source displayed and translated an early written source of a sophisticated law text. There were also many transcriptions of myth and culture. It became clear to me that early writing was put to nearly as broad a range of use as our own writing system today. Early writing may have developed out of a need for administrative transaction records, but it soon began to occupy a central place in the transmission of all forms of culture. —Nikola

–The objects in the exhibit not only show the surface on which written script was used on, but they also reflect how language was used in these early stages. For instance, one of the exhibits showed pictures of inscription marked on the outside of bowls. These bowls were magic bowls and it was common in the Near East at the time to write prayers on these bowls for protection.
In ancient Egypt, the people used to use language to write spells and magic formulas. Some of the writings were placed in tombs for a similar function as the one mentioned above: to protect the dead. The ancient Egyptians also wrote hymns to the Gods.
In Assyria, there was a picture in a book on display of an obelisk. Writings on obelisks were popular and they usually had lists of the king’s military campaigns and tributes which the king demanded from the nations he had conquered including such things as gold, silver, lead, ivory, etc.
And finally in Sumer, there were pictures of clay pots, on which the early Sumerians wrote symbols as pictographic tablets. On these pots, there were lists of commodities identified by drawings of the literal object along with numerals and personal names as records of transactions amongst the farmers. The Sumerian language evolved as the people started to transcribe history, stories, math and science. Soon people needed extensive schooling to become literate in these activities.
What I have noticed about the early functions of writing is that they often were inscribed on simply things that contain, such as the Sumerian clay pot of the pots that have magic in them. Even the Egyptian tomb is one that contains the dead. Also, writing was commonly used for religious purposes or to pay tribute to power figures such as the king. – Summer

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