“Cuneiform: The World’s Oldest and Most Marvellous Writing System” Irving Finkel (Part 1 of BSS Study Day)

At the end of February the Bloomsbury Summer School had a study day on cuneiform, presented by Irving Finkel called “The Wonder of Cuneiform: A Passionate Exploration of Some of Mesopotamia’s Most Important Ancient Records”. Finkel is a curator at the British Museum and has recently written a book (and presented a TV programme (post)) on a tablet containing a previous unknown version of the Ark myth including details of how to build an ark. As I’m learning Akkadian it sounded like an interesting day to go to. He’s a good speaker, managing to be entertaining as well as informative about a subject that could easily have been quite dry. There were four talks throughout the day, the first was an overview of the writing system and the other three each covered a text in cuneiform. I had intended to write a single post about all four talks, but after writing this first one I’ve decided to split it into four separate posts.

Cuneiform: The World’s Oldest and Most Marvellous Writing System

The title of this talk was definitely chosen to tweak the noses of the Egyptologists in the room (of which there were many as most of the BSS’s study days are Egypt related). It worked too – I was sat between J and Janet (who we know from the EEG) and they were both muttering about how hieroglphs are better than cuneiform 😉

Cuneiform writing originates sometime in the 4th Millennium BC in the geographical area that is now Iraq. Finkel told us about a couple of theories of its origin – the first one he talked about was the token theory, which he isn’t terribly convinced by. In this theory first small objects (stones, clay shapes) of particular forms were used to keep records, and later these were drawn onto clay and became pictographs. He thinks this theory requires being selective about the evidence, so isn’t very plausible. Instead he pointed out that cylinder seals exist at least as far back as evidence of writing so it’s not a big jump to think they started by drawing pictographs on clay to keep records.

The earliest writing in Mesopotamia is bureaucratic in nature. People were beginning to live in cities, which have a much higher administrative overhead and so record keeping began to be essential for the rulers of the population. Finkel said that mathematics begins at the same time as writing, for the same sorts of reasons, and the first examples found written down are quite complex so they must’ve been doing it for a while (I think by mathematics he means arithmetic and accountancy not algebra etc).

The first known language written in cuneiform (c.3300BC) was Sumerian, which is a language that has no known relatives. Obviously there were likely to’ve been some at the time, all the rest have just died out without trace. Akkadian, which I’m learning, was written in cuneiform later on and is a Semitic language.

The Big Idea of writing was the move from pictographs representing concrete things (sheep, cow, house etc) to using them to represent sounds, and also abstract grammatical necessities. An example of the first is that the word for “beer” is “kash”, so when you want to write down something about the Kashite King you use a beer pictograph for the first syllable of his country. And you know from context that this is kash-something not beer-something. An example of the second is that the beer pictograph is also used to represent the word for “its”, for no other reason that that this was decided to be so. Dictionaries are found from very early in the history of cuneiform listing these arbitrary designations.

The system (which signs mean what things) was clearly developed once – the only change in cuneiform writing over the 3,000 years that it is used is that the shapes of the signs become more cursive. The repertoire remains the same, and they represent the same syllable sounds or concepts throughout (even when writing a different language). Finkel believes that this was may even have been the work of a single individual who was both charismatic enough and important enough to enforce his (or her) ideas on the rest of the scribes. And once you have a functional system in place then bureaucratic inertia keeps it in place. The system that was developed isn’t necessarily the best or easiest system! Each sign has more than one value, so the system is inherently ambiguous. Also there are often multiple ways of writing the same sound, chosen mostly by whim of the scribe. Context is very important for working out what was being written about. And I’m discovering it gets worse when it starts being used to write Akkadian as not all features of the language are represented in the writing system – long and short vowels for instance. Context is all that tells you if you’re reading nārum (river) or narûm (stela).

development of the sign for head in cuneiform
Development of the sign for head
Made by wikipedia user Dbachmann

Prior to the standardisation the writing system had developed from plain pictographs in two ways. First the basic signs were modified to represent more words. For instance the sign for “head” could be turned into one representing “mouth” by adding a line for a mouth. And then you could add to that sign the one for “bowl”, and you represent “ration”. The next step (which continued long after standardisation of the sign repertoire) was to move from pictographs to more stylised & abstract signs. This began with a change in how the signs were drawn – at first a point was used to actually draw in the clay, but then they began to use wedges of reed to make impressions in the surface of the tablet (the shape this produces is what “cuneiform” as a word refers to). If you look at the diagram above you’ll also notice that they rotated the signs 90° at some point (I thought it was later in the process than that diagram suggests, however).

Finkel finished this introductory talk by giving us a brief overview of what the British Museum has in its collection of cuneiform tablets. There are around 130,000 of them in the museum, 25,000 of which came from a library in Nineveh. This is analogous to the much later Library of Alexandria in a couple of ways – first because it was supposed to be complete, and second because it got burnt to the ground. However unlike papyrus scrolls clay tablets are actually preserved by burning, and so it was dug up in modern times nearly intact. Apparently there’s going to be a new display relating to this in the British Museum soon.

In Our Time: The Written Word Part 5

This Sunday we listened to the last part of the In Our Time series on the Written Word. This covered the impact writing, and printing, has on science. As was a theme throughout the series they started with someone telling us how the Mesopotamians did it first, followed up by someone telling us how Egypt actually got there are least as early if not earlier 😉

The first scientific writings that we know of (from either culture…) are astronomical observations, applied arithmetic (for things like building pyramids, as well as accountancy) and medical observations & treatments. The Greeks then took this further by systematising & analysing data on many different things, biological as well as physical & chemical. The programme made the point that a lot of our words for scientific processes come from the Greek – analyse, theory etc. This Greek knowledge & process was then transmitted via the Islamic world to Renaissance Europe and taken forward by new scientists in the Enlightenment era.

They spent a while looking at Newton’s notebooks, which are kept at Cambridge. These (and other scientists’ notebooks) evolved from the commonplace books that educated people would keep at this time into something closer to a modern lab book. Commonplace books were notebooks where someone would write down facts & quotations & such that caught their interest or that they wanted to remember. Newton’s books started off like this, but soon became places where he wrote down what experiments he’d performed & what he’d observed – like diagrams of a particular prism set up & details of what he saw. Or an experiment where he stuck a wooden bodkin in behind his eyeball and deformed the curvature of the eyeball and recorded what that did to his vision …

So the handwritten word was (and still is) important in the doing of science, in recording what you tried, what happened, what you think that means & what you’ll do next. The printed word is important in the dissemination of scientific knowledge – relatively large numbers of identical books can be produced, and then not only can more people read them but also discussions can refer to specific things & be sure they’re the same in the book their correspondent has.

Overall this was an interesting series, although at times it felt far too Euro- or British-centric. I guess this was partly because he was visiting British places that held early writings, and those collections are bound to be biased towards more local things.

In Our Time: The Written Word Part 4

This episode focused on the use of the written word in telling stories – both literature and history. It opened by looking at cuneiform tablets on which are written various legends including the legend of Gilgamesh. This was discussed as being one of the first known instances of literature in the ancient world & I could see J raising his eyebrows disbelievingly during it … and sure enough, they followed up with a segment on Egyptian literature, which can be shown to have started earlier although most of the surviving fragments are from later schoolboy copies of the originals.

Then we took a quick jump to Greece & Herodotus the Father of History. Having just watched the Andrew Marr programme which also touched on Herodotus I auto-completed that in my head with “and also known as the Father of Lies” 😉 I did wonder what the Chinese might’ve had to say about Herodotus being the first historian, I don’t know but I rather suspect that they’ll’ve had historians before him. Having said that, this is a particular definition of history – history as both a narrative & as an argument, so perhaps that is something new at that time. I really don’t know. [Edit: J pointed me at a bbc news article about Sima Qian, who seems to be regarded as the Herodotus equivalent for China – he published his history of China (Shiji) around 91BC and thus post-dates Herodotus by a few centuries. So I take back that criticism.]

And then the programme was onward to medieval Europe. In particular he looked at examples from Anglo-Saxon England – both of literature (Beowulf) and of history (Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England). He made the point that this is the moving of English culture from an oral tradition to a written one – the copy of Beowulf that survives was about the size of a hardback book, so portable and able to be read by oneself or to a small group. Whereas the original context of the poem would be that it was memorised by trained performers, so you’d hear it at public recitals (or private if you were wealthy enough).

And that move from people remembering things (and maybe not remembering them …) to writing them down leads into the next episode which is about the impact of writing & printing on science.

In Our Time: The Written Word Part 3

This third part of the series on the Written Word was covering how books and writing helped the spread of global religions during the first millennium AD. And also how the needs of the religions helped spread literacy & printing. It was split into 3 sections – covering Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. Common to all three is the way that once the words are written down it’s easier for prospective converts to find out about the religion in question, so it’s easier for it to spread. And also theologians can more easily debate & discuss the finer points of detail if those details are written down and the same for everyone.

Christian writings have been in the form of bound codices from early on. This format was partly used because of the desire to restrict what was canon in the scriptures – so if you had your bound copy of the Bible then you had the books that you were supposed to and no more or less.

In Islam the tradition is that the Prophet Mohammed was illiterate, and thus the teachings in the Koran were initially preserved orally and subsequently written down by scribes. Writing has a dual significance – in the temporal world it was used pre-Islam for contracts and other things where the details needed to be fixed, and this is why the Koran was written down. In the spiritual sense it is also a metaphor for how Allah fixes what is happening in creation.

And Buddhism helped to drive the invention of printing in China. The belief is that there is virtue in repetition – making repeated images of the Buddha will gain you merit, for instance. So writing down the teachings of Buddhism and printing multiple copies of them will not just provide people with their own copy of the text but is inherently a religious undertaking.

Incidentally, I’m always mildly surprised that radio shows like this work – you can’t see anything obviously, but the experts & Bragg describe things and you can normally visualise them and understand the point of what’s going on.

In Our Time: The Written Word Part 2

On Sunday morning we listened to the next episode in the In Our time series on the Written Word. This one was all about books, from the earliest known ones through to the development of the printing press. And the secondary theme was how the various changes in writing technology revolutionised time and time again the availabilty of the knowledge that was written down.

Before the 1st century AD most writing was on papyrus & in scrolls, but each time you open a scroll the actual fabric that is written upon gets damaged. So once the idea of how to bind books was developed this took over as the standard format for preserving writing & knowledge. Bound books could also use parchment or vellum as their surface for writing (I think this is because if you have a long continuous roll then it’s easier to make when using papyrus), and this is more durable in damp climates. And books are more easily put in one’s pocket and carried about.

The next change that was mentioned was the putting of spaces between words – invented by Irish monks, apparently, to make it easier to learn to read a language than none of them were native speakers of (latin). And then we moved on to the development of paper, which was originally invented by the Chinese and came to Western Europe via Islamic Arabs. Paper is much cheaper and easier to make than parchment and vellum, and this made books more available to scholars. And once the material was cheaper mass production systems were set up to make more books more quickly – so one way this was done was to break a master copy of a book into sections and then give these to several different scribes, each would then write his part in a few days and the sections would then be bound together. Each copy was then made direct from a master copy so more accurate as well as much more quickly than one scribe copying out a whole work. One of the experts Bragg talked to pointed out that even though it’s hard to tell from actual book prices what the effect was it’s possible to tell by looking at the numbers of books people had. So in Chaucer there is a tale of a scholar who is very proud of having 10 books, but once these mass produced paper books were available even undergraduate students could have twice as many.

Then comes the printing press & the Gutenberg Bible. Printing again was an invention of the Chinese, several centuries earlier, and I’m not quite sure if the idea made its way to Western Europe or if this was an independent invention. But even if he got the idea from somewhere else the revolutionary thing was movable type, to allow you to do many different pages with the same equipment. And this then made books even more easily available (and cheaper again) than they had been. One of the experts refered to it as “the Internet of its day”, meaning that it was as revolutionising to the society then as the Internet is to us in terms of ease of sharing of knowledge & scholarship.

It was a very Western centric episode, even though China and the Middle East were mentioned, it was only in relation to developments in Western Europe. So that seemed a shame, but there are still 3 episodes so they may redress the balance a bit.

In Our Time: The Written Word Part 1

Back in January there was a five part series on the Written Word as part of the In Our Time series, which is what we’ve chosen to listen to next. This is a slightly different format in that instead of 3 guests in the studio Bragg is going to museums etc & talking to the curators & experts there.

This programme covered the initial development both of writing itself, and of the alphabetic system we use today. He went and looked at (and described to us) examples of early cuneiform writing, Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese oracle bones, which are three of the four independent inventions of writing. It’s interesting that something so fundamental to modern civilisation was invented so few times – as well as the three I listed there’s also an independent development on the American continent, but all other writing systems were developed from other systems or directly inspired by other systems.

(It’s actually a little controversial to say that Egyptian writing was developed independently like I did in the preceding paragraph – it may’ve been inspired by cuneiform, however the earliest known Egyptian writing is getting to be early enough that it’s more likely to be independent. Also J’s been reading a book about the development of writing, and it also makes the point that the Egyptian and Mesopotamian writing systems developed for different reasons – Mesopotamian writing was proto-book keeping, Egyptian writing had religious significance. So probably independent origin.)

I actually found the Chinese stuff the most interesting as it was completely new to me – in ancient China (in the Shang Dynasty) the rulers read oracles in the pattern of cracks that you get by using a hot poker on ox shoulder bones. These oracles were then recorded on the bones by scribes in the earliest known forms of modern Chinese characters, which makes the Chinese system the longest consecutively used modern writing system.

The programme also name checked Linear A (undeciphered) and Linear B (a syllabic system that was an early way to write Greek), and then moved on to the development of our more familiar alphabet. It made the point that the Greek alphabet was the first to write down vowels – previous alphabetic systems were for Semitic languages and due to the way those languages are structured the consonant sequences are less ambiguous (as I understand it). So to a native speaker it’s a lot more obvious in context what a word is than it would be in English (or presumably Greek).