How did writing begin?

Lecture transcript

Professor Tony Sagona, 10 May 2012

  [music]

Dr J. Patrick Greene:  Good evening, everyone. Welcome to this first lecture in the series accompanying our new exhibition, "The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia," which as you know features fantastic objects from the British Museum, which are presented jointly with Museum Victoria, which has added in its expertise in multimedia, and presentation, and lighting, and so on. I'd like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we're gathered, the people of the Kulin Nation, and pay respect to their elders, past and present. This is now the fourth successive exhibition in which we have partnered with the University of Melbourne to present an accompanying series of speakers to fill out some of those intriguing questions that the exhibitions throw up.

The success of this lecture series has built year by year, and the expectation level has built year by year. The attendance tonight is a fantastic representation of the interest that's now shown in these lectures. So the lectures provide a background to "The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia," and tonight we've got just a perfect example of that, because tonight's lecture is, "How Did Writing Begin?" It's going to be presented by Professor Tony Sagona from the University of Melbourne.

He's Professor of Archaeology at the University. His research interests range in time from late prehistory to contemporary historic periods. He's carried out fieldwork in Turkey, the Corcoses, Syria and in Australia, and published widely primarily on the history and civilizations on the Ancient Near East. He's just told me he's about to set off to do field work in Georgia. So without any further ado, please join me in welcoming Tony to the stage, Tony Sagona. [applause]

Professor Tony Sagona:  Patrick, thank you for that introduction. Ladies and gentlemen, I'm delighted to be able to start the series of specialist lectures associated with what I'm sure you agree is an exquisite exhibition on Ancient Mesopotamia. One of the best I've seen, I must say. I'd like to do so by talking about nothing less than what I think is probably one of the greatest, if not the greatest, legacy of the ancient world. That of course is writing, and how it all began. Now, I think you would agree with me that it is hard to imagine, is it not, a world without writing. The ability to record language, to the ability to record thoughts and ideas using a flexible, communicative system is fundamental to our daily existence.

Yet the earliest writing system that we have was invented only about five and a half thousand years ago, around let's say 3500 or so BC, in ancient Sula, Southern Mesopotamia. Now, before we turn to this question of the invention of writing, let's make sure that we understand the time period that we are talking about, and also the landscape that we will be referring to.

Now, in this next slide you will see a very reduced and schematic timeline with three dots. 3500 BC, 300 BC, and the present. Now, 3500 to 300 roughly represents the timeframe of what we can call the Great Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Now that's not to say that there wasn't a period before 3500.

In fact, it goes right back to very remote prehistory, but this segment of time, 3500 to 300, represents the period in which some of the greatest inventions and the greatest developments in society can be attributed to. For instance, the invention of writing, the subject of tonight's lecture. The emergence of cities around 3500. The monumental buildings and art belong to this period as well.

So what we see around the middle of the 4th millennium is the ushering in of what we can call a very highly complex social, cultural, and political schema of development of culture. Now, that's the timeline. And I say 300 BC of course, because around 300 BC, Alexander the Great decided that he was going to put an end to all of this, and marched on all the way to Persepolis, which he torched, around 300 BC. And although the cultures of the Middle East continued on, the political institutions change.

And in fact after 300 or so BC, we can say that the Near East became Hellenized. The so‑called Hellenistic Period. But let's go back to 3500. Now, the area that we're looking at is the area down in the bottom right‑hand corner. Which of course is the Middle East, the Near East, whatever you want to call it. As a reference point there, I put a red dot in to show you roughly where Babylon is. These are one of those satellite images, and it shows you the great Eurasian steps up north, north of the Black Sea. But you will see that around Babylon, the color is different to the area above it and to its side.

That of course is because Mesopotamia, which is that pale yellow area around Babylon, is basically an alluvium. The alluvium of the two greatest rivers of the Middle East, the Tigris and the Euphrates, which start up in Turkey, which is that green bit that is above the word "Near East." You will notice also that just above the words "Near East," there is an arc or a crescent shape, the mountains or the Tauruses. This is the so‑called Fertile Crescent, a term that was coined back in the 1920s by James Breasted, of the University of Chicago.

We'll be referring to that area around the word "Babylon," Greater Mesopotamia, even though the word Mesopotamia means "between the two rivers," the civilizations of Mesopotamia are actually quite expansive, and they actually reach the Mediterranean Sea as well, we'll be referring to that area there. But specifically, we're going to zero in to Southern Mesopotamia, because that's where writing began. The area in and around Baghdad.

The area near Basra, at the tip of The Persian Gulf. Where the two rivers of the Tigris and the Euphrates converge in and around the area of sites like Ur, Urdu, Nippur and elsewhere. Now, one thing that I want to stress about the Middle East. That if you were to travel through it and you were looking for things that are ancient and look at the landscape, one thing will be very obvious to you if you look out for them. That is that the whole landscape is dotted, absolutely dotted, by things that look like this.

Now, this is an ancient settlement. It's a big ancient settlement, but nonetheless, it's what we call a mound, or an ancient "Tell," to use the Arabic. What you see here is the area of the perimeter. You can see the fortification walls. In the center is a citadel. The bit between the citadel and the fortification wall is the residential area. This is ancient Ebla, an Italian excavation or Tell Mardikh that was begun back in the 1960s. What you see in the distance there is the modern village of Tell Mardikh. This gives you a wonderful shot of what the ancient some of the remnants of the cultural heritage of the Middle East.

There are literally hundreds of thousands of tells or mounts to top the landscape of the Middle East from the Black sea to the Persian gulf to the Indus valley to the Mediterranean Sea. And the one thing that you need to remember about this "tells" is that they constitute debris of mud brick villages stacked one on top of the other.

And, of course, the art of good archaeology is to try and peel away those levels without mixing them up. Because if you mix them up then you are in trouble. And to give you an idea of what an ancient village may have looked like, here is the mud brick village from Morocco which is built entirely of mud brick, and of course, mud bricks up the top there being made it is cheap, it is available, it is ideal for the climate.

So we are looking at a landscape that is essentially one of mud brick.

Now having said that about 99 percent of it is mud brick. Down in the very south of Mesopotamia the architecture was probably different. Because what you see here is a photo taken many years ago of the marshes down in the very southern tip of Mesopotamia or Iraq, where it was an area of lagoons of marshy areas and so on.

And you can see here that the architecture is actually not mud brick but much better suited to the marshes and that is of reed. So let us bear that in mind because, although this is Mesopotamia not all of Mesopotamia had mud brick architecture.

Alright. Let us turn our attention then to writing. This is the landscape that is the timeframe and let us have a look at what we have got. Now the tips we are going to talk about were inscribed as you know if you are gone through the exhibition, they were inscribed on clay and they were baked. And that is one of the reasons why they have been preserved all these years. Because clay is fairly indestructible once it is baked. Here you see an example from the British museum of an early pictographic and early form of writing. I will explain how this came about it in a second. But the critical period as I say is 3500 BC to 3100 BC. This particular tablet is more around the 3100 BC period.

Now to remember the process of making these tablets is to inscribe them on clay and then bake them. And as we will see later to store them. To store them in very well articulated and constructed libraries. Now the ancient Near East has left us many legacies. But it would be true to say I think that the greatest as I said before is writing, which had a profound impact on its cultural systems.

Now, what I'd like to talk about now is how this writing came to be. How ancient communities of Mesopotamia went from having no writing to having a writing system that looked like this, and which developed even further. I'll also touch very briefly on how knowledge in the ancient Near East was transmitted, because this is part of the puzzle as well. Now, before I go any further, let me just put this Mesopotamian invention of its writing system in some sort of historical snapshot.

You may well say, "Well, what about Egypt? Where does Egypt fit into this picture?" Well, Egypt does fit into the picture, but it's about a nose behind Mesopotamia. As far as we can make out, the earliest Egyptian writing, the earliest Egyptian hieroglyphs were written not on clay, not on papyrus, but in fact on wood and ivory labels.

Here are a couple of examples, again from the British museum, down below. You can see the date there, roughly 3000 BC. So, Mesopotamia seems to have picked Egypt to the post, as far as writing goes. Egypt took it up as well, because of its highly sophisticated cultural system.

Around 1700 BC, we have the development of a curious writing system, which foreshadowed our own alphabet, called Proto‑Sinaitic. Now, look at the date, 1700 BC, that's about two millennia or so, at least a millennia and half, after the Mesopotamians started to write on tablets. I'm not going to dwell on this. Just to show you, that there are some of the signs.

Of course when we talk about an alphabet, we are talking about a much‑reduced number of signs and symbols. Around 1400, we have yet another writing system. Now, you'll be able to recognize in those columns, what we call cuneiform. If you compare that cuneiform with the one that's out in the exhibition, the actual script itself is no different. What is very different is the fact that here, in Ugaritic, named after the site of Ugarit, in Northern Syria, actually developed an alphabetic system of writing using cuneiform.

Now, the Sumerian and Acadian that we will be looking at in a minute, was not alphabetic, it's logographic, and I'll explain that to you in a second. So, 1400 BC, along comes Ugaritic. 1050 or so, we now enter what we can call the true alphabet, the Phoenician alphabet. This is the one from which we derived‑or the Greeks derived ‑ the alphabet, which then the Romans copied, and which we now have today. 1500 BC, and I think if you look at some of those letters, you can recognize them, like the one at the top, A.

You can see that it's an A on its side. If you were to twist it around 45 degrees, you can see LA. That A, by the way, is Alep (or Aleph), it represents the head of a bull. But I won't go into that story. Just suffice for this lecture to see what they look like.

800 BC, we have the Greeks. You can see how, in this period, around 800 to 1000, a lot of trade between Greece and the Near East was happening. You can see the borrowing of ideas, and also of language. Indeed, of scripts, and that developed into the more formal Greek that you see down below. Finally the last one, to put it into a sort of historical framework, is of course the Latin alphabet. The early Latin, the old Latin, around 650 BC. So, that gives you then an idea of the historical development of the different scripts in the Near East.

Now, let's go back to cuneiform writing, because that's what we're interested in. We can say that it is not only the earliest, but I would argue it is also one of the most important writing systems to have come down to us anywhere, because of its diversity. Furthermore, our documentation of cuneiform writing is far, far richer than most other writing systems on this planet. What we have in cuneiform script is a writing system, and indeed an archive, that is far richer than Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is far richer than Mesoamerican Maya.

In fact, I would put it up there on a par with Greek and Latin. Because we have literally hundreds of thousands of tablets, some yet untranslated and undeciphered, that cover just about every aspect that you can imagine. From economic, through historical, through mythological, and so on and so forth. Let me now turn to writing, and writing systems. Let me make a few points. First of all, we have to understand before we can understand how writing began, that "writing system" is basically a simple, or rather a graphic, representation of features of language.

If you were to look at language, you can break it up into three parts. There is the lexical part, the meaning of words and so on. There is the grammatical section; you have to put words in some sort of order to make sense of them. Then you have syntactic, which are the phrases that you separate by commas and so on.

So lexical, grammatical and syntactic make up language. A writing system somehow, and this is the greatness of the invention, somehow has to reflect those three points. What's more, you have to also add phonetics to it, you have to add sound. Writing system has to somehow reflect what we call the phonetics of a language. Now, it's also essential to any language, human language, that its basic element, the word, is not merely a label just for an idea, or indeed an object. But rather that it can function together with other words, so that you end up having a sort of grammar.

Because if you had just had a series of pictures that look like objects, you're not going to have a language as such, or indeed a writing system, because you won't have the grammar, and you won't have the syntax. That's point number two that we have to remember. The third point that I want to make before I get on to how the Sumerians managed all this, is the fact that when we look at the level and the method of a language, that is, the level of a script, the complexity of a script, and the method that was used to write a script, we have to appreciate that they are not identical concepts.

Now that is to say, if a language uses an alphabetic script of let's say 26 letters, we must not automatically assume, we must not automatically say, that it is somehow much more advanced or more developed than a language which has, let's say 600 or so syllables or logo‑graphs, which is the case for Acadian.

The efficiency by which the grammatical structure of a language is expressed is much more important a consideration than the number of the signs in a language. So, bear that in mind. On the left‑hand side, you have cuneiform. On the right‑hand side, you have Aramaic, which had about 26 or so letters. This one had 600, yet they are both equally complex and sophisticated.

Now, it should be remembered too that writing as such was something that was completely new. It was a completely new invention. Indeed, just as human language, which was thought to have been first used by the Neanderthals way back in remote prehistory, it may be said that the invention of writing is one of those quantum leaps in humanity, in our history. We must remember that writing is first and foremost a sign system. Now, to appreciate how writing began, and how it worked, and how it developed, we need to understand the use of symbols, or pictograms.

We have to also understand that a symbol can be both realistic, or it can be abstract. But however a symbol is represented, it conveys a meaning. That meaning is understood by those who use it. It is learned behavior. Let me show you what I mean. If I were to show you these sets of symbols, I'm pretty sure that you would know what most of them meant. That is because our culture has taught us what they represent. But if I was a Sumerian and shot down here onstage and said, "What do you think of those," I wouldn't have a clue. Because my culture would not have used those symbols.

So the first thing that we have to understand is that symbols have a meaning, and that, that meaning is understood through learned behavior. Now, going back to the beginning, there is plenty of evidence that these early Sumerians, just like every other community, used a number of slightly interrelated signs that may be broken down into four groups. Let's have a look at what those four groups of symbols are that the Sumerians used.

First of all, there are drawings or other manufactured representation of objects: animals and humans on cylinder and stamp seals. You'll see some excellent examples of these cylinder seals in the museum. Of course, the idea of a cylinder seal was to run along, as you'll see in a second, at the base of a tablet, to authenticate it. It has a series of signs and symbols. It's basically showing authority and authentication.

These are often highly stylized, like the one on the top left, so that the degree of abstraction, leading to a certain uniformity, may have reached a sort of systemic level, if you wish. This is group number one. These symbols that we used on stamp seals and cylinder seals. Then we come to another category. These probably arose out of the first one I just showed you, and they are representations that are loaded with symbolic value.

I won't go through all of these, but we know that they are symbolic, because some of them, such as emblems belonging to a number of deities, survived until the very end of the Near East.

They have a very, very long history. For instance, number one in the top left‑hand corner is the symbol for Shamash, the god of the sun. Number seven, the thing that looks like a pair of horns, is actually thunderbolts. It's the god of storms' attribute, he often holds that. Number 13, which may be difficult perhaps to see from back there, but it's actually a helmet with a lot of horns on the front. Only deities wore that helmet.

So these are symbols that were highly symbolic to the Mesopotamians. Now, such systems of symbols can only be effective, as I said before, if it reflects a common ideology. If it reflects a common body of beliefs and convictions. And this phenomena is found, of course, all over the world. In some cases, it results in the construction of messages by means of the assemblage of these signs. Let's have a look at the third group.

This third group of symbols, we can call pneumonic devices, if you wish. Things that are used to jog your memory, as it were. They are usually arbitrary, linear designs used as marks on all kinds of objects of everyday use. Here we have some examples of what we call potters' marks. They often mark these vessels to make sure whose vessel was what, with some sort of arbitrary signs. So, these are pneumonic devices. But now we come to the one that's most interesting of all. These are tokens.

This is the fourth group, and it's the fascinating group. Mesopotamia, with its northern and eastern border regions, abounds in this class of objects. Their relevance was found out sometime in the 1960s, but no one really understood what they meant. Excavation report after excavation report showed that they had been found all over Mesopotamia, but no one knew what to make of them.

In fact, if you go to the early excavation reports, you will always find them at the back of the report under "small objects." Meaning, "I don't have a clue what they mean, but I'll stick them in anyhow." So these tokens as you can see come into all sorts of shapes and sizes. They can be stone, they can be ceramic circles with holes in them, and so on and so forth, and they are found all over the place.

As I said, archeologists used to give them scant attention. Indeed, they often just threw them away, I hate to say. Until the fellow up in the top right‑hand corner, Pierre Amiet, who works at the Louvre in Paris, realized that there was a pattern.

He started to look into it. He started to build the theory, and it was then taken up by the person down in the bottom right‑hand corner, Denise Schmandt‑Besserat. Now, what have these tokens got to do with writing? Well, let me outline what the theory is. It runs something like this: that these tokens were used in a system of accounting. They stood for units of goods. Now, this economic system is of a great aid. In fact, it goes back to the 9th millennium BC. From about 9000 or so BC, we start to see these tokens scattered all over, throughout the Near East.

Now, these shapes did not necessarily look like anything, but rather they were symbols. They were sort of used as credit for goods. A reminder that goods were sold, or that payment was owed. For instance, if I was a merchant and you wanted to come and buy some wheat from me. Or sheep or goats, but you didn't have any money. So you gave me some of these tokens and I said, "OK, here's your goods, and I put those tokens in a drawer. When you've got the money, you can come back and pay me."

Fred comes up and his simple story, "No money, but I need this. OK, tokens in this drawer, off he goes, and so on, and so forth. You can see what's going to happen. After about a month or two of this, you're going to get awfully mixed up about who owes you what. You've got tokens rattling in this drawer, tokens rattling in that drawer, but they are all some sort of credit for goods, you see. Now, they were used as bills of freight. In order to refrain from fraud, in order to put some sort of organization into these tokens, and this is the important thing, is that some of them were then inserted into balls of clay.

Now, here's one example. How do you know? You may well say, "Well, how do you know that?" Well, there have been some marvelous discoveries. Because mostly the tokens were found by themselves. These isolated tokens here and there. But every now and then, we actually find them in the clay balls. Now, this is an important discovery.

In other words, what happened was that at some stage around 3200, 3100, in order to organize all those tokens, someone decided that they're going to put them in a clay ball. To compartmentalize them, so to speak. But you can see what the problem was going to be. After awhile, you're going to forget what is in the ball. You could rattle it and realize that there are tokens there.

But you're going to forget. So you've got the tokens in the ball, but you don't necessarily know what's in them, certainly after a few months or a few years. So, what do you do? You start to impress the outside of the ball with the shape that is inside the ball. So here you have some, what we call bullae with tokens, with impressions on the outside. You can see the long, elongated shapes, circular shapes; there are others with rectangular shapes, and so on. We have found these tokens inside balls with these markings also on the outside.

There's the link. Tokens, tokens in balls, tokens in balls with marks. Now, the next obvious thing of course would be, "Well, why the heck have I got this encasing in the first place? What we find is the next stage, which is the emergence of little, flat clay tablets that look like that. Now effectively, what those tablets are is a flattened version of those clay balls that I showed you before. With the impressions of those tokens. Now, we have found quite a number of these types of tablets. I'll show you a few more.

These, ladies and gentlemen, are the earliest clay tablets that we have found. This is not writing yet, but it foreshadows what I'll show you in a minute. So we have impressed tablets with circles, with strokes, and so on, that represent the shape of these tokens that have a very long history. Here is another one. The difference between this one that I showed you and this one here, of course, is that what you start to see are pictures.

You not only have circles and lines, but you also have little pictures, one that looks like a head there. Others that look like jars, and so on, and so forth. So is this then how writing was invented? You have token types on the left‑hand side, and you have pictographs that they developed into on the right‑hand side.

Now, from a technical point of view, there seems little doubt, and I think most would agree, that what I've just explained is the evolution of a writing system. And the evolution in practice and function of a generalized token system that led to these pneumonic devices being used, and that indeed, they were basically accounting tablets. Because as I'll show you in a minute, a lot of these signs and symbols that were first recorded on these tablets, and indeed, on the outside of these clay balls, were numbers.

But there's something missing, isn't there? There's something lacking. So what's missing here? The token system does not imply a notation of grammar. It doesn't have syntax. How can you go from something that looked like the tablets I showed you, to an actual sophisticated writing system? Here is where a discovery that wasn't made that long ago comes into play by a person working on these tablets, Melinda Greene. What she showed, and I've just shown you this again. Because there are the tokens that I've mentioned.

You saw some of the pictographs, which are on the left‑hand side, the second column, I'll come back to. Eventually, they transformed into the various cuneiform signs. But what has been found out since is something very interesting.

Now, here's a more developed version of the tablets that I showed you before. Now, you can see how quite complex this early tablet, still dated to 3100, I might add, is. First of all, you have a lot of little holes. Then you have a number of pictographs, and they're all in some sort of order. What was found by looking at these early tablets is that the repertoire of signs in this very early period was far greater than in fact the cuneiform signs later on.

There were a huge number of pictographs that were being used. Just about everything they saw had a little picture, and was put on these clay tablets. This illustrates that the proliferation of signs was felt to be too cumbersome. Too problematic to really be a writing system. In fact what we find is that it tapered off much more later on. In fact, what we find is that this system started to reduce down to basically three signs.

These three signs here account for about 600 Acadian logographs. So different combinations of these three signs are the three signs that combine to make the Mesopotamian writing system. But let's go back to the early tablets. The one thing that Melinda Greene noticed‑because she was grappling with this problem of, "How do you go from something that looks so simple to something that should be so complex?" She noticed compartments. Can you see the compartments? There are boxes there; there is a line and a box, a line a box, a line, and so on.

Now this division, this arrangement in boxes do two things. They make visible the format of the text, so it makes it more readable. Within the boxes, the arrangement and the sequence of signs becomes much more focused. So, by dividing the tablets into these grid fashions, into a series of boxes, suggests an important step had been made, a very important step. Not just with the signs themselves, but also, in their meaning.

What the scribe was doing when he wrote this was to say, "Look, focus on the boxes." And by focusing on the boxes he was actually saying, "Let's get some syntax going." In other words, you read this from top‑down like that. Otherwise, it would be a jumble of signs and you wouldn't know where to start.

The next big step in writing, in Mesopotamia, was to arrange the signs in boxes so you read each box at a time. Simple though it may be, it gave them a sense of syntax, a really important step.

Here is another one of these early cuneiform tablets, and you can see how very clear the boxes are. You can see the holes, which are numbers, I'll get to those in a second, you can see the pictographs, and also you can sort of make out the arrangement, as it were, of ideas. And as I said, this is not a historical text it's not a mythological one, it's a simple accounting spreadsheet. This is your Mesopotamian version of your spreadsheet.

What you have then are more and more of these early tablets. So compare this one to the ones I showed you just before. You can see how it is starting to develop into something that is more sophisticated and complex.

Looking at the development of cuneiform, we can say that, first of all, we do start with pictures; that those pictures are then arranged in boxes to give them meaning and to try and get some syntax and grammar; and then, because these were supposed to be expedient ways of recording things, you are not going to sit there and draw your way through a language, yet it had to be a much more efficient way of doing things, what we find is that these pictures then started to reduce down into this cuneiform sign, using that stylus I showed you early on. Once you get down to the Babylonian version down there, the scribes found it quite sufficient to record even the most complex of ideas.

So far I've been talking about words but the fact is that many of these tablets actually record numbers, not just words but numbers. You can see the colored bits here ‑ the things that look like circles and cones ‑ are in fact numbers. Now, the numerical system used by the Sumerians and those who followed them in Mesopotamia is a combination of decimal and counting in tens and also counting in sixties. The symbols used were large and small cones and circles. Single objects were represented as a small cone and ten objects as a small circle.

If you look at this over there on the top, in the right hand place you've got number one, that small cone, which is this one over here. Ten small cones equal a circle, which is number ten. Six circles equal a large cone, which is the number 60. Then you have ten of those and so on. So, it's based on a combination of decimals and sixties.

Let's summarize what we've got so far.

We've got here an early recording system used in Mesopotamia, not to produce myths or historical events, these were to come later, at this time when these tablets were being written myths and historical events were recorded orally, transmitted orally.

In this very early period, then, there was a need of an economic accountability, that's what they really wanted to do. And why did they want to do that? Because cities in Mesopotamia were growing, there was a lot of trade between South Mesopotamia and North Mesopotamia. Goods were coming in and out in cities that looked like the one I showed you before. And in order to keep track of all this material there had to be an accounting system that didn't rely on memory. This is how writing began in Mesopotamia, to allocate responsibility for goods that were imported and exported and to keep accounts of these transactions.

Let's just go a step further and I'll finish up on this.

In both cuneiform and hieroglyphic, the invention relatively quickly led to more general applications and specific refinements or adaptations. This evolution, which is partly mixed with the invention itself, has four aspects. I don't want to deal with them now ‑ suffice to say that, of course, once you have language you are emancipated from the system of symbols and tokens. This emancipation, of course, is implied in the transition from a purely administrative language, which is the one I have been talking about because they are the earliest documents we have, to a language system that has linguistic notations and so on.

The motif ‑ this transition of language, the adoption of language ‑ I think is splendidly illustrated in an episode from a Sumerian poem called "Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta." Let me give a gist of it before I read a passage out of it.

Enmerkar is a king in Sumer, and he says to his messenger, "I want you to go to the land of Aratta," which happens to be in southwestern Iran, "and I want this, this, and this. Bring them back, we need them for our city." His messenger, his emissary, didn't quite understand this; he wasn't the brightest spark. So Enmerkar said, "OK, look let me write it down for you, just give it to Aratta, he'll know what to do." Let's see what happens.

[reading passage from "Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta"]

"This speech was too difficult, its contents were too long, the messenger's mouth was too slow; he could not repeat it. Since the messenger's mouth was too slow and he could not repeat it the Lord of Kulab..."

[stops reading passage]

Professor Sagona:  That is the Lord of the precinct of Enmerkar. [reading passage from "Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta"]

Professor Sagona:  "... patted some clay and set down the words on a tablet." [stops reading passage]

Professor Sagona:  This is the first recorded instance of writing. I mean I love this text. [reading passage from "Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta"]

Professor Sagona:  "Before that day, there was no putting of words on clay but now, when the sun rose, it was verily so. The Lord of Kulab had verily put words on clay. 'Enmerkar son of the Sun gave me this tablet...' "

[stops reading passage]

Professor Sagona:  This is the messenger talking now. He's crossed the mountains he's gone to Aratta. [reading passage from "Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta"]

Professor Sagona:  "The Lord of Aratta looked upon this clay. 'If you are able to grasp its meaning if you can tell me whatever you may find to reply, and I will bring back that reply to Enmerkar'"

[stops reading passage]

Professor Sagona:  This is what the messenger was telling the Lord of Aratta. [reading passage from "Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta"]

Professor Sagona:  "After he had spoken thus, the Lord of Aratta took his brazen to the messenger..." [stops reading passage]

Professor Sagona:  The Lord of Aratta kept looking at this clay. He didn't know what on earth he had been given. [reading passage from "Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta"]

Professor Sagona:  "... But the spoken word was but the nail. His brow darkened while he kept looking at this lump of clay." [stops reading passage]

Professor Sagona:  So here he was, he was given one of these early Sumerian tablets, and said, "Look, you make something out of it. This is what he wants." You can see his brow is burrowing. He didn't know what on earth he had been given, but this is a recorded instance of the earliest use of writing and of someone trying to read it, which I think is absolutely fascinating. When writing was invented, its purpose was not merely a transcription of oral statements. What happened was something very interesting, namely, writing practices soon liberated communities from the oral statement and a new language appeared that widened the possible manipulation of meaning. It also acted as a mediator between knowledge and the possessor, between the possessor and the one that was being taught that knowledge.

What we have, shortly after writing was invented, was a new institution. That new institution was the school, because we have scribal schools being developed all over Mesopotamia. And that resulted in an unheard of ability to store data because you would tell your students to write this stuff down and they would then pass it on.

They were a cocky lot, these scribes, they knew they had it over the rest of the population and they were, sort of, the cream of the cream. They were very proud of their profession and so we find the emergence of schools.

Some of the Mesopotamian cities were renowned for their education system, for their schools, in which they learned not only Sumerian but later on they learned Akkadian and Babylonian and so on. They were multilingual, it's was a multi‑ethnic area that we are talking about. When they did so, they then stored them in libraries. Libraries like this one in the left hand corner, which is a library room from that site I showed you at the beginning of the lecture - Ebla. About 20,000 tablets were found stacked up neatly like that, like a filing cabinet, on shelves.

We know a lot about ancient libraries. I'm not sure whether the scribe looked like that, but certainly the library did. Here is another example of what those ancient libraries look like as archeologists uncover them at these ancient cities.

Once we get to this stage, once we get to the sophisticated stage of cuneiform, you then not only have the tablet, but you also have the envelope. You see the thing on the outside? It's an envelope, literally and envelope. You put it in an envelope, you roll your seal on the bottom there, and you give it to Mesopotamia post and it went from one city to another.

[audience laughs]

Professor Sagona:  With that ladies and gentlemen, we can leave it there. Thank you for your attention. [applause]

Dr J. Patrick Greene:  Could you finish, please, by expressing your gratitude to Tony for his fascinating lecture? [music]

Transcription by CastingWords

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