Discovering Writing: The Significance of Writing

Discovering Writing

The Significance of Writing

The invention of script (in the late fourth millennium BC) marks a quantum leap forward in human cultural development. Time and space cease to be barriers to the transmission of knowledge and information. To grasp the magnitude of this advance, try to imagine our culture today without writing (for even today's visual media and high technology communications usually depend on written drafts and scripts). It is impossible to imagine our schools and universities teaching, our scientists conducting and reporting research, our government governing or our civil service functioning without the written word.

The ancient Egyptians knew full well that writing was the mainstay of civilized life. A seated scribe holding a papyrus roll was one of the most popular subjects in their early art. He was revered and honored, for the early Egyptians recognized that writing was the foundation of ordered life and government and, to some extent, transcended death itself. For now ideas, discoveries, wisdom and experience need no longer die with the individual, but could be transmitted through endless generations, right down to us, indeed, as we read the fine literature, the religious and scientific texts of these early scribes.

The Egyptian school was called "The House of Life" (Per-Ankh), for writing bestowed a kind of immortality. As one scribe expressed it: the names of scribes "are still preserved because of their books... and their memory lasts to the limits of eternity".

Writing was not one, but two inventions. First, the script itself - a comprehensive series of signs capable of representing all the words or sounds of human speech. Then a second invention - just as remarkable - the technological development of materials (papyrus, pen, ink) capable of recording, transmitting and preserving the script.

At a very early date (c.3000 BC) both these extraordinary advances were uniquely developed in ancient Egypt, that great center of early literacy, from whom we have learnt to write with pens on paper in an alphabetic script descended directly (if distantly) from Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The Early Script

The Alphabet

All scripts, even modern alphabets, are artificial conventions limited in their ability to reproduce spoken speech. To take two instances from the English (or Roman) alphabet: 1) Its first letter "a" can represent quite different vowel sounds, for example, in the words father, man and take. 2) Different combinations of letters can represent similar sounds (homophones) in words with quite different meanings: compare "rough" and "ruff"; "pair" and "pear"; "side" and "sighed"; or "write" and "right". You can probably think of other instances to show how imperfectly the alphabet reflects variations in pronunciation, intonation or stress.

The 26-letter Roman alphabet is a distant - but direct - descendant of the complex, ornate script of ancient Egypt, which scholars believe inspired the development of the world's first alphabetic scripts, Phoenician and Aramaic, from which the Greek and Roman alphabets derive. And earlier still, the idea of writing spread from Egypt to the Aegean, in particular influencing the mysterious and still undeciphered "Linear A" script of Minoan Crete, which has marked similarities to Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The ancient Egyptian script, like other early scripts, was pictographic: that is to say, it drew pictures of the words represented: ox, house, man, etc. Writing was associated with Thoth, the ibis-headed god of learning and writing, and referred to as "words of god". Later, the Greeks, retaining this original meaning, called the signs hieroglyphs, from hieros "sacred" and glyphein "to carve". Hieroglyphs make art out of writing, and lend an extraordinary grace and beauty to inscribed texts (Fig.4). Egyptian writing is a "mixed" script - combining signs denoting ideas (ideograms) with phonetic signs.

Words and Syllables

It was an easy step for a pictogram (object sign) to become an ideogram (idea or concept sign). Thus the pictogram for foot could also express the verbal idea to walk. Pictograms could be combined to provide extended meanings: a man with a container on his head denoted the verb to carry; a wall drawn in a sloping position expressed the verb to fall, etc. Naturally, an ideographic script requires a very large number of signs for even a basic reading knowledge of Chinese. Yet Egyptian has less than a quarter this number - around 700 signs. Still, if you compare this with our alphabet with its mere 26 signs, you will understand why the scribe in ancient Egypt belonged to a specialized and privileged profession and underwent a long and arduous training. Literacy was limited.

The Egyptian script managed with fewer signs than the Chinese because it was not purely ideographic. It also contained some phonetic signs capable of expressing syllables: these were derived from the ideograms. For example, imagine English written in hieroglyphs. We could have a pictogram for the insect bee, and one for the word leaf. We could also use these signs for the sound syllables, and combine them phonetically: bee + leaf= belief. The script was thus ambiguous, as the same sign could be read as a whole word or as a sound syllable. This ambiguity was reduced by signs called determinatives which were written after a word, to denote the class of object to which it belonged.

Hieroglyphic writing made its debut remarkably early, in the First Dynasty (3100-2900 BC). It was used extensively, with relatively little change in form, not only in Egypt itself, but also throughout Near Eastern territories under Egyptian influence or control for some 3,000 years, though few papyri have survived outside the dry climate of Egypt. In fact the script persisted well into the Christian era, and the latest recorded hieroglyphic inscriptions dated AD 39 are on the temples of Philae.

Unlike most alphabetic scripts which are always written in the same direction (i.e left to right, like English, or right to left like Arabic) hieroglyphs could be written from left to right, or from right to left, or in vertical columns. You can tell from which direction reading should commence from human or animal (or other) signs with fronts and backs, since these always face the beginning of the inscription. When writing hieroglyphs, the ancient Egyptians consistently omitted vowel sounds, as is done in Arabic and Hebrew today.

With the passage of time there developed, from the formal hieroglyphic script used on monuments, two simpler, cursive styles: (a) hieratic (from the Greek hieratikos, "priestly"), and (b)demotic (from the Greek demotikos "popular"), a development from hieratic around 700BC capable of being written even more rapidly. Both hieratic and demotic were practical, everyday scripts used for commonplace needs.

Discovery of Script

There are isolated references to hieroglyphics by classical visitors: the Greek historian Herodotus (c.484-425 BC); Diodorus, another Greek historian, who lived at the time of Julius Caesar and traveled to Egypt between 60 and 57 BC; and the Roman historian, Tacitus (c.55-120 AD). All were fascinated by the mysterious hieroglyphic writings which they realized were concerned with historical events. One classical writer, Horapollon of Phaenebythis, Egypt, (about 5th century AD) wrote at some length on the subject of hieroglyphic translations and made the first attempt at decipherment. Although some of his identifications were correct, his reasons for reaching them bordered on fantasy and were quite unrealistic. It was a further thirteen centuries before the script was properly understood.

Pen and Papyrus


Look at the sheet of paper you are reading; consider its smoothness of surface, legibility, lightness, compactness, durability, and so on. We owe the invention of paper to the Egyptians and, for convenience to both writer and reader, it remains unsurpassed even in the age of the floppy disc and microfiche.

Egyptian 'paper' was made from the papyrus reed, more than 2,000 years before the Chinese are known to have invented a paper made from vegetable pulp.

The Arabs learned paper technology from the Chinese, in the 8th century AD. They manufactured paper, using linen and other vegetable fibres, on a large scale and introduced the process into Europe.


The ancient Egyptians were thus the first (by two or three thousand years) to solve the demanding technological problem of manufacturing an exceptionally high quality writing material. We know that they did so as early the first Dynasty (3100- 2900 BC), since an uninscribed roll of papyrus was found in a mastaba (tomb) of this period at Saqqara.

Now extinct in lower (northern) Egypt, the papyrus reed (Cyperus Papyrus) grew profusely along the banks of the Nile in antiquity. It reached a considerable height, 12 to 25 feet, and its triangular stems were almost two inches thick, covered with a hard rind or skin, around a soft inner spongy tissue or pith.

The Versatile Plant

Papyrus was a valuable commodity with multiple uses: the rind, stripped from the stem, was used for making mats, cloth, sandals and rope. The pith was a popular food, eaten either cooked or raw. As a substitute for wood, the woody roots of the plant were used to make household utensils and also as fuel.

In addition, and most importantly in a country where the chief highway was a river, bundles of papyrus stems, which were extremely buoyant, were lashed together to make boats - rather like the reed boats used today by the Marsh Arabs of Southern Iraq.

Manufacturing Papyrus

The use of papyrus as writing material surpasses in ingenuity all its other uses. The process certainly originated from the mind of someone with tremendous inventive ability.

After removing the rind from several papyrus stems, cut to the required length, the inner pith was sliced into thin strips laid side by side, overlapping on a piece of cloth placed on a hard level surface. When the required width had been reached, further strips were laid on top of, and at right angles to, the first layer, again slightly overlapping each other.

Next, the pile of neatly arranged pith was covered with a second piece of cloth, and carefully, but firmly, beaten for a prolonged period with a length of heavy wood, possibly a mallet or similar tool. This beating both separated the individual papyrus fibers in both layers, and also, by means of the starch exuded from the pith, welded them together. The process required considerable skill to ensure that the vertical and horizontal fibers were not displaced during the beating operation.

After beating, the finished sheet was about the same thickness as modern writing paper. It was then sun dried and, if necessary, surface polished by rubbing with a smooth stone.

The sheets were together to form a long scroll according to the requirements of the scribes. The length of these rolls varied considerably: the Great Harris Papyrus is the longest known scroll. It measures 135 feet.

Pen and Ink

Another reed (Juncus Maritimus) supplied the pen. Cut about 10 inches long, the tip was cut on a slant and then crushed or chewed by the scribe to from a comparatively fine brush. Both black and red ink were common, made from carbon or fine soot and finely ground red ochre respectively. The constituents were mixed with a weak solution of gum and the paste shaped into small cakes, dried and placed on the scribe's palette. The reed brush was then dipped into water and rubbed over the surface of the hardened block. The scribe's standard kit included ink palette, water cup and brush holder. Other colors were also used, for decorating papyri with colorful pictures (like a medieval manuscript).

Variety of Texts

Papyrus was by no means the only writing material used. Fragments of pottery (ostraca) and pieces of limestone were frequently used, as were boards painted with gesso (a mixture of gum and whiting). Nevertheless, for thousands of years papyrus was the dominant and preferred writing material.

The papyrus literature that has come down to us is not confined to religious texts. Business, historical, poetic and magical documents, and even the most enchanting fictional stories have survived, in addition to scholarly works on mathematics, astronomy and medicine.

The treatise now known as the Edwin Smith surgical papyrus (now in the New York Academy of Medicine), and other medical papyri, clearly indicate that some ancient practitioners were not only good observers, but actually carried out useful and serious work in the field of bone surgery. The Greek physicians Hippocrates (c.500BC), the acknowledged "Father of Medicine", and Galen (c.130-200 AD), acknowledged that some of their data came from Egyptian scripts they had studied in the temple of Imhotep at Saqqara. Thus it is clear the ancient Egyptian made a lasting and valuable contribution to medical science.

One of the most beautiful of the numerous surviving papyri, with exceptionally colorful illustrations (or vignettes), measuring 78 feet in length, is the "Book of the Dead" (British Museum, London), prepared for the high-ranking scribe Ani, who died about 1400BC.

The unique climate of Egypt has preserved countless inscribed papyri, whose texts were written by a highly sophisticated and articulate people, at a time when European man lived in caves, clothed himself in animal skins and hunted with primitive flint weapons.

So it is fitting that whenever we use a piece of paper we pay unconscious homage to the ancient Egyptians, for our word "paper" stems from the Greek "papyros", in turn derived from ancient Egyptian.

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