A Brief History of Writing

There was not too much interest in history and archeology before the time of Industrial Revolution. The process of digging land for building purposes led to the discovery of ancient artifacts. A new interest was revived as a result during the past in the 18th century.

The art of writing distinguishes from other symbolic communication systems in that one must usually understand something of the associated spoken language to comprehend the text. Although other possible symbolic systems like information signs, painting, maps and mathematics do not require previous knowledge of a spoken language.


Every human community possesses language which is a feature regarded by many as an inborn and defining condition of mankind. However the development of writing and the process by which they have replaced traditional oral systems of communication has been uneven and slow.

An expedition was led to Egypt by Napoleon in 1798. Some French scholars who also went with the expedition brought back many antiquities and artifacts on their return. The library at Alexandria in Egypt was the greatest library of antiquities. It was founded before 300 BC by Alexander the Great. The library contained a collection of writings from around the world. The library was later burned by Caliph Omar when he raided Egypt in 642 AD.

Ancient pyramids and temples were buried partially in desert sand and the problem it gave to the French scholars was that they could not understand the hieroglyphics (ancient Egyptian script) inscribed on them. An engraved stone was discovered in a town on the Nile Delta which had text written on it in three languages – Hieroglyphics, Greek and Demotic (simplified Egyptian). The stone was decoded in 1822 by French named Jean Champollion and the ancient hieroglyphics could be read. The stones were telling a story since nothing was known about them before its decoding.

An agent belonging to British East India Company named Claude Rich investigated the ancient ruins of Mesopotamia in 1811. He had dug the mounds which revealed the ancient cities of Babylon and Ninevah. Large quantity of literature was discovered but once again the writing could not be decoded. A stone was uncovered which was inscribed in three languages and was later proclaimed by Persian King Darius in 516 BC.

Writing has the third rank in importance as a discovery. It is just behind the invention of wheel and fire. Writing marks the dividing line between history and prehistory. The importance of ancient treasures can only be guessed by decoding of objects.

Mesopotamian Sumerians developed a series of pictograms around 3100 BC which was meant for keeping records of measurements and weights. The ancient system of counting and drawing was replaced by it. These pictograms were simplified with the passage of time and became simple form of abstract. The English symbols of *,%,#,@,+,&,* and $ can be greatly compared with them.

This system spread to other parts of the world by the means of trade and commerce. The Sumerian symbols were adopted by the Assyrians and Babylonians for their own use. The hieroglyphics was developed the Egyptians.

The alphabet was the next major development after writing. Drawings were replaced by phonetic symbols. A combination of symbols or letters could express any concept. It is believed the first alphabet was developed by the Phoenicians around 1500 BC.


The disadvantage of alphabet opposed to drawings requires fluency in the language for reading. Languages with pictures like Chinese can only be read by the people who speak the language.

Writing would have looked like magic to those who first encountered it which was initially only limited to face-to-face communication. The advantage of writing was that a person could transmit their message far away. The early writing was privilege of kings and priests which was also used for propaganda. Kings used to record their victories while ignoring the defeats. The Holy Bible also contains references related to the writings of books.