How easy is it to write something down if you want to remember it? You might think this is a pointless question, but it will no longer seem that way once you realize ink, pens and paper haven’t always been around to help. Our known history begins with the most ancient written records, and judging by archaeologists’ discoveries, reducing facts to writing hasn’t always been the easiest job.
There were six important types of materials used in writing throughout the ages:
- Animal skin (parchment)
The cuneiform script is one of the oldest writing methods known to modern history. It dates back to around 3000BC and first emerged as a pictographic system in Sumer. Pictographs were chiseled in clay tablets using a blunt reed. Alternatively, sometimes they were directly carved in stone. The script was read in vertical columns.
In order to preserve records, Sumerians would set the completed tablets on fire in kilns; a procedure which made inscriptions permanent. If records were no longer needed, tablets were polished and reused. The cuneiform script became extinct by the 2nd century BC.
Ancient Egyptians used two types of hieroglyphic scripts: one for everyday information (hieratic) and another to record the feats of Egyptian gods and pharaohs. The latter was known as ‘the sacred script’ and had more content and decoration. Reed pens were used to engrave the signs into a block of limestone.
With time, a third script was developed – ‘sekh shat’, which translates to ‘writing for documents’. It was based on the hieratic script, but simplified for speed and easiness in writing. Young scribes were given a wooden palette to practice common symbols, and they would be allowed to learn the sacred script only if they proved their talent.
Oracle bone scripts are the earliest remnants of ancient writing in Bronze Age China. These were represented by written documentations carved in animal bones, ox scapulae or tortoise shells (how imaginative!). Archaeologists believe oracle bone scripts (literal translation from Modern Chinese is ‘shell bone writing’) were mostly used in divination. These scripts are the ancestors of the modern Chinese alphabet, as there are quite a number of modern logograms with a strong resemblance.
The first Indian script in history which is about 2600 years old, to this day remains undeciphered. The script originates in the Indus Valley and consists of roughly 500 characters. Centuries later, the ‘Edicts of Ashoka’ offered historians valuable insight on how this mysterious civilization kept its written records. The Edicts consist of 33 inscriptions on pillars and more on boulders and cave walls. These inscriptions were made by the Emperor Ashoka himself throughout his 38-year reign (269 BC to 231 BC). In addition to his, there are many other notable Indian inscriptions in rocks, copper plates, sandstone pillars and even natural caverns.
The first Greek alphabet was completed around 400 BC. For a few centuries, only uppercase letters were used. Greeks also developed writing instruments with highest resemblance to modern pen and paper. The first writing stylus was made of bone, ivory and metal.
Writing tablets were coated in wax and hinged in pairs that could close on top of each other protecting the writer’s work. Imagine you had a notebook made up of only two hard covers!
Despite the fact that writing tools evolved with time, not everyone had access to the privilege of literacy. Many civilizations survived oblivion by telling stories and singing ballads to pass on culture and history to younger generations. It’s quite fascinating when we think this relied on the power of the memory only. Should we consider ourselves lucky?