Today, most of the world’s population uses alphabetic scripts to write, except China and Japan. Most of these alphabets use between 20 – 30 letters, though the smallest uses 11 and the largest uses 74. But in the ancient world writing was a much more complicated business.

The word ‘cuneiform’, used to describe the writing system of ancient Mesopotamia is actually from the Latin word ‘cuneus’ meaning ‘wedge’ because the letters were written with a triangular-sectioned wooden stylus.

Even in the ancient world there were schools. Archaeologists have found clay tablets where teachers have written lessons on one side and young scribes have tried to copy the same words on the other. Just like the notebooks youngsters use today. 

The earliest forms of writing date back thousands of years before the common era. As civilizations with centralized economies began to develop, so did the need to record goods such as cattle, sheep, and grain. The first clay tablets used pictographs, drawing the animals they were recording into the soft clay with a stylus. It was easier to have a standardized symbol that represented each animal, rather than drawing them out each time. This was the humble beginnings of cuneiform. The wedge-shaped marks were put together to represent sounds so that the spoken word could easily be recorded. 

And cuneiform was only the beginning, the way we write and record has evolved and flourished over the course of history. Unlike our writing, which always runs from left to right, Egyptian hieroglyphs can be written and read from left to right, right to left, and top to bottom. From cuneiform all the way to the alphabet we use today, 4000 years of written history await. 

Join Dr. Amy Barron to delve into the Dawn of Writing, a lecture on the first writing systems in the ancient world. For more information, and to buy tickets go to ‘The Dawn of Writing,’ Lecture by Dr. Amy Barron

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