By William Harms
Photo by Anna Ressman, Oriental Institute

While watching just a few seconds of animation, visitors to the Oriental Institute Museum’s latest exhibition can trace how writing evolved through thousands of years.

A bull’s head symbol from Egyptian hieroglyphs changed subtly as it passed through ancient cultures, eventually becoming the Greek letter “alpha” and the Roman “A.” Our contemporary “O” is a descendant of the Egyptians’ rounded symbol for the physical eye.

The exhibition, “Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond,” running through March 6, tells the story of writing through the use of new animations and ancient artifacts never before displayed in the United States. At least four separate cultures around the world invented writing from scratch—in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Mesoamerica. The exhibition includes stories and artifacts from all four.

“It appears likely that all other writing systems evolved directly or indirectly from the four systems we have in our exhibition,” says Christopher Woods, Associate Professor in the Oriental Institute and exhibition curator.

From Graffiti to Formal Writing

Researchers believe some of the earliest writing had humble origins as informal graffiti. Early forms of the alphabet were discovered in 1906 at Serabit-el-Khadim on the Sinai Peninsula, where Western Asiatic workers once dug for turquoise in a mine that Egyptians had established. Since 1906, scholars have found other examples of early alphabets throughout the Middle East that help complete the big picture of how letters emerged.

Woods says either the Egyptians or the team of Western Asiatic miners in Serabit-el-Khadim hit on the idea of using their own forms of the hieroglyphic symbols to denote the sounds in the Semitic language they spoke. They inscribed these linear pictographic symbols on statuettes, stone panels, and rock faces.

Accordingly, other Egyptian hieroglyphs were transformed, as scratched imitations were drawn on stone surfaces perhaps as long ago as 4,000 years. The Egyptian symbol for palm, which looks like an open hand, known as kaph in Western Semitic, morphed over time into the Greek letter “K,” known as kappa. The symbol for a fence known as het in Western Semitic, which was a series of upright lines attached to two vertical lines, changed over time into the Greek eta, and then into today’s letter “H.”

Joseph Lam, a graduate student at the Oriental Institute and author of a chapter in the exhibition catalogue, says a form of writing in Palestine known as Proto-Canaanite provides important clues of how the alphabet emerged from something that was graffiti to something more formal. “Within the Proto-Canaanite texts, one can observe a gradual evolution away from purely pictographic shapes to more abstract, stylized forms,” says Lam.

“The functional advantage of the alphabet over other writing systems lies in its economy,” he adds. “By using letter-symbols to represent consonant sounds rather than syllables or entire concepts, alphabetic systems could make do with only 30-or-so signs as opposed to hundreds, making it much easier to memorize all the signs.”

Multimedia Kiosk Shows Evolution of Letters

Walking through the exhibition, Woods points to an example of those early scratchings—an arrowhead inscribed in Proto-Caananite with the name of its owner. “People developed the letter system to designate ownership or possession,” Woods says. He notes that new research shows that these early, informal systems of writing led to the well-defined letters that were part of a system the Phoenicians later taught.

A computer kiosk in the exhibition shows through animation how the alphabet—which may have originated as long ago as 2000 B.C.—changed in the time it took the Phoenicians to get a hold of it about 1000 B.C. “The Phoenicians stabilized the alphabet and spread it to the Greeks and others, but alphabets were in use long before they started writing with letters,” says Woods.

The alphabet eventually enabled more people to become literate, explains Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute. “Writing in its earliest forms was first and foremost a tool that priests, officials, and scribes used as a key element in the functioning of a state bureaucracy. We estimate that literacy was limited to less than 1 percent of the population of the earliest states, so it was rare for even kings to know how to read and write. In this context, it is hardly surprising that the earliest writing and the written word itself would have seemed mysterious, powerful, and even inspired by the gods.”

In addition to showing the animated development of the alphabet, the kiosk also allows visitors to write their names in some of the ancient writing systems featured in the exhibition. Videos take viewers into the world of the ancient scribes who wrote in hieroglyphs and inscribed cuneiform on tablets.

Among the items on display are proto-cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia (modern–day Iraq), dating to about 3200 B.C. On loan from the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin, they have never before been exhibited in the United States. The pictographic signs, a precursor to writing, are part of a system that developed into cuneiform, a wedge–shaped script that was incised on clay tablets.

The exhibition provides examples of other ancient writing, which, like cuneiform and hieroglyphs, developed independently. Chinese writing, which emerged about 1200 B.C., is shown on oracle bones that were used in rituals to guide the actions of the emperors. The top portion of an “altar” incised with an image of a mummy bundle and Mayan hieroglyphs from the seventh–century A.D. shows how early Mesoamericans wrote.

Stein says, “Visitors to our exhibit can compare the parallel pathways by which writing came into being. Seeing examples of early writing from these four areas together in one place, you can’t fail to be impressed by the wonder of human creativity in these independent inventions that fundamentally transformed the very nature of civilization.”