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Pictographs, cuneiform, and the history of writing, a Getty 2-Minute Time Machine

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Why did humans start to write things down? For thousands of years, oral communication was the way humans shared stories and information. But around five thousand years ago, the first writing system that we know of developed in ancient Mesopotamia.

This 2-Minute Time Machine video from Getty explains how we moved from clay tablets pictographs that helped people “keep track of stuff, usually grain, livestock, and other commodities as society became increasingly complex,” to cuneiform, a logo-syllabic script made with a wedged stylus for longer documents on clay, stone, and metal.

cuneiform on a tablet
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It was used initially to record the Sumerian language, and from about 2400 BC Akkadian, which split into two dialects, Assyrian and Babylonian, around 2000 BC. Over the next two thousand years, the use of cuneiform scripts—both the Mesopotamian version and new forms adapted or invented to write some fifteen other languages—spread to Iran, Armenia, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. For much of this period, Babylonian remained the international diplomatic language between the region’s “great kings.”

Cuneiform writing was not only used for business and trade records, but for stories and personal letters, too. High Priestess Enheduanna is the first known author to use this ancient writing system for her poems and hymns.

the first known author was a high priestess

“Because writing cuneiform required knowing hundreds of characters, only trained scribes could read and write, so people eventually adopted a shorter writing system, an alphabet introduced by Phoenician traders. It was a lot easier to learn and remember with just 22 letters. The Phoenician Alphabet influenced Greek and Latin script and was eventually adopted to write other languages, like English.”

writing in ancient Greece
Watch Getty Time Machine videos about bread and beards.

Then watch more history and communication videos:
• The Writer, a drawing machine automaton by Pierre Jaquet-Droz
• Morse Code – Museum of Obsolete Objects
• How to Write in Elian Script, a video tutorial
The Art of Gem Carving
• Genevieve von Petzinger & the invention of graphics on cave walls

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