This week: Ancient writing

Today, we live in a world of too much information: one in which a staggering 231,400,000 emails are sent out on average every single minute, according to the consumer data company Statista, along with countless million more text messages and social-media updates, and even the occasional old-fashioned letter.

Cuneiform tablet. IMAGE: WikiMedia Commons.

Against this cacophonous backdrop, it is hard even to imagine life without the written word – but that is the situation which pertained for most of the time during which our species has inhabited this planet.

Scholars agree that the earliest form of writing appeared around 5,500 years ago in Southern Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), where rudimentary pictorial signs were gradually replaced by a complex system of characters representing the sounds of the local Sumerian language. Over time, these characters came to be impressed in wet clay using a reed stylus, in a script known as ‘cuneiform’.

These ancient texts (which survive in the form of the many thousands of dried-clay cuneiform tablets held in museums around the world) remained anonymous for centuries, the names of their authors and scribes lost forever to the mists of time – until, at some point in the 23rd century BC, something extraordinary happened.

This week on The Past, we learn how the high priestess of the ancient city of Ur came quite literally to write herself into history, when she used her own name to sign off a series of hymns devoted to Mesopotamia’s different gods. In doing so, Enheduanna – as she called herself – became the first known author ever to sign his or her name to a work.

In the latest issue of Minerva magazine, Lucia Marchini talks to Sidney Babcock, co-curator of She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and women of Mesopotamia, c.3400-2000 BC, a new exhibition at New York’s Morgan Library & Museum, about the life and times of this fascinating female pioneer.

Elsewhere this week, we have also been delving into the archive for more about early forms of writing: we learned how Egyptian hieroglyphs, Maya glyphs and Minoan Linear B were deciphered; we heard what Roman inkwells can tell us about the spread of literacy in Britain; we examined how scholars managed finally to decode the secrets of the Rosetta Stone; and we even investigated how an inscription on an ancient statue documented a young man’s exciting escape from Syria.

And finally, if all that leaves you wanting more, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around historic texts. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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