The origins of writing

An Oriental Institute Museum exhibit shows how four distinct writing systems emerged independently.

This 2.3 cm high ivory tag from the ancient Egyptian city of Abydos dates to 2890 BC. A fragment of the original square, it records events during one year of the reign of Qa’a.

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A type of contract, these round clay “envelopes” were Sumerian prewriting; they held tokens that signified amounts of goods or animals. The Oriental Institute has 16 sealed envelopes in its collection.

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This blue-frit ornamental peg (522–486 BC) boasts a trilingual inscription—Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite. The text explains that the peg was “made in the house of Darius the King,” in modern-day Iran.

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This limestone cylinder seal (left), also a form of Mesopotamian prewriting, likely indicated administrative control over goods. When rolled on wet clay, it makes the impression on the right.

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This Egyptian funerary stela (2219–1995 BC), soliciting offerings for a dead couple, features hieroglyphics (the man and woman serve as both text of their names and an image of the couple) and a later form of Egyptian script, Hieratic, for the prayers.

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The earliest cuneiform texts include pictographic signs that represent economic information. This clay tablet (3100 BC) describes the amount of barley needed for a particular field: 15 units to sow about 16 acres.

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At the end of the third millennium, Sumerian scribes used a reed stylus to punch signs into clay, instead of etching. The inscription on this clay cone is dedicated to Gudea, ruler of the city-state Lagash.

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