Bringing the Past Alive...


Writing......something we all take for granted today. It is part of almost everything we do. From the moment we get out of bed, until we close our eyes at night.

Imagine if writing had never existed. Imagine that the only communication was the spoken word? Maybe our minds would have been better for it as we would have had to learn to remember information so much more than we do today. However communication would be extremely limited.

Just think about the things you take for granted today that require writing in one form or another. You wouldn't be reading this.......No Facebook, no email and no Google!!!!! No permission notes at school....the list goes on and on!

So let us explore where writing began, about its early beginnings and how it developed over time from the 4th millennium and maybe before that, right down through time, to the formation of the Codex, the book form we know today through the medieval manuscripts in which writing was all done by hand, through the invention of the printing press right up until today. Join me on a fascinating journey down through time.

Let us journey with Terentius and his wife, a literate middle class couple from Pompeii. Here is an image from their house, showing him, Terentius Neo, a baker and his wife both holding writing implements.

He holds a scroll or a Rotulus, being a scroll wrapped around a wooden spindle and he would write on the inside of the scroll only. His wife holds a wax tablet and a stylus on which to write. This shows her status with her holding the iPad of the day.

Maybe she wrote the orders for their bakery on the tablet, and then each evening using the wedge end of the tablet would erase the days takings? A simple portrait with both husband and wife holding writing implements indicating their literate status tells us so much about life before that fateful day in 79AD.

This page will grow a little each week so keep coming back........

The Cave of Altamira in Spain - Paintings on the rock walls as a form of expression?

Are the early cave paintings that we find on caves and rock overhanging all over the world a form of writing?

What is writing?

Is it a form of expression that goes beyond the spoken word?

Is it a means of recording maybe the spoken word, an idea you are trying toe express or a memory you are trying the record?

Cave paintings go back many thousands of years and can be found elaborately painted in the caves of France and Spain, on rock outcroppings in Australia, in North Africa and all over the world.


What do you think was in the mind of the person/s who painted these paintings in the caves of Spain?

Were they just like a snapshot photo you would take with your camera just to remember an event or is there more to it?

Bradshaw Paintings - Ice age rock art from Western Australia

Rock painted figurines from the Kimberley region of Western Australia discovered by Joseph Bradshaw in the 1890s. These images show tall slim figures with long rasta style hair perhaps carrying arrows. Many of the figures are shown with boomerangs, bows and arrows. There is much debate about the age of these paintings but some claim they are some of the oldest exisiting anywhere in the world. 

Writing with pictures........"Pictographic"

Pictographic writing...

Imagine, you can't write, for there is as yet no alphabet, no system of writing. Society is moving from small city groups to larger urban centres. As these large cities grow, they need to be managed. Until now oral histories remembered stories of the past, but the ability to record transactions is rather difficult to commit to memory and even more so to accurately then pass on to others. You need to pay your workers for working in the fields for you. Water was not safe to drink in much of the ancient world so most drank beer or wine in one form or another. You would pay your workers with jugs of beer.

So how do you do it? Well you use pictures scratched on clay with a pointed reed. The image at the bottom is that of a head with a bowl held to the mouth. It indicated the word "Ration". In the top left box is an image of an amphora indicating a storage vessel of barley wine. The circles and crescent shapes are the beginnings of a number system. The crescents are single units, the circles are units of ten. So see if you can work out how may units are indicated here?

Writing appeared first in ancient Sumeria in the form of pictographic images on clay tablets. However it did not simply evolve in one giant step from the images drawn on cave walls, to these small clay tablets along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Much earlier the people of ancient Mesopotamia had devised a need to account for a system of trade and bartering, and hence the first recorded accounting system developed that would evolve into these early clay tablets.

If you had ten sheep that you needed to sell to another person in the next valley and you were to send them to him, how would you record the transaction?

Was it necessary to record transactions like this or was everyone in ancient times trustworthy?

Well in this tablet you can clearly see a series of images denoting a need to record it and at the top of the box an impression that was meant to record the amounts.

This is a much simpler version of the system before, a system based on tokens, the simplest of all accounting systems. 

Imagine if I were to organise an agreement with the guy in the next valley to buy my ten sheep. I could make ten small clay symbols that looked like little toy sheep or I could make small symbolic versions that would become known as the common commodity of sheep. (see image to right of early clay tokens). I could then form a hollow clay ball and insert the ten tokens, close over the clay ball (this was called a bulla) and send it to him. Once he received that bulla and sent back word that he was willing to purchase the ten sheep and would send a message to go ahead with the deal. I would then send him the nine sheep. When the nine sheep arrived he would break open the clay bulla and count the tokens, and on receiving nine sheep but having agreed on ten, with proof being the ten tokens in the bulla, he would halt payment and contest the agreement. This was how recording transactions traversed the oral agreement and created a safeguard.

This worked fine for a while until it was realised how cumbersome it was when you accumulated so many tokens. 

The next logical step wasn to simplify the process. Instead of making tokens and inserting them in the clay bulla, you could simply make a clay tablet, draw an image of the item to be traded and indicate how many of them alongside. Hence the pictographic tablet with it nearly numbering system. 

CHALLENGE: Drawing these images on clay was a slow tedious process. Drawing the point of the stylus across the clay inevitably was very untidy. Try this: Get some air dry clay or some plasticine and a wooden skewer. Try drawing the images you see on the tablets above. Imagine if there were no words and all recording was simply done by drawing images on clay. 

Ivory Label of King Den

Fourth king of Egypts very first dynasty 2970.B.C

The small dark brown panel is inscribed with early, formative hieroglyphs. According to the inscription, It is actually a docket or label that would have been tied to an oil jar with string and placed in the King's tomb. A small hole pierces the upper right hand corner to allow for this attachment. It was found in the 'Umm el Qaab' (mother of pots) region of Abydos the most holy site in Egypt and the ultimate burial site of the God Osiris.

King Den is the most well documented king of the first dynasty and was a progressive figure that left his mark on Egyptian culture that transcended the ages. 

Narmer Palette

The Narmer Palette contains on elf the earliest hieroglyphic inscriptions ever found. c3200BC by the early King Narmer, it shows him on one side wearing the white crown of upper Egypt and the reverse the red crown of lower Egypt signifying his union of upper and lower Egypt into one empire. His name is inscribed at the top of the palette with two hieroglyphs the catfish and the chisel as being the sounds Nar-Mer. 

The rest of the palette represents the story of Narmer in much the same way that many of the l;are carved reliefs on Egypt's temples do so including the classic Pharaoh smiting the enemy relief.

Egyptian Scribe's Palette

The Egyptians wrote on Papyrus and later on parchment. They used pens made from thin reeds, and they would chew the end to create a fine brush like, fibre tip in order to write.

They would most commonly only write in black and red inks or paints made from crushed natural materials. To contain these inks and hold their reed pens a scribe would 

have a pen holder or palette, often as in this example from Pharaoh Tutankhamun's tomb be made from ivory. Note that it was made from segmented pieces of ivory and 

the royal cartouches were written on it. The central recess held his pens, while above it  were the recesses that held the ink.

Tutankhamun in fact had three scribe palettes in his tomb as well as a papyrus burnishing tool. 

BOOKFORMS - The Scroll

There have been two major book formats used over the millennia. In Mesopotamia they wrote on clay tablets, however it wasn't really a bookform in that multiple pages could be written and contained in a joined group format. Large clay cylinders such as the "Taylor Prism" contained fairly long epics such as Sennacherib's attack on Jerusalem and other epics were written on multiple clay tablets but were not linked together physically.

The SCROLL was the first major bookform. It was used in many civilisations around the Mediterranean as well as in China and elsewhere and is still used in some form today.

In Egypt, the scrolls were written on papyrus, made up of multiple pages joined together and rolled to form a long continuous scroll. The horizontal fibres were used for the text which was only written on the inside.

Later texts were written on scrolls made of parchment. Many of the scrolls in the library of Alexandria were probably written on parchment.

The image here is of parchments scrolls from the Library of Alexandria - Film props used in several recent movies including "Alexander", "National Treasure", "Centurion" and "Agora". 

To read a scroll, one would need to unroll with one hand while rolling with the other in order to find a section

The Mysterious Phaistos Disc

Many civilisations wrote in various forms of "pictographic" writing, the most well known being Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The Hittites, Meso America, China and many others used a pictographic format of writing.

In the early 1900s on the Island of Crete a Minoan palace was found in the town of Phaistos. 

In the ruins was found a disc with stamped pictographic characters in a spiral layout which is now understood 

to progress from the edge to the centre. It is thought to have connections with the still undeciphered Linear A text.

It includes 45 different characters over a total of 241 stampings on both sides of the disc.

Some have claimed it a forgery yet a group of similar signs have been found on a bronze axe head at Arkalochon.

The investigation continues.