Mnamon

Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources

Origins, materials and techniques



  • Origins
  • Typologies
  • Materials and Techniques
  • General resources

The first writing in the Mediterranean appeared during the second half of the 4th millennium BC in the Mesopotamian area and Egypt. Mesopotamian writing system seems to have developed before Egyptian writing, but the debate is still ongoing about whether the second developed autonomously or due to Eastern influences. The origin of writing is widely discussed in academic circles and there are various hypotheses about it. For the Mesopotamian area, the use of pictographic tokens was essential. These were placed into clay ‘envelopes’ as a numeric indication of the quantity of goods being negotiated. More complex writing systems developed from these Sumerian pictograms, prevalently syllabic (Akkadian Cuneiform) and then alphabetic (Ugaritic Cuneiform). Outside of the Mediterranean area, the so-called Tărtăria Tablets are worth noting. Radiocarbon dating places them at 5,500 BC, and many scholars see them as the first form of writing, even if there is not unanimous consensus concerning their interpretation.

Online Resources

  • Denise Schmandt-Besserat (Home Page)
    Personal site of Denise Schmandt-Besserat, one of the most important scholars of the origin of writing and Emeritus Professor of Art and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. She studied at the École du Louvre in Paris, ancient Near Eastern art and archeology, and she has done a great deal of research on the origins of writing and of counting systems.
  • British Museum - What is writing?
    Internet site of the British Museum of London has some pages dedicated to writing, coupled with some basic, clear and precise information and some lovely, high-resolution images of objects in the Museum’s collection, with comments on them.
  • BnF: L'Aventure des écritures
    Educations site of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. In three sections (Naissances, Matières et formes, La page) there are some very brief pages dedicated to writing, to the materials and support materials, with a very good set of related images and comments.
  • Ancient Scripts: Home
    Site of an aficionado, Lawrence Lo, American computer engineer. The site is well-laid out and maintained: there is a section of news, one dedicated to historical linguistics and one to phonetics, a section dedicated to writing systems organized according to different criteria, etc. The link section is fairly large, organized in a general part, by geographic areas and more, but not always annotated.
  • Omniglot - a guide to the languages, alphabets, syllabaries and other writing systems of the world
    Site of an aficionado who has developed an excellent knowledge of linguistics and of ancient and modern writing systems. There are a number of different sections, with several hundred writing systems, each one presented exhaustively. In some cases the sections are more futile than really useful (e.g. the list of the countries in their original language, with .mp3 file), but overall the site is excellent.
  • The Unicode Consortium: Home Page
    Non-profit consortium created to develop, extend and promote the use of the Unicode standard. The site contains a number of sections where the project, the partners, the publications, the database of the characters, etc., are all presented.
  • Scriptorium - For discussion of all types of writing systems
    A forum dedicated to writing systems, with seven different discussion sections.
  • Il segno memoria dell’uomo: percorsi della scrittura
    “The symbol memory of man: pathways of writing” Catalogue (text only) of the exhibition with the same name, ed. by the library of the Catholic University Sacro Cuore in Milan..
  • Scripts and languages
    Site of an aficionado, Lars Marius Garshol, a Norwegian computer scientist, systemizing information taken from other sites. He has classified writing systems and languages by name, country, linguistic family, transcription or transliteration, direction of writing. Basic but systematic.
  • Bibliography on Alphabets & Writing Systems
    Site by Adam Blatner, Assistant Professor at University of Louisville, School of Medicine's Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Science (USA). Although mainly dedicated to his studies in psychiatry, the site offers a page dedicated to writing, with an plentiful and updated bibliography.
  • An Introduction to Writing in Graeco-Roman Egypt
    Site of the University of Michigan, with a few pages on writing in Graeco-Roman Egypt and on papyri, and an interesting series of images of papyri from the collection of the University each with complete information.
  • Alpha-B: Le site de tous les alphabets
    This site by an aficionado (Pedro Inigo Yanez) provides a large series of writing systems with tables of the symbols. The main problem is insisting on the idea of an “alphabet”, improper if applied to all writing systems, even if distinctions are made. The imperfections are indicated by visitors, which is very useful. 
  • Alfabetos de ayer y de hoy
    Promotora Española de Lingüística (Proel) is an organization interested in the study and valorization of minority languages. The authors of the site are not professional linguists, but all the same the section with the presentation of each writing system (organized by linguistic family, place and in alphabetical order) is interesting and provides a number of examples.
  • Abecedaria: A blog about keyboarding in diverse scripts, ...
    A blog about keyboarding in scripts, literacy and digital literacy, links, citations of theories on the origins of writing. Ed. by Suzanne E. McCarthy (Vancouver), amateur linguist.
  • Museo Didattico sulla Civiltà della Scrittura - Comune di San Miniato
    Site of the Educational Museum on the Civilization of Writing in San Miniato (Florence). In the section “quick visit” some topics of writing and printing are explored. The information is clear and simple and completed with some images; the intention is above all that of teaching.
  • AWOL-Historical Sources on Decipherment of Several Writing Systems
    Site on decipherment of several writing systems with bibliographical references to the most ancient and to the first studies on those systems.
  • Visible Language
    A book by Christopher Woods published by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago about the origin of writing: "Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond", Oriental Institute Museum Publications 32, Chicago 2010.
  • Origine della scrittura in Egitto
    SETHE K., "Vom Bilde zum Buchstaben. Die Entstehungsgeschichte der Schrift. Mit einem Beitrag von Siegfried Schott", Untersuchungen zur Geschichte und Altertumskunde Ägyptens 12, Leipzig 1939. Available on Internet Archive.


Writing systems are defined typologically according to the types of symbols used to express a given language. Some writing systems are really mixed systems, using symbols from different typologies. It is important to note that language has two primary levels of structure, which the French linguist André Martinet called the “double articulation” of a language: the meaning structures on one side and the sound structures on the other. It follows that writing systems are divided into two general classes: those that are based on some aspects of the structure of meaning (e.g., the word, the morpheme), and those which are based on some aspects of the phonetic system, like the syllable or the phoneme.

The main typologies used to define writing systems are:

  1. pictographic (expression and communication through an image or design which has a communicative objective). The pictograms can be subdivided into:
    1. petrograms, that is pictograms painted or drawn on rocks;
    2. petroglyphs, that is pictograms incised or carved on rock;
    3. ideograms, that is pictograms which represent a single idea or meaning;
    4. logograms, that is pictograms which represent a single word.
  2. phonetic writing, using phonograms:
    1. syllabary (a set of graphic symbols which represent the syllables of the words of a language. Some syllabaries include separate symbols for every type of syllable possible in a certain language, other systems use a system of consonantal symbols which include a vowel. Still other types combine syllabic symbols to represent syllables for which there is no single symbol: kan = ka + an);
    2. alphabet (a set of graphemes, or characters, used to represent the phonemic structures of a language).

 



Mediterranean peoples developed many different writing techniques and they used all sorts of material both as support and for tracing or canceling the signs. The type of material used conditioned the writing technique; clay meant using a stylus to imprint cuneiform signs and papyri required the use of the quill.



A few links to general resources regarding writing in ancient societies.