Languages and Writing – Our Key to Unlocking the Ancients



Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

From a lecture by Dr. Frank Holt, Professor of Ancient History, University of Houston (09.05.2013)


Writing is fundamental to our understanding of history. It allows us to preserve our thoughts in perpetuity. Language and writing are our keys to ancient cultures, but writing systems come and go. One system used for a while may cease to be used, and later scholars have to learn how to decipher that original system. Two early writing systems are one from Mesopotamia (“land between the rivers”) – cuneiform – and one from Egypt – hieroglyphics.

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Cuneiform (left) and Hieroglyphic (right) Tablets / Creative Commons

From Sumerian civilization comes cuneiform, literally “wedge-shaped“. It was wedged into mud or stone and looks like scratch to the untrained eye. From Egypt was the hieroglyphic system, hieroglyphic from Greek for “priestly carving“. Greeks from the ancient world saw these hieroglyphs on temples, and they believed it was used only for religious text and was “holy” or “priestly” writing. Some systems, such as Minoan Linear A, have still not been deciphered. We base much of our culture on the Romans, and Latin is everywhere around us – such as on our coins.

Until just 200 years ago the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt were mute. They could not speak to us because the documents and stones they left behind could not be read. The keys to culture are complex. Think of the image of a light bulb and our association with it as representing “an idea”. Future historians, without knowing our language or the context, would have to somehow decipher this.

Written communication can be one of three main types:

Pictograph01    Ideograph01    Phonetic01

Pictographic (left) and Ideographic (center) Tablets and Phonetic Alphabet/Syllabic (right) / Creative Commons

  1. Pictographic (picture writing). The things being discussed are drawn.
  2. Ideographic (idea writing). Pictures represent complex ideas. The light bulb can be a literal picture or a conceptual ideographic item.
  3. Phonetic (Syllabic/Alphabetic). These represent distinct sounds. Most of us today use an alphabet – each letter assigned a particular sound with groups of letters put together for the combined sound we want. A syllabic form is a letter representing not one sound but a combination of sounds, such as the letter “a” being a long “a” or an “ah.


Plaque designed by Carl Sagan, affixed to Pioneers 10 and 11 spacecraft / Creative Commons

We are surrounded by symbols that stand for different things, and we must interpret them. Think of P/R/N/D1/D2 being park/reverse/neutral/drive 1/drive 2. Carl Sagan designed a “message” to be placed aboard two spacecraft – Pioneers 10 and 11 – that could hopefully be interpreted by extraterrestrial life. The first launched March 2, 1972, and the second on April 5, 1973. However, can the plaque be interpreted? We aren’t all really walking around nude. A hand wave in most cultures is a greeting but in some a sign of offense or disrespect. We don’t really know how it will be interpreted if found by some other intelligent life.

Symbol01    Symbol02    Symbol03

Symbols / Creative Commons

How would future cultures, with no reference, interpret our bathroom signs? Color can also be part of the message, such as our green recycle symbol. We know the Olympics collectibles above to mean they were held in Toronto, Canada. Such images are universally recognized symbols today. If someone didn’t know our culture or global cultures today and had to figure all of these things out with no reference, they could be very difficult to decipher. Think of the following MT Extra script which says, “I want to be a history major.”


Imagine someone trying to decipher this! New symbols are still invented, including a system we ourselves are responsible for – emoticons, which some in this same culture don’t even know. Ancient languages were likewise constantly evolving and changing.

Sometimes, even if one has deciphered and can read a language, it can still be baffling. We all know what “out of sight out of mind” means. But someone unfamiliar with it may interpret it to reference a “blind idiot.” Perhaps a future scholar deciphering our sayings will think we actually invented the means to travel as fast as they perhaps will with warp drive because they will see many references to people doing things at “light speed.” The letter “x” can stand for many things depending on the context – the number 10, marking a location, times, don’t do something, incorrect, mathematical variable, and so forth. Our letters also produce different sounds in different words, “c” in “cicada.” Someone may be confused that there is also “s” and “k” with the same sounds in certain contexts.

Languages can be written in many forms, and we call these forms scripts. One script may be used for many different languages. We all use keyboards to type, but some may be taking notes in English, others in Spanish, German, French, etc. This was true in the ancient world as well.



Rosetta Stone / British Museum

Napoleon invaded Egypt (1798-1799), and during that invasion he took a tremendous interest in ancient Egyptian culture.  It was almost completely unknown in his day. He had scientists locate artifacts, produce temple drawings, retrieve documents, and more to later be studied.  His troops occupied the Egyptian town of Rosetta in 1799, where they found an extremely important artifact – the Rosetta Stone.

This discovery by the French under Napoleon became the key to unlocking ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. It contains the coronation decree of Ptolemy V on March 27, 196 BCE, in three different writing systems. The bottom portion is in ancient Greek, and in 1799 any educated person would be able to read it having studied both Greek and Latin. Part of the very bottom of that Greek portion was the sentence, “Inscribe this decree in hard stone using sacred, native and Greek writing.” This bottom portion was obviously Greek, the top portion the sacred hieroglyphic, and the middle section was native Demotic (cursive hieroglyphic). The key then became relating the known Greek script to the unknown hieroglyphic and Demotic scripts. Finding such a trilingual inscription made this possible.

Champollion01    Cartouche01

Jean-François Champollion (left) and Cartouche from Caesarion Dendera Temple (right) / Creative Commons

Egyptians lost the Rosetta Stone to the French, and the French later lost it to the British. King George III gave it to the British people in 1802 and had it placed in the British Museum in London. However, it was a Frenchman who deciphered the stone – Jean-François Champollion. He was a poor young student about age nine when the stone was discovered. He had become a troublemaker when he grew up, and his brother encouraged him to study these ancient Egyptian texts to occupy his time. He deciphered hieroglyphics using the Rosetta Stone at age 19 and was immediately proclaimed a university professor.

The way Champollion accomplished this was interesting. The right assumptions had to be made when certain portions weren’t comparable to others. He assumed some of the symbols must have been phonetic, representing sounds. A picture of a snake could represent a distinct sound rather than an actual snake. Since the ancient Egyptians would have no comparable word for a Greek person’s name, Champollion realized that writing a Greek name (on the stone, Ptolemy V) in hieroglyphic would have to be phonetically represented. They would have to replicate the sound, not the letters.

The name Frank is a snake above a plate, a bird, a plate with arrows above it, and a man kneeling and pointing to them indicating a man’s name. Because of the Greek text, the stone was known to commemorate the coronation of Ptolemy V. Thus he knew that somewhere in the hieroglyphs would be representations of the sound of Ptolemy’s name as opposed to actual letter representations. Locating it was the challenge. Hieroglyphic could be written right to left, left to right, or top to bottom (never bottom to top). An animal looking in a direction indicated that as the starting direction. Each individual hieroglyph was always read top-bottom-right-left.

It was noticed that some words were encased in a cartouche – a cartridge/loop outline shape. The assumption was that the name of the king (being a divine pharaoh) must be set aside and this must be his name. Sometimes other hieroglyphs would be added to the end of a name as an honorific for an accomplishment or status, such as “honoring Ptah.” Once Champollion guessed the hieroglyphs within the cartouche always represented the sounds in Ptolemy’s name, he could look at other name inscription on other stones and documents with some of the same sounds (e.g., Cleopatra). Some symbols represented bilateral or even trilateral sounds.


Champollion’s grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris / Creative Commons

Champollion made this breakthrough in 1822 and died ten years later at the age of 41, and he never saw the actual Rosetta Stone! We can confirm the accuracy because the thousands of documents and other writings in hieroglyphic make sense this way and this way only, though there are still problematic areas. His grave in Paris is marked by an Egyptian obelisk.


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Behistun Inscription, Mount Behistun, Kernanshah Province, Western Iran / Creative Commons

Deciphering the “wedge-shaped” cuneiform, which preceded hieroglyphs, came later than deciphering hieroglyphs. They used clay tablets to preserve most of their writing, which have survived. Cuneiform is one script with many “dialects” – Sumerian, Akkadian, Elamite, Hittite, and Persian. It died out after c.100 BCE after 3,000 years of use. From then to the 19th century, it could no longer be read. But the tablets contained small writing that was not as neat and organized as hieroglyphics. There was one major cuneiform inscription carved in stone on Mount Behistun in what was then Persia and is today Iran. It is on a sheer 30-story-tall cliff. It had to be copied and studied, but being so high up was a challenge.


Sir Henry Rawlinson / Creative Commons

Sir Henry Rawlinson, a British army officer, risked his life every day to study the script. He ascended a tall later to study the lower portion, steadying himself with one hand while copying with the other at 300 feet above the ground. The upper portion required that he tie a rope around his leg and have someone dangle him over the cliff so that he could copy it hanging upside down. The things people have done to expand knowledge is incredible!

The first people who saw a portion of the inscription once copied said it was Jesus and the twelve disciples, which of course – having been carved long before the time of Jesus – it was not. It was Persian King Darius I and slaves. Rawlinson recognized an image that was a word divider in other documents and stones, and he noticed patterns in words being repeated. He needed to figure out the pattern to decipher the meaning.

The inscription was a geneaology – a list of members of a dynasty. Rawlinson had also found an ancient Greek text by Herodotus of a geneaology of ancient Persian kings saying exactly the same thing. This allowed a correct translation of this cuneiform text. The Behistun text had three languages on it – Persian, Babylonian and Elamite.

Because of the work of Champollion and Rawlinson and those who followed, scholars have worked back to Akkadian and Sumerian texts. Sumerian is the oldest civilization and writing that we know of, and they were conquered by the Akkadians.


LinearA01    LinearB01

Linear A (left) and Linear B (right) on stone tablets / Creative Commons

There were two other civilizations in the Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age – the Minoans on the island of Crete (2200-1400 BCE) and the Mycenaeans on Crete and the Greek mainland (1600-1100 BCE). Minoans used the Linear A writing systems and Mycenaeans used Linear B. These were both unknown until relatively recently.

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Alice Kober (left) and her card system (right) / Creative Commons

Alice Kober, a linguist (1906-1950), made an enormous collection of 180,000 index cards (which still exists) as she attempted to decipher the Linear B script. This was during World War II, and because of paper shortage she had to create her own index cards out of used paper and bleach the ink. Again this is an example of someone going to great lengths to expand knowledge. Each card had a symbol or group of symbols on them. She made significant breakthroughs but died in 1950 before deciphering Linear B.

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Michael Ventris (left) and portion of letter (right) / Creative Commons

Michael Ventris (1922-1956) built on Kober’s work and finally deciphered Linear B. On June 18, 1952, he wrote a letter to a “Bennett” announcing it and wrote that Knossos and Pylos were both written in Greek. He published his results in 1953, and they were immediately confirmed. He was not an academic. He was an architect who enjoyed fiddling around with unknown languages, not a trained classicist or linguistic expert. Linear B is actually the earliest form of Greek that we know of – Bronze Age Greek. It was a pictographic phonetic syllabary. Ventris assigned syllable sounds to each pictograph to known Greek words.


We now have access to the languages of early civilizations thanks to the work of those who deciphered the languages. The first known civilization on the planet were the Sumerians. They were the first fully developed civilization with a highly advanced form of writing (cuneiform), major cities, large-scale agriculture, a complex system of laws, government, and religion. So history begins with this first civilization to maintain written records. Their neighbors to the northwest were the Akkadians who eventually moved down and conquered Sumerian cities one by one, and they became very Sumerian in the process. For example, they adopted cuneiform. The Sumerian culture was then handed on to other Mesopotamian cultures.


Code of Hammurabi Stele / Musée du Louvre, Paris

Hammurabi was the king of the Amorites and set up this law code during his reign. He ruled 1792-1750 BCE (18th century BCE) in a long and prosperous reign. Archaeologist’s discovered this broken monument at Susa in 1901. It was toppled and broken but they knew it was important because it was covered with cuneiform text. Remember that cuneiform had been deciphered by 1901 and thus could be read by scholars. It was restored and taken to the Louvre where it now stands.

It is over seven feet tall and is in the form of a stele – a free-standing monument normally containing text. The top portion has an image carved into it. The rest of the stele is covered with more than 6,000 lines of cuneiform text on both the front and back. The image shows Hammurabi standing on the left. The left side of such images showed less important people. Shown holding his hand over his mouth (signifying his lesser status), he was making an act of obedience to the figure on the right. The right side was reserved for more important or significant figures who were shown larger and usually seated such as here. This figure represents a god. No one else would be more important or significant than the great King Hammurabi. This sun god, Shamash, was shown with fire or light rising from his shoulders that penetrated darkness and revealed evil wherever it was. He was an important god to find and deal with crime in the dark recesses of humanity. This was a polytheistic society – belief in many gods (poly=many, theist=god). In henotheism, many gods are likewise believed in while one is considered the most important. Monotheism is the belief in a single, all-powerful god. Monotheism was very rare in the ancient world because it had trouble explaining things that polytheism explained very well.

In the image on the stele, Shamash is handing a scroll to Hammurabi containing his laws. Even illiterate ancients could see and “read” this image to recognize that this god of justice was handing their king a code they were to follow. This was therefore in practice a theocratic society (theo=god, cratic=rule), a god-ruled society. It was argued that all power and law came from a single god or group of gods. Hammurabi was the intermediary standing between the gods and his people. He delivered messages on their behalf of what was right and wrong. The gods ruled directly through the king as an intermediary, which was different from Egypt where the pharaoh himself was ranked among the gods and not as a mere intermediary.

The Code of Hammurabi contains 282 legal rulings, all in an if-then format: if “A” is done, then it must be punished in “B” manner. This takes us into ancient Sumerian society and shows us their problems and what was most important to them – how they dealt with crime, money, religious issues, business contracts, etc. Every aspect of daily life was dealt with in this code, and some of it would be surprising to us today. If a house was built shoddily and collapsed and killed the owner’s son, then the builder’s son must be killed to even the balance. If a doctor did sloppy work and caused the loss of someone’s right arm, then he would have to forfeit his right arm. This was a Talionic code (a retaliation code dispensing eye-for-an-eye type of justice). Some of this may have been brutal, but it was better than having no law at all. Even our death penalty today is Talionic.

Sumer’s Talionic code depended on one’s social class. Not everyone was equal and punishments were much harsher for lower classes. There were three classes in Mesopotamia: some were Awilum (nobles), more were Mushkenum (commoners, some upper-middle class), and many were Wardum (slaves). Everyone was protected in the code, even slaves, but they were not equal under the law. A Wardum who killed another Wardum or a higher class would be killed as well, but an Awilum who killed a Wardum would be fined. It was only truly poetic if the perpetrator and victim were of the same class. If an Awilum knocked out a Mushkenum’s eye, he would be fined because his eyes were “better”. If a Mushkenum knocked out an Awilum’s eye, then he would lose two eyes because his were “not as good”. Those who falsely accused others were put to death (again only if equal social rank, otherwise just always assume a fine was levied at most). Men could have many wives and concubines, but they were responsible for the wives and children and could not abandon them. There was a tendency in such codes to favor men, but women were protected to some extent in Hammurabi’s Code. This was thousands of years before democratic Athens, where women were treated even worse!


Golden ox figurine found in the Maykop kurgan, mid-3rd millennium BCE / Creative Commons

The majority of laws in Hammurabi’s Code deal with oxen. This was the most significant property anyone could own at the time. They were needed to plow fields and sustain families and communities. They were “golden” to this society. This code tells everything one would want to know about oxen in Sumerian civilization.


Model of Egyptian Oxen being Herded and Counted for Taxes / Creative Commons

Egyptians, as shown in the model above, were just as obsessed with oxen for the same reason. But why are there no such law codes in Egypt as there were in Sumerian civilization? There were far fewer slaves in Egypt than in Mesopotamia. In Egypt, the pharaoh was living law – a god manifest on Earth. His voice was law.

The story of the most famous law code in Western history is that of the Ten Commandments (the Law of Moses). Moses was said to have had these laws given to him by God speaking from a burning bush on Mount Sinai. The story is that he inscribed the laws on stone tablets for the Hebrew people as an intermediary between them and their god Yahweh. This is exactly the same imagery as Hammurabi being given the law by his sun god Shamash with fire/light coming from the shoulders.


From its early origins and beginnings in written form, language has been the methodology by which historians have understood much of the past.  The many civilizations and cultures across the globe have permanently left their mark, form the Sumerians to the Greeks to the Romans and those on the other side of the globe such as the Inca, Mayans, and Aztec.  The written word is the best way to get into the ancient psyche along with artifacts they left behind, and we still have work to do.  Linear A remains to be deciphered as well as portions of other scripts, such as in the Western hemisphere.

Language, as we see even today, never stops developing and changing.  It simply does so in different ways.

We’re never far from where we were.