Monthly Archives: September 2020

Putting the pot in Mesopotamia

Sumerian pots 4,500 bc

“Clay is a form of soil made up of very small particles of aluminum silicate created by the chemical weathering of rock.”

In the mountains of Turkey, melting snow turned to water that coursed over granite rocks and wore away at them. Teeny-tiny mineral particles were carried by the water down, down from the mountains and eventually into river- and stream-beds in the Tigris-Euphates valley. Over a long time, those particles became clay. You can dig clay out of the ground and make stuff from it, like pots. Clay is what they call plastic: you can form it into different shapes. Clay can be fired—heated at a really high temperature—to become hard and impervious to water. When they dig up ancient sites where people lived, archæologists find pieces of pottery that is thousands of years old.

https://sciencing.com/how-is-clay-soil-formed-13406937.htmlhttp://www.pottery-on-the-wheel.com/what-is-clay.htmlhttps://www.infoplease.com/culture-entertainment/art-architecture/clay-and-pottery

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How to start up a civilization

Sumer, in the ancient Middle East, was the very beginning of Western Civilization.

Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers (I put in modern place names so you can find this on a bigger map).

A civilization means a big group of people with a government and laws; an economy; technology; religion; and a language and writing system. The Sumerians had all that. They were located in between the Tigris (TEE- gris) and Euphrates (EH-you-FRAH-tays) Rivers—a valley that extends from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf.* It’s a friendly place to farm: melting snow from mountains in Turkey feeds the rivers which flood regularly. When the rivers recede they leave behind a sludge of decayed plants, dead bugs and fish bones. That sludge, or silt, is fantastic for growing plants in. The Sumerians learned to control the flood. They built levees and dug canals and reservoirs so they could bring water wherever and whenever it was needed.
https://science.howstuffworks.com/engineering/structural/levee.htm

Remember that farming for food turned out to be easier than hunting or gathering it. Levees and canals made farming easier still. That meant not everybody had to work on a farm. People could have other jobs, like priests or scribes. Some people built houses and towers. Some people ran the government. This is how a civilization gets started.

Mesopotamia: from Greek words— ‘meso’ means between; ‘potamia’ means rivers.

* Yes, I know, I’m a pronunciation geek.

https://www.penfield.edu/webpages/jgiotto/onlinetextbook.cfm?subpage=1525827

The Sumerians


https://mesopotamia.mrdonn.org/inventions.html

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Counting your chickens before numbers

6000-2200 bc. Eventually people figured out it was a lot easier to raise livestock—animals that provide food—than chasing after them with bows and arrows. Human beings domesticated certain kinds of animals, like poultry (chickens), cattle, sheep and goats.

If you wanted to tell somebody how many chickens you owned, you couldn’t, because there weren’t any symbols for numbers.

My version of a clay chicken token.

It was pretty important to know how many chickens—or goats, or sheep—you owned. Sometimes people would keep a bag of pebbles. Each pebble represented a chicken or a goat. Eventually someone had the idea to make little clay chickens and goats. At the end of every day, the animals went back into their pens. As each chicken entered the coop, you could keep track by putting a clay chicken in your bag for every real chicken. As each goat entered the pen, you put a clay goat in your bag.

You get what’s happening here? We switched from making images of animals as grand wall paintings to inventing a token or symbol (a clay chicken) that represents a unit (a real chicken). That’s a big deal. These symbols were the first step toward a written language.

“What do you mean by that, Manders? Stop spewing gibberish!” Okay, okay. To make my point more clearly: look at the cartoons in this post. A cartoon will only represent what it was drawn to represent. Now look at the letters in this text. They’re symbols. The letters can be rearranged to make different words, to say anything you like. It will take a loooooong time to get from chicken tokens to an alphabet, but we’re on our way.

https://phys.org/news/2020-06-domesticated-chicken.html
https://theconversation.com/when-did-humans-first-learn-to-count-97511

Early Counting Systems


https://mathtimeline.weebly.com/early-human-counting-tools.html
View at Medium.com
https://sites.utexas.edu/dsb/tokens/tokens/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bulla_(seal)

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Back in caveman days

Many hairy returns

Way, way back—I mean 2.5 million years ago—nobody read anything, because nobody wrote anything down. If you wanted to say ‘happy birthday’ to your uncle who lived in the next county, you’d have to walk there and tell him yourself. There weren’t any birthday cards, or paper, or pencils—and no alphabet, so you couldn’t even write ‘many happy returns’ (whatever that means).

On the other hand, one thing you have to say about us human beings is: we like stories. Not only that, we like stories with pictures. So prehistoric human beings did the best they could with the resources at hand. They painted gorgeous, inspiring hunting scenes on the inside of caves where they lived. For paint, they used ash, chalk, colored minerals, even blood. These scenes tell the story of triumphant hunters, or maybe they hoped their mural would convince their gods to grant them a successful hunt.

https://www.ancient.eu/Lascaux_Cave/
https://www.history.com/news/prehistoric-ages-timeline
https://www.inrap.fr/en/periods
https://naturalearthpaint.com/blog/natural-earth-paint-through-the-ages-the-prehistoric-era/

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AGAIN!

Have you ever read a book to a little brother or sister? Over & over & OVER again? That kid hasn’t learned to read yet. You, of course, are an expert reader—you don’t need to sound out each letter anymore, you look at a group of letters and right away you know it means ‘cat’, or ‘bicycle’ or ‘salami.’

A cat, a bicycle and a salami.

Our alphabet—the one you’re reading right now—is a code. Each letter stands for a particular sound. A group of letters—a word—can stand for a thing, or an action, or an idea. When a young reader sounds out the letters of a word, he’s learning how to crack that code.

Our alphabet is a gift from people who lived a long time ago—the Phoenicians. Before they came along, hardly anyone knew how to read. Reading was a secret skill practiced by a few select people.

https://www.edweek.org/ew/issues/how-do-kids-learn-to-read.html

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The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing

Okay, gang, here we go! I’m starting up another Western Civ User’s Guide. This time around we’re looking at reading and writing. If you’re a loyal follower, you know we’re all about the history of ideas here at Western Civ User’s Guide world headquarters. In this book I want to explore 2 themes. One, how an ancient invention—the alphabet—was so essential that it’s endured down to our own time. Two, that the history of Western Civ can be seen as a series of culture-changing transfers of power from privileged elites (usually played in the movies by the late Alan Rickman) to the broader population (regular shmoes). For example, the alphabet and later moveable type brought literacy to huge amounts of people; the printing press and later the internet increased the distribution of information.

In case anyone’s fuzzy about what exactly Western Civilization is, here are links to a couple of brilliant explanations:

https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/2019/01/13/what-is-a-civilization/
https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/2019/01/16/where-in-the-world-is-western-civilization/

As usual, there will be lousy gags and badly-drawn cartoons squeezed in between bits of actual history. This is interactive—chime in if you have information to share. I heartily thank you weirdos for following. See you next post!