Tag Archives: Middle East

Writing gets complicated

The Sumerians used a stylus to make symbols in soft clay. The symbols represented things they wanted to count, like stuff they were buying or selling. Think about sheaves of barley; poultry or livestock; pots of olive oil; baskets of dried fish. It was an accounting system for business. There were symbols for counting—numbers—and symbols to represent things—pictograms.

Over a long period of time, though, these symbols developed into a writing system that could record things people say. New meanings were introduced. Sometimes a symbol represented an idea—that’s called an ideogram. For instance, a symbol that looks like the sun may represent the sun (pictogram), or maybe a day or noon or the passage of time (ideogram). A foot symbol might mean a foot (pictogram), or walking or running or a distance (ideogram).

This writing system became pretty complicated. There were thousands of these symbols and more than one meaning for a lot of them. The ordinary shmoes who had used symbols to count their goods could no longer read or write in this system. You had to be trained to do it. You had to be a scribe.

https://saffroninteractive.com/a-brief-history-of-pictograms-and-ideograms/
https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-ideogram-1691050
https://www.historyofvisualcommunication.com/02-ideograms

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Stylin’ with the stylus

You hold it like a pencil.

The Sumerians didn’t have pencils to write with. Instead, they took a dry reed, stiff as a stick, and cut the end off at a 90° angle. Using a knife or by sanding it, they made the end of the reed rectangular. The corners needed to be sharp! They used the corners and the edges of the stylus to press triangles and lines into a soft clay tablet. This style of writing is called cuneiform (koo-NAY-i-form), from Latin words that mean triangle (cune-) and shape (form). The writing tool is called a stylus (STY-loos), plural styli (STY-lee).

http://writingcuneiform.blogspot.com/2012/10/2-making-stylus.html
http://writingcuneiform.blogspot.com/2012/10/5-making-basic-wedges.html

By the way, up until I researched this post I thought that the reed’s cross-section was triangular. Can you see how red my face is? Research, gang. You’re never too old to learn!

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Chicken scratchings

Here’s something else clay is good for: writing stuff down.

I’m just guessing here. How would you write a number before there were numbers?

Before it’s fired, clay is soft enough to make marks in. A Sumerian writer would spread out a blob of clay to make a flat tablet. A chicken farmer who wanted to count his chickens could draw little pictures of them on a clay tablet, instead of carrying around clay chicken-tokens. These drawings would have been very simple—maybe a dot and 2 lines for legs? A symbol of a chicken represented a real chicken. A symbol that represents a person, place or thing is called a pictogram.

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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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