Early writing

In the latest (October 31st) New Yorker, a cartoon by Robert Leighton about early writing systems:

When I teach about writing systems, the students are always fascinated with the idea that we can learn about long-distant civilizations from what their people wrote. And, eventually, we can. But at the beginning, what people wrote wasn’t love letters, tales of court, imaginative fiction, travel stories, or anything like that. Instead, much more practically, they made records of traded items (grain, animals, other things of value). Tallies, as in the cartoon.

(Not that people tallied things thousands of years ago the way we do now. Or that Stonehenge was a gigantic tally done by huge standing stones.)

2 Responses to “Early writing”

  1. John Lawler Says:

    Don’t worry; everybody knows Stonehenge was built to contact aliens. As for the sheep tally, that’s a Very Good Story.
    See http://www.umich.edu/~jlawler/style.pdf

  2. olderdog Says:

    When I was a kid the local museum was deaccessioning a pile of cuneiform tablets, so my parents got one, complete with a typewritten translation of whatever was on it: “received for sacrifice at the temple of so-and-so: two sheep….”

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