The Evidence for Early Writing: Utilitarian or Ceremonial?

By Postgate, Nicholas; Wang, Tao et al. | Antiquity, September 1995 | Go to article overview

The Evidence for Early Writing: Utilitarian or Ceremonial?

Postgate, Nicholas, Wang, Tao, Wilkinson, Toby, Antiquity

While in the rest of the world's civilizations writing developed as an aspect of the religious and political power of the royal persona, here in the irrigated deserts of the Tigris and Euphrates it was basically a form of bookkeeping

COE 1992: 41

Archaic Sumerian writing was quite typical of early scripts in being primarily or exclusively used for somewhat humdrum . . . administrative purposes

SAMPSON 1985: 48


Any enumeration of the characteristics of the early states from which modern civilization developed is bound to include writing. Like other shared external attributes, such as monumental architecture, writing is not merely a superficial manifestation of a given social order, but is embedded within it; a correct assessment of its role is essential if we are to understand the development of complex societies. The Inca state is notorious for having achieved a complex system of information exchange and retrieval without writing, but it is exceptional. It seems an a priori reasonable assumption that since writing features regularly among the attributes of early complex societies it may have played a similar role in each case. One feature which may support this assumption is the remarkable similarity of the different systems across time and space.

Similarities in some of the principal scripts revolve round the origins and development of a repertoire of 'signs', 'glyphs' or 'characters'; and round the ways in which these symbols are used to convey the language. At this point we have to make a few definitions. This is not the place to create another general definition of writing, but we do need to establish a criterion for differentiating between genuine writing, on the one hand, and symbols or systems of symbols which resemble it, on the other. Thus the complex iconography of the Olmec, although perhaps evidence for the beginning of permanent record-keeping, cannot be considered true writing. The same difficulties surround some of the symbols on early Chinese pottery, and similar marks found in many cultures including the earlier phases of Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilization. No single simple criterion is likely to suffice. Symbols may well perform a similar function to writing, such as making a statement of ownership; the difference is that writing needs always to correspond to a segment of language. Moreover, a writing system is only valid if it communicates: there has to be a reader as well as a writer, and for the system to function it must therefore be a finite system, with each side sharing the same repertoire. While it is reasonable to deny that a single sign on a potsherd proves the existence of writing, it may be difficult to decide whether a combination of such symbols represents a writing system if their meaning is unknown.

The difficulty is greater because the writing systems we are discussing all originate with symbols which could well have conveyed a message independently of their role within the system. In their early stages the scripts are mostly composed of logographic symbols,(1) each symbol corresponding to a word (Boltz 1986: 424). When considering the genesis of script it is interesting to compare the analysis of a much earlier academic: in the 2nd century AD, the earliest known Chinese lexicographer Xu Shen (c. AD 58-148) compiled his etymological dictionary Shuowen jiezi (Discourse on Pictographs and Explanation of Characters). In it he demonstrated examples of the Six Principles of Writing:

1 zhishi         object-indicating;
2 xiangxing      form-imitating;
3 xingsheng      form plus sound;
4 huiyi          meaning-suggesting;
5 zhuangzhu      semantic-transferring;
6 jiajie         sound-borrowing

In fact, as far as early Chinese writing is concerned the 'Six Principles' are over-elaborate. The zhishi, xiangxing and huiyi are basically ideographical: the forms of words correspond to the drawing of objects, or, more precisely, the meanings of the words are indicated or suggested by the characters' graphic forms. …

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