Part 1 – Early Civilizations: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Ancient Greece/Rome

Part 1 – Early Civilizations: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Ancient Greece/Rome


History begins with writing. It is through this most ingenious of technologies
that we are able to connect with the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs of ancient peoples in
a remarkably direct way. The very beginnings of writing are hard to
reconstruct, but it appears that writing first developed in Sumer around 3100 B.C.E. Sumer was a sophisticated urban civilization
located in Mesopotamia, the area between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, which is in modern
Iraq. Very early writing is also known from Egypt
and China, but it is unclear whether writing developed independently in these places, or
was ultimately derived from Sumerian writing. It is known, however, that entirely independent
writing systems were developed in Mesoamerica around 300 B.C.E. Written texts from Sumer and other civilizations
in the region use a script called cuneiform, an example of which you can see here. Each symbol in the cuneiform script is made
up of a series of triangular marks or wedges, which give the script its name: cuneus is
the Latin for ‘wedge’, so cuneiform simply means ‘wedge-shaped’. Cuneiform was used for a variety of different
genres of text, from epic literature to royal proclamations to administrative documents. Important texts could be inscribed on large
stone tablets, while more mundane texts were pressed into clay tablets. Special Collections at the University of Missouri
has eight cuneiform tablets, most of which have been translated. All of these tablets are so-called messenger
texts: receipts for the transfer of goods from place to place. This one, for example, is a receipt for delivery
of various types of garment to a fuller, and dates from around 2000 B.C.E. The use of clay tablets was restricted mostly
to areas around Mesopotamia, though they were also used in the very earliest period of Greek
history. The very earliest Greek texts, which are all
administrative documents, are recorded on clay tablets using a script called Linear
B, which is unrelated to the later Greek alphabet. Rather than clay tablets, it was another medium
for recording written texts that came to dominate throughout the Mediterranean and Europe: this
was papyrus. Papyrus is a type of reed that grows in the
Nile delta in Egypt, and it was the Egyptians who first used this reed to make a material
to write on. Here we see a fragment of papyrus with an
Egyptian text recorded in hieroglyphics. The text is from the famous Book of the Dead,
a funerary text often buried with the dead in tombs. This fragment dates from around 1500-1100
B.C.E., though writing had been used in Egypt since about 3000 B.C.E. Papyrus was also widely used by the ancient
Greek and Romans, and it is a Roman writer, Pliny the Elder, who gives the fullest account
of the production of papyrus. According to Pliny, who was writing in the
1st century C.E., strips from stalks of the papyrus plant were laid across each other
at right angles on a board moistened with muddy water from the Nile. The strips of papyrus were then pressed together. This separated the individual fibers in the
stalks and also released sap, which (together with the clay in the muddy water) stuck all
the fibers together. The result was the paper-like material that
you see here. Pliny identifies seven grades of papyrus that
were used in his day. The highest grade was originally called ‘hieratic’,
from the Greek word for ‘holy’, because the Egyptians used it for religious texts. The lowest grade was of such poor quality
that it was mainly used as wrapping paper. Whatever its grade, only one side of the papyrus
was usually suitable for writing on – on one side it was easy to write left-to-right
with the horizontal grain; but on the other side, the vertical grain produced by the fibers
laid at right angles made writing all but impossible. This made papyrus somewhat inefficient as
a writing material. Once the papyrus sheets had been prepared,
they were glued together into long strips. These strips were then rolled around a rod
to produce the most common form of book in the ancient world, the book roll or scroll. Although scrolls were used for hundreds of
years, this form of the book did have some disadvantages, as this scroll from the nineteenth
century shows. Most importantly, it was quite difficult to
navigate one’s way through the scroll: if you were at the end of the scroll and wanted
to check something at the beginning, you had to wind your way through the whole scroll
– it was impossible to flip quickly back and forth, as with a modern book. This is perhaps why ancient authors, when
they refer to other authors, often paraphrase rather than quoting exactly – it took a
great deal of time and effort to locate an actual quotation in a scroll. Pliny the Elder also describes the production
of the ink that was used in the ancient world. Soot from furnaces was used to provide the
black color of the ink. This soot was mixed with water and the gum
of the prickly acacia tree from Egypt, shown here, to make a liquid ink that would adhere
to papyrus. The ink was applied to the papyrus with a
reed pen, and Pliny tells us that most reed pens came from Egypt, but that the best were
from the Greek city of Knidos, in what is now Turkey. The word for this sort of pen in both Greek
and Latin was calamus, the Greek for reed. This word survives in the Arabic qalam – a
reed pen used for calligraphy, examples of which can be seen here. Pens with metal nibs have been found in archaeological
excavations at the Roman city of Pompeii, but this sort of pen seems to have been very
rare in the ancient world. The papyrus, ink, and pens of the sort described
by Pliny the Elder were used by the Greeks and Romans, and by other ancient peoples,
to write texts of every sort, including poetry, drama, history, philosophy, and science. But whatever the type of text, the Greeks
and Romans often conceived of the writing of a text in terms of a very different type
activity: weaving, and the production of textiles more generally. In fact, the two words ‘text’ and ‘textile’
themselves illustrate the use of weaving as a metaphor for writing. Both of these words come from the Latin word
texere, which means ‘to weave’. In Latin, a textus is literally something
that has been woven – a textile. But the word was also used metaphorically
by the Romans to refer metaphorically to a fabric woven out of words by an author – a
text. Similar metaphorical connections between weaving
and written texts can be found in Greek. For example, the word analyo literally means
‘to undo’ and can be used for the unpicking of a piece of woven fabric. The same word is used metaphorically to refer
to the interpretation of a written text, or the unpicking of its meaning. It is this metaphorical sense of analyo that
gives us the English word ‘analysis’. The link between words and weaving, and the
idea that a piece of weaving could convey meaning in the same way as language, was so
ingrained in the ancient world that a number of myths developed around it. One of the most famous of these myths is told
in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a poem that brings together many mythical stories. The myth revolves around three main characters:
Tereus (the king of Thrace), Procne (his wife), and Philomela (his wife’s sister). In the story, Tereus rapes his sister-in-law
Philomela and then cuts out her tongue so that she cannot tell anyone what has happened. Philomela weaves some cloth that depicts Tereus’
crime and sends it to her sister Procne. Procne realizes what has happened and takes
revenge on Tereus by killing their only son and serving him to Tereus at a feast. It is this final scene that is shown here,
with Procne presenting Tereus with the head of his son to prove that he is dead. In the myth, weaving is seen as having the
same power to convey meaning as words do: physically unable to speak, Philomela uses
her textile as a text to tell Procne what has happened to her. But like other texts, if weaving can be used
to reveal the truth it can also be used to deceive. A famous example of this can be found in the
myth of Penelope and her suitors, as told in Homer’s Odyssey. Penelope’s husband Odysseus, the king of
Ithaca, has been away from home for nearly twenty years and is presumed dead. Penelope now has many suitors, each of whom
wants to become the next king, but Penelope holds out hope that her husband will return. She makes a deal with her suitors that she
will choose one of them to marry once she has finished weaving a funeral shroud for
her father-in-law. She then uses her weaving to deceive the suitors,
working on the shroud by day but unpicking it by night. And, of course, the word used to describe
Penelope’s unpicking of the shroud is analyo. Eventually, Odysseus (who is in fact alive)
returns home and kills the suitors. This late medieval woodcut shows both Penelope
with her loom and Odysseus killing the suitors. Towards the end of antiquity, new writing
technologies began to be developed. The use of parchment instead of papyrus became
much more widespread. And, most importantly, the scroll form of
the book was gradually abandoned in favor of the codex, which is the physical form of
book that survives to this day. What you can see here is a medieval example
of the codex form of the book. These changes in technology naturally led
to changes in the way people thought about the writing process. In future modules for this course, you will
learn about developments in the history of the book that took place from the medieval
period right up to the present day. In spite of these changes, however, ancient
technologies for recording texts and ancient ways of thinking about those texts continue
to inform modern conceptions of the text. We talk, for example, about scrolling through
the texts that we encounter in digital formats. And when reading a book we can still say that
we have lost the thread of its plot.

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