Early Chinese writing

A bigger picture

Writing developed in a number of ancient cultures independently. In most cases its original purpose was entirely practical, but it soon became used in a variety of ways, although the number of people who could read and write was always very small. Being able to read the writing of a culture allows the archaeologist and historian to unlock aspects of life, beliefs and experiences that would otherwise remain hidden.

A clay tablet from Ur recording the distribution of quantities of barley


The earliest writing known is from the Sumerian civilisation in what is present-day Iraq around 3200 BC. Simple picture signs developed into a system of wedge-shaped marks made in soft clay using a stick or reed. This script, called cuneiform, spread through the Middle East and was eventually used to write around fifteen different languages.

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A wall painting from the tomb chapel of Nebamun, with hieroglyphs in the background


The formal writing system of ancient Egypt is called Egyptian hieroglyphs. It probably developed around 3000 BC. Egyptian hieroglyphs were initially used for record-keeping, but also for recording stories about kings and gods.

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Pottery vessel showing a seated lord with his name and titles in glyphs


Inscriptions from the civilisation of the Maya have been found on a range of materials including stone, pottery, shell, bone, wood and jade. Most of the surviving examples of Maya writing are from the period AD 250900, though some may be earlier.

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Seals carrying vivid images of animals with symbols


The earliest form of writing from the Indian subcontinent occurs on sealstones from the Harappan civilisation in present-day Pakistan and dates from about 2600 to 1900 BC. The script has not yet been deciphered.

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Two clay tablets written in Linear B recording palace business


The earliest writing in the Greek language is in a script called Linear B. Examples were first discovered on the island of Crete, but later also found on the Greek mainland. Writing disappeared in Greece after the 12th century BC, but reappeared in the 8th century BC using an alphabet borrowed from the Phoenicians.

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Early Chinese writing