Seals from the Indus Valley

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.

Clay tablet from Ur


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

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The earliest writing known is from the Sumerian civilisation in 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. See Object File: Mesopotamian clay tablet.

Nabamun painting


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. Also see Object File: Ancient Egyptian writing equipment.

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Chinese writing on ox bone


Part of the shoulder bone of an ox with an example of early Chinese writing. In Ancient China, the earliest writing dates back to around 1200 BC, during the Shang Dynasty. The earliest writing was on oracle bones, used to forecast the future. See Object File: Early Chinese writing.

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Mayan pottery glyphs


This Mayan pottery vessel shows 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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Linear B tablets


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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Seals from the Indus Valley