A Mesopotamian writing tablet

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.

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: An Egyptian scribe’s equipment.

Wall painting from the tomb chapel of Nebamun


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

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Part of the shoulder bone of an ox with an example of early Chinese writing


In Ancient China, the 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: The earliest Chinese writing.

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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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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 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. See Object File: Seals from the Indus Valley.

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A Mesopotamian writing tablet