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Earliest Egyptian Glyphs Volume 52 Number 2, March/April 1999
by Larkin Mitchell

[image] Early writing from Abydos was used to label containers. (Courtesy Günter Dreyer) [LARGER IMAGE]

Bone and ivory tags, pottery vessels, and clay seal impressions bearing hieroglyphs unearthed at Abydos, 300 miles south of Cairo, have been dated to between 3400 and 3200 B.C., making them the oldest known examples of Egyptian writing. The tags, each measuring 2 by 1 1/2 centimeters and containing between one and four glyphs, were discovered by excavators from the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo in the predynastic ruler Scorpion I's tomb. Institute director Günter Dreyer says the tags and ink-inscribed pottery vessels have been dated to 3200 B.C. based upon contextual and radiocarbon analysis. The seal impressions, from various tombs, date even further back, to 3400 B.C. These dates challenge the commonly held belief that early logographs, pictographic symbols representing a specific place, object, or quantity, first evolved into more complex phonetic symbols in Mesopotamia.

Denise Schmandt-Besserat, Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, explains as follows the reasons why it is now held that writing spread from Mesopotamia to Egypt. Mesopotamia provides data that illustrates the step by step evolution of data processing from 8000 B.C. to the present. Clay counters of many shapes - tokens - were used to count goods in early agricultural communities from 8000 to 3000 B.C.. When the Mesopotamian script written on clay tablets appeared, coinciding with the rise of the state, about 3200 B.C., it visibly evolved from the token system. Tokens and writing had an identical function. Both served strictly for accounting the same types of goods, namely small cattle, cereals, oil, textiles, etc. The written signs were traced in the shape of tokens, bearing the same markings. The signs were organized using the same order as the previous tokens. Apparently, about 3100 B.C., the Mesopotamian state administration required that the names of the individuals, that either received or gave the goods stipulated, be entered on the accounting tables. These personal names could not easily be written logographically without the risk of overburdening the system. In order to solve the problem, the accountants resorted to writing individuals' names phonetically. This brought writing to a new course that, in the course of centuries or even millennia, developed into the cuneiform syllabaries (1 sign = 1 syllable) used by the Babylonians and Assyrians.

Thus, Mesopotamia is different from Egypt, where writing seems to appear suddenly, in that an uninterrupted sequence of data in Mesopotamia illustrates how accounting developed, requiring more and more sophisticated devices to deal with larger amounts of data with greater precision. Because Egypt provides yet no indication of any antecedents to writing, it was logical to assume that phonetic writing leap-frogged from Mesopotamnia to Egypt about 3100 B.C.. The borrowing was supported by the fact that the Egyptian rebus principle was identical to that of Mesopotamia and therefore seemed to be connected. Furthermore, there is evidence for a strong Mesopotamian influence in Egypt in the late fourth millennium B.C.. This is attested by the presence of typical Mesopotamian features of various nature. For example, a certain style of monumental architecture, the use of cylinder seals, specific decorative patterns featuring intertwined fantastic animals, and even the actual representation of the Mesopotamian Priest-king displayed with his unique status symbols. Because the reverse is not true, namely there is no trace of an Egyptian presence in Mesopotamia at that time, all seems to point to a flow of ideas from Mesopotamia to Egypt.

The bone and ivory tags discovered at Abydos also documented the quantity and geographic origin of particular commodities. The labels, originally attached to boxes or containers, had the names of places and institutions involved in the exchange of such goods as grain and fabrics. The older clay seal impressions and ink inscriptions also indicate the origins of different commodities. Such records, says Dreyer, "provide valuable information concerning political organization and resource distribution in predynastic Upper Egypt."

To date, 70 percent of these predynastic hieroglyphs have been translated. According to Jim Allen of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, such early hieroglyphs represent a rebus system, akin to modern Japanese, in which pictures are used according to the way they sound. In early phonetic systems phrases such as "I believe," for example, might be rendered with an eye, a bee, and a leaf. The Abydos hieroglyphs are simple precursors to the complex hieroglyphic forms discovered at later sites such as Metjen and Turin.

As ever in archaeology, new excavations bring new challenges to address, new questions to answer, and new problems to solve. Will the present date of 3200 B.C. for phonetic writing in Egypt be confirmed by subsequent work? Are the dates for Mesopotamian writing-solely based on the stratigraphy of one deep sounding of the site of Uruk-too conservative? Hopefully, Egyptology will be able to find out more about the circumstances that surrounded and led to the development of phonetic writing. Finally, it will be of great interest to resolve whether the Egyptian and Sumerian scripts came about independently, or if, after all, they had ties?

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America