The Written World is a series of five radio programmes running each morning this week, in which Melvyn Bragg looks at the history of writing over the last 5000 years or so (listen on iPlayer here, and see some of the documents discussed and links to other sites of interest here).
I've only heard episode 1 so far, but it's an interesting programme, albeit basic if you know anything about the history of writing (and I realise that the series is not addressed at these people). Bragg speaks to specialists in the British Museum and the British Library and begins with the invention of writing, believed to have been in Mesopotamia in about 3400 BC. From the clay tablets that have been discovered, we can see that writing was invented for accountancy purposes - to keep records of what was sold, bought and stored. Writing began as pictures (so if an ear of barley was drawn, it meant only an ear of barley), but eventually the pictures gained a symbolic, wider meaning, and were simplified to make them easier and quicker to produce. The Mesopotamians wrote in what is called a cuneiform, or wedge-shaped script, the shape being caused by the reeds that served as 'pens' -- they made imprints in clay. Clay fragments from these ancient times have survived because at the time, once they had served their purpose, the clay tablets were used as building material and landfill, and were well preserved in the climate.
Egyptian hieroglyphs probably developed at around a similar time to the cuneiform script of Mesopotamia, and probably after having come into contact with it. A thousand or so years later other writing systems spontaneously came into being, notably in China, and also Meso-America. Clay was used by the Mesopotamians as it was freely available in the locality. The ancient Egyptians, on the other hand, used papyrus, as this was a material available locally. The museum curator explained that black and red ink was used, with the latter being used for headings, to record deficits and to highlight any other words or sections.
Writing was always centred around the court and pharaoh and was thus usually related to prestige and wealth. The ghosts of hieroglyphs still live on in our own alphabet today, as the Latin alphabet, which English uses, can be traced back through Greek, Phoenician (an ancient Semitic language), the Proto-Sinaitic script to the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.
The oldest things in the British Library are some Chinese oracle bones (pictured on the BBC page). Such bones were used for divination as far back as 1700 BC. The bones came usually from the shoulder of an ox, and holes were burned in these bones by means of a heated poker-like object. Piercing the bone had the effect of causing little cracks to appear on the other side of the bone and these cracks were 'read' to predict what would happen. Messages on the bones can still be read today - the characters are like modern Chinese characters - and can give historians a lot of information about the period - names of emperors, news of eclipses and so on.
The Greeks developed their alphabet from the Phoenician alphabet. Phoenician was a Semitic language and had sounds that didn't exist in Greek, and Greek had sounds that didn't exist in Phoenician. Phoenician did not have symbols for vowels (Semitic languages today don't have written vowels), so the Greeks adapted their alphabet to add vowels and other sounds important for speakers of Greek. The Greeks wrote on wax tablets, not clay, using a stylus with a point for writing on one end, and a flat spatula on the other. When you had finished writing whatever it was you wanted, you heated the spatula end of the stylus and dragged it across the wax giving a fresh, smooth surface.
Well, I don't want to repeat everything that was in the programme as it is worth listening to over a cup of tea, or breakfast. Here's the programme on BBC iPlayer. Episode 2 is apparently about the invention of paper, so I shall be listening to that as soon as I can.