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  • 25 b/w illus. 3 maps
  • Page extent: 436 pages
  • Size: 247 x 174 mm
  • Weight: 0.89 kg

Library of Congress

  • Dewey number: 411.09
  • Dewey version: 22
  • LC Classification: P211 .F62 2004
  • LC Subject headings:
    • Writing--History

Library of Congress Record


 (ISBN-13: 9780521838610 | ISBN-10: 0521838614)

The First Writing

Over 5,000 years ago the first writing began to appear in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Later still, ancient scripts flourished in China and Mesoamerica, with secondary developments in places such as Scandinavia. Drawing on top scholars, The First Writing offers the most up-to-date information on these systems of recording language and meaning. Unlike other treatments, this volume focuses on the origins of writing less as a mechanistic process than as a set of communicative practices rooted in history, culture, and semiotic logic. An important conclusion is that episodes of script development are more complex than previously thought, with some changes taking place over generations, and others, such as the creation of syllabaries and alphabets, occurring with great speed. Linguists will find much of interest in matters of phonic and semiotic representation; archaeologists and art historians will discover a rich source on administration, display, and social evolution within early political systems.

STEPHEN HOUSTON is Professor of Anthropology, Brown University. He has written extensively on anthropological topics and was co-editor of Royal Courts of the Ancient Maya, Volumes Ⅰ and II ( Westview Press, 2001). He is a recipient of fellowships from, among others, the School of American Research and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

The First Writing

Script Invention as History and Process

Brigham Young University

The Pitt Building, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, United Kingdom

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© Cambridge University Press 2004

This book is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception
and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements,
no reproduction of any part may take place without
the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 2004

Printed in the United Kingdom at the University Press, Cambridge

Typeface Minion 10.5/14 pt. System LATEX 2e [TB]

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication data

ISBN 0 521 83861 4 hardback

The publisher has used its best endeavors to ensure that the URLs for external websites referred to in this book are correct and active at the time of going to press. However, the publisher has no responsibility for the websites and can make no guarantee that a site will remain live or that the content is or will remain appropriate.

To Anders Bliss Houston and Hannah McCrea Houston
First in all things, and in my heart


  List of figures and tables [page ix]
  List of contributors [xviii]
1   Overture to The First Writing   Stephen D. Houston [3]
2   The possibility and actuality of writing    John S. Robertson [16]
3   Writing systems: a case study in cultural evolution    Bruce G. Trigger [30]
4   Babylonian beginnings: the origin of the cuneiform writing system in comparative perspective    Jerrold S. Cooper [71]
5   The state of decipherment of proto-Elamite    Robert K. Englund [100]
6   The earliest Egyptian writing: development, context, purpose    John Baines [150]
7   Anyang writing and the origin of the Chinese writing system    Robert W. Bagley [190]
8   Writing on shell and bone in Shang China    Françoise Bottéro [250]
9   Reasons for runes    Henrik Williams [262]
10   Writing in early Mesoamerica    Stephen D. Houston [274]
11   Beyond writing    Elizabeth Hill Boone [313]
12   Final thoughts on first writing    Stephen D. Houston [348]
  References [353]
  Index [393]

Figures and tables

Fig. 2.1 Holistic, immediate perception.    [page 17]
Fig. 2.2 Mediated, temporal perception.    [18]
Fig. 2.3 Intersection between visual and auditory perception.    [19]
Fig. 2.4 Direct and indirect access to the spoken sign.    [21]
Fig. 2.5 Visual connection to the auditory object.    [22]
Fig. 2.6 Indirect reference to homonymous forms.    [22]
Fig. 2.7 Potential ambiguity in strictly visual reference to the spoken sign.    [23]
Fig. 2.8 Deixis of orientation (Gardiner 1957:25).    [26]
Fig. 2.9 The relationships between the object of the spoken sign and its spoken and written counterparts.    [27]
Fig. 2.10 The relationships between (a) the spoken sign and the object of the spoken sign; (b) the written sign and the object of the spoken sign; and (c) the written sign and the spoken sign.    [29]
Fig. 2.11 Acrophonic derivations of certain members of the Classic Mayan syllabary    [30]
Fig. 2.12 The iconic nature of certain acrophonically derived members of the Classic Mayan syllabary    [31]
Fig. 3.1 Some historical relations among script types    [62]
Fig. 4.1 The Near East in the Uruk period. Important Uruk Expansion sites include Abu Salabikh (1), Ur (27), Susa (25), Godin (6), Nineveh (19), Jebel Aruda (2), and Habuba Kabira (9) (Stein 1999:95, fig. 6.4).    [73]
Fig. 4.2 A cylinder seal and a modern impression of it (courtesy Musée du Louvre).    [74]
Fig. 4.3 Sealed hollow clay bulla from Susa. Inside it were four spherical clay tokens and one cylindrical token, corresponding to the impressions on its surface (Le Brun and Vallat 1978:45, fig. 3:3).    [75]
Fig. 4.4 Numerical tablets from Jebel Aruda in Syria (left) and Uruk (Englund 1998:51f., figs. 13 and 15).    [75]
Fig. 4.5 “Numerico-ideographic” tablets from Uruk (left), Susan, and Godin (Englund 1998:54, fig. 16).    [76]
Fig. 4.6 Uruk Ⅳ cattle receipts (Englund 1998:154 and 156, figs. 52 and 53).    [77]
Fig. 4.7 Archaic list of offices and professions (Englund 1998:104, fig. 32). Each entry is preceded by the numeral “1,” signifying “item.”    [79]
Fig. 4.8 Uruk Ⅲ tablets with complex column formats. Top: account of male and female workers from Uruk (Englund 1998:177, fig. 65). Bottom: grain account over eight-year period from Uqair (Englund 1996:no. 1).    [81]
Fig. 4.9 Archaic Ur (c. 2800 BC) land account with uniform column format (Burrows 1935:no. 87).    [82]
Fig. 4.10 The construction and evolution of cuneiform signs.    [85]
Fig. 4.11 Proto-cuneiform pictographs based on vessels and animal heads, and the sign AK (from Englund 1998:fig. 22; Green and Nissen 1987:no. 2).    [86]
Fig. 4.12 From the Stela of the Vultures, Eanatum of Lagash (25th-century BC). The inscription runs along the top above the soldiers’ heads, along the band dividing the upper from the lower register, and in the space beneath Eanatum’s spear on the lower right (courtesy Musée du Louvre).    [87]
Fig. 4.13 Ashurnasirpal Ⅱ of Assyria (9th-century BC), flanked by attendants, on wall of palace at Nimrud (ancient Kalkhu). The lengthy cuneiform inscription forms an indistinct band beginning below the attendants’ waists and below the king’s knee (courtesy British Museum).    [88]
Fig. 5.1 Map of western Asia.    [102]
Fig. 5.2 Major sites of Late Uruk and proto-Elamite inscriptions in Persia.    [103]
Fig. 5.3a Semantic structure of the proto-Elamite accounts.    [105]
Fig. 5.3b Correspondence of proto-Elamite and proto-cuneiform accounts.    [106]
Fig. 5.4 Numerical systems attested in proto-Elamite accounts.    [107]
Fig. 5.5 Attestations of the sexagesimal system.    [109]
Fig. 5.6a Attestations of the decimal system.    [111]
Fig. 5.6b Attestations of the decimal system.    [112]
Fig. 5.7 Attestations of the bisexagesimal system.    [114]
Fig. 5.8a Attestations of the grain capacity system.    [115]
Fig. 5.8b PLOW = 2N39b, YOKE = 2½N39b (½N1).    [116]
Fig. 5.9 Attestations of the area system.    [118]
Fig. 5.10 Examples of simple (left) and complex (right) “tokens” from Uruk (digital images courtesy of CDLI [Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative]).    [119]
Fig. 5.11 Examples of sealed (top), sealed and impressed (middle) bullae, and a “numerical” tablet (all from Susa – top: Sb 1932; middle: Sb 1940; bottom: Sb 2313; digital images courtesy of CDLI).    [120]
Fig. 5.12 Development of cuneiform, after Schmandt-Besserat (1992).    [121]
Fig. 5.13 Complex tablet rotation among proto-Elamite tablets (Scheil 1905:no. 4997).    [123]
Fig. 5.14 Semantic and graphic correspondences between proto-cuneiform and proto-Elamite ideograms.    [125]
Fig. 5.15 Scheil (1923:no.45), an account of 7 labor gangs, totaling 591 workmen.    [126]
Fig. 5.16 Stylus shank case dividers on a numerical tablet from Uruk (digital image of original courtesy of CDLI).    [127]
Fig. 5.17 Uruk “numero-ideographic” texts.    [128]
Fig. 5.18 Persian “numero-ideographic” texts.    [129]
Fig. 5.19 A comparison of “numero-ideograms” in Mesopotamia and Persia.    [130]
Fig. 6.1 Selection of bone tags from tomb U-j at Abydos. Naqada Ⅲa period. Average height c. 1.5 cm (courtesy Deutsches Archäologisches Institut).    [155]
Fig. 6.2 Samples of three tag designs from tomb U-j at Abydos. After Dreyer et al. (1998b:nos. 67–69, 103–105, 134–135, 142–143). Nos. 67–69 and 103–105 are, respectively, examples of the same design. The back of no. 69 shows a scoring line that derives from the production process (see text). Dreyer proposes that the design of nos. 134–135 signifies “east” and that of nos. 142–143 “west” (see text, courtesy Deutsches Archäologisches Institut).    [156]
Fig. 6.3 Two sample wavy-handled pots with inscriptions from tomb U-j at Abydos. The sign on the left pot (height of vessel 25.7 cm) represents a scorpion and that on the right pot (height of vessel 33.5 cm) a bucranium on a pole with a palm frond or similar ornament; for drawings of the signs, see Fig. 6.4 (courtesy Deutsches Archäologisches Institut).    [159]
Fig. 6.4 Three inscription types from pottery in tomb U-j; all fragmentary and completed from parallel examples in the tomb: (a) scorpion and tree (?); (b) seashell and vertical stroke; and (c) bucranium in two variants, with and without added frond (?; see Fig. 6.3). Drawings after Dreyer et al. (1998b:figs. 33a, 40, 45, courtesy Deutsches Archäologisches Institut).    [160]
Fig. 6.5 (a) The Hunters’ Palette, probably from Abydos (either temple or necropolis). Naqada Ⅲa period (?). Height c. 64 cm. Siltstone. British Museum EA 20790, 20792, Louvre E 11254. Drawing after W. Smith (1949:111, fig. 25). (b) Detail of the design of building and double bull at the top of the Hunters’ Palette. Drawing by Christine Barratt; after Baines (1995:112 and 151 fig. 5).    [168]
Fig. 6.6 The Scorpion Macehead, main decorated area, from Hierakonpolis Main Deposit. The only writing preserved is the pair of signs in front of the central figure of the king, but no more than a third of the decorated area is preserved. Dynasty 0. Height c. 30 cm. Limestone (Oxford, Ashmolean Museum E 3632; drawing by Marion Cox, courtesy Ashmolean Museum).    [169]
Fig. 6.7 Tag of Narmer from Umm el-Qa‘ab Cemetery at Abydos (uncontexted find). Mixed writing and emblematic representation. The upper register shows a catfish, which writes the Nar- (nar-) element in the king’s name, smiting a northern foe, while the full form of the name is written on the extreme right. The lower register probably specifies a quantity of oil. Late dynasty 0. Height 3.65 cm, width 4 cm. Material not stated, probably bone. Drawing after Dreyer et al. (1998a:139, fig. 29, with photograph pl. 5c).    [173]
Fig. 6.8 Wooden tag of Aha from Cemetery B at Abydos, tomb complex of Aha. Mixed writing and pictorial representation. The lowest register specifies oil and probably other products. The principal events of the top register seem to be the manufacture of a cult image together with a visit to the temple of Neith at Sais in the Nile Delta. 1st dynasty. Height not given. Present location not known. After Petrie (1901:pl. Ⅹ:2).    [174]
Fig. 6.9 Sample cylinder seals of the 1st–2nd dynasties with unintelligible pseudo-writing. All but one are organized partly as scenes, with a seated figure at the right, and thus are semi-pictorial. British Museum EA 65853, 66812, 65872 (all black steatite, height 1.9, 1.6, 1.5 cm, respectively), 36462 (wood, height 2.8 cm). All unprovenanced. Drawings by Richard Parkinson, copyright British Museum. Publication with different drawings: Spencer (1980:nos. 423, 446, 432, 414).    [183]
Table 6.1 Chronological table: Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt, periods and rough dates.    [153]
Fig. 7.1 Rubbing of a turtle plastron. Reign of Wu Ding, c. 1200 BC. After Zhang (1962:no. 247).    [192]
Fig. 7.2 Turtle plastron (Yibian 3380) with brush-written inscription. Reign of Wu Ding, c. 1200 BC. (Photograph courtesy of Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica.) On brush-written oracle inscriptions, see Kaogu (1991[6]:546–554, 572).    [193]
Fig. 7.3 Rubbing of a turtle plastron. Reign of Wu Ding, c. 1200 BC. After Zhang (1962:no. 207).    [194]
Fig. 7.4 Huayuanzhuang Dongdi H3, a pit containing divination shells and bones excavated at Anyang in 1991 (shown crated for removal in a mass). The deposit dates from Wu Ding’s reign and includes both royal and non-royal divinations. It also mixes inscribed and uninscribed pieces: of 755 complete turtle shells, fewer than 300 are inscribed. (The total count of 1,558 shells and shell fragments includes 574 with writing. Of 25 pieces of bone, 5 have writing.) See preliminary excavation report (Kaogu 1993[6]:488–499). Illustration after Yinxu (2001:pl. 24).    [195]
Fig. 7.5 Inscriptions of bronze vessels from the tomb of Lady Hao, Anyang, c. 1200 BC. After Yinxu Fu Hao Mu (1980:figs. 29.2, 27.8, 35.3, 35.8).    [201]
Fig. 7.6 Inscriptions of bronze vessels from Xiaotun M18, a tomb near Lady Hao’s, Anyang, c. 1200 BC. After Kaogu xuebao (1981[4]:496).    [203]
Fig. 7.7 Oracle-bone characters, after Shima (1971): (a) bu (“divination”); (b, c) yu (proper name, “to fish”); (d) zheng (proper name, “to attack, subdue”); (e) wei (proper name, “to guard?”); (f) yu (“writing brush”); (g) ce (“document”); (h) dian (“document, record”); (i) xiang (name of a ritual feast); (j) Fu Ding (“Father Ding”); (k, l) mu (“dusk”); (m) quan (“dog”); and (n) ya (a rank).    [204]
Fig. 7.8 Bronze axe. Probably thirteenth- or twelfth-century BC. Height 32.7 cm. (Courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; accession no. F1946.5.)    [205]
Fig. 7.9 Inscription of a bronze vessel, twelfth-century BC, in the Musée Cernuschi, Paris. After Luo (1937:12.57.1).    [206]
Fig. 7.10 Inscription of a bronze vessel from the tomb of Lady Hao, Anyang, c. 1200 BC. After Yinxu Fu Hao Mu (1980:fig. 25.2).    [207]
Fig. 7.11 Inscription of a bronze vessel, eleventh-century BC. Avery Brundage Collection, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (accession no. B60B1046). (Courtesy Asian Art Museum.)    [208]
Fig. 7.12 Inscription of a bronze vessel, eleventh-century BC. Gugong Bowuyuan, Beijing. After Yu (1957:no. 274).    [209]
Fig. 7.13 Inscription of a bronze vessel, twelfth- or eleventh-century BC. After Shanghai Bowuguan Cang Qingtongqi (1964:no. 13).    [210]
Fig. 7.14 Inscription of the Zuoce Zhizi you. Eleventh-century BC. Gugong Bowuyuan, Beijing. After Yu (1957:no. 273).    [212]
Fig. 7.15 Jade ge blade with brush-written inscription from Xiaotun M18, a tomb near Lady Hao’s, Anyang, c. 1200 BC. Length 20.5 cm. After Kaogu xuebao (1981[4]:504).    [215]
Fig. 7.16 Potsherd from Anyang with inscription brush-written in ink. After Li Chi (1956:pl. 22).    [217]
Fig. 7.17 Potsherd from Anyang with inscription brush-written in vermilion. Length of top edge about 15 cm. After Kaogu (1989[10]:900).    [218]
Fig. 7.18 Bamboo ce from Mawangdui tomb no. 1, Changsha, Hunan province, c. 168 BC. The document is an inventory of the contents of the tomb in which it was found. After Changsha Mawangdui Yihao Han Mu (1973, Ⅱ:pl. 270).    [219]
Fig. 7.19 Emblems from Dawenkou pottery (top) and Liangzhu jades (bottom). Neolithic, third millennium BC. After Wenwu (1987[12]:75; also Li Xueqin [1985:157]).    [229]
Fig. 9.1 Bone comb from Vimose, Denmark. The inscription reads harja, a personal name. (Picture: Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen.)    [264]
Fig. 9.2 Woman’s fibula (brooch) from Himling⊘je, Denmark. The inscription reads hariso, a personal name. (Picture: Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen.)    [269]
Table 9.1 The oldest runic letters (c. AD 150–800). Number, shape, order, and the division into three groups are evidenced by fifth-century inscriptions of the rune-row (the futhark). The names (designations), their meaning, and the sound value of the individual runes are derived from ninth-century and later manuscripts. The derivations from Roman letters (third column) are found in H. Williams (1996).    [263]
Fig. 10.1 Early linear texts: (a) Monte Albán Danzante, MA-D-55 (Urcid Serrano 2001:fig. 4.47); (b) La Venta Monument 13 (Coe 1968:148, drawing by Miguel Covarrubias).    [277]
Fig. 10.2 Linear Teotihuacan script (Taube 2000b:20, 34–35, fig. 27).    [278]
Fig. 10.3 Kaminaljuyu “Stela” 10 texts (after rubbing supplied by Albert Davletshin).    [281]
Fig. 10.4 Olmec icons: (a) toponym (Tate and Reilly 1995:pl. 127); (b) another toponym (Tate and Reilly 1995:pl. 131); (c) cloud icon, Chalcatzingo Monument 31 (Taube 1995:fig. 24c); and (d) emergence cleft (Taube 2000a:fig. 2f).    [285]
Fig. 10.5 Nominal elements in headdress, San Lorenzo Monument 2 (Coe and Diehl 1980:fig. 425).    [289]
Fig. 10.6 Danzante from Monte Albán (J. F. Scott 1978:D-59).    [295]
Fig. 10.7 Tuxtla Statuette (Winfield Capitaine 1988:23, corrected against original by Houston).    [297]
Fig. 10.8 Dismembered captive, possibly from Tikal, on unprovenanced altar, Petén, Guatemala (after photograph by Houston).    [302]
Fig. 10.9 Peabody Museum statuette (Coe 1973:pl. 1).    [307]
Fig. 11.1 The Codex Féjerváry-Mayer, a religious and divinatory codex from Aztec Mexico.    [316]
Fig. 11.2 Algebraic notation for “the momentum (or energy) imparted by the gravitational field to the matter per unit,” from Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity (Einstein 1996:163).    [319]
Fig. 11.3 The opening of stanza 2 of the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto by Igor Stavinski, 1938 (photograph courtesy of Dumbarton Oaks).    [321]
Fig. 11.4 Dance notation recording profiles of motion for four dancers, reading left to right, accompanied by the score (Tufte 1990:117).    [322]
Fig. 11.5 The Feuillet system of dance notation recording the early eighteenth-century dance “The Pastorall.” It concentrates on the footwork, knowing the torso and arms will follow conventionally (Guest 1984:fig. 10.1).    [323]
Fig. 11.6 Labanotation: notation for five dancers, reading bottom to top. On either side of the central vertical line representing the body’s center, the defined areas identify fields of the body (support, leg, torso, arm, head), and geometric forms indicate the actions (Guest 1984:fig. 12.10).    [324]
Fig. 11.7 Venn Circles used to express relationships such as “no S is M” (Gardner 1982:40).    [325]
Fig. 11.8 Molecular formula for benzene, which is composed of six carbon atoms and six hydrogen atoms.    [325]
Fig. 11.9 Structural diagram of benzene molecule (Pauling 1967:117).    [326]
Fig. 11.10 Structural diagram of benzene showing the carbon bonds but omitting the hydrogen atoms (Pauling 1967:121).    [326]
Fig. 11.11 Ball-and-stick model of collagen, composed of three left-handed single-chain helixes that wrap around each other with a right-handed twist (Dickerson and Geis 1969:42).    [327]
Fig. 11.12 Space-filling model of collagen (Schulz and Schirmer 1979:72).    [328]
Fig. 11.13 Cord model of hemoglobin concentrates on its quaternary structure and the shapes and intertwining spatial relationships of the four subunits (drawing by Irving Geis [Armstrong 1989:100]).    [329]
Fig. 11.15 A partial list of deceased veterans named “Smith,” from the Directory of Names at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Given are the name, rank, service, birthdate, deathdate, home town, and panel and line number locating the name on the memorial (Tufte 1990:43).    [331]
Fig. 11.16 Table organizing verbal, mathematical, and graphic language into the steps that lead from basic parts to conceptual exposition (Owen 1986:171, fig. 8.17).    [332]
Fig. 11.17 Timeline diagram of New York City’s weather in 1980 effectively summarizes 2,220 numbers (Tufte 1983:30).    [333]
Fig. 11.18 James Elkins’ (1999:80) trilobed model of the graphic catalogue.    [335]
Fig. 11.19 Section of the annals history in the Codex Mexicanus (72), which records natural and climactic phenomena for the years 10 House (left) to 13 Flint (right). An earthquake rocked the land in 10 House, in 11 Rabbit there was a hailstorm so severe that the fish in the lake died, a plague of grasshoppers descended to devour the corn in 12 Reed, and 13 Flint was parched by drought (courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris).    [336]
Fig. 11.20 Almanac listing the twenty day signs and their patrons or mantic influences, Codex Borgia 22b–24 (reconfigured from 1993 edition).    [338]
Fig. 11.21 Almanac grouping the twenty day signs with six travelers, Codex Borgia 55 (1993 edition).    [340]
Fig. 11.22 Diagram of the in extenso almanac presenting the 260 days of the cycle in 5 registers that span 8 pages, reading right to left, Codex Borgia 1–8 (1993).    [342]
Fig. 11.23 Page 1 of the in extenso almanac in Fig. 11.22 (Codex Borgia 1993).    [343]
Fig. 11.24 Codex Féjerváry-Mayer 1 (1971 edition).    [344]
Fig. 11.25 Diagram of the 260-day almanac on Féjerváry-Mayer 1 (1971).    [345]
Fig. 11.26 Byrhtferth’s diagram of the Christian world (Kauffmann 1975:pl. 21).    [346]


ROBERT W. BAGLEY is Professor of Art and Archaeology at the Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University.

JOHN BAINES is Professor of Egyptology at the Oriental Insitute, Oxford University.

ELIZABETH HILL BOONE holds the Martha and Donald Robertson Chair in Latin American Art at Newcomb Art Department, Tulane University, New Orleans.

FRANÇOISE BOTTÉRO is Chargée de Recherches, Centre de Recherches Linguistiques sur l’Asie Orientale, L’ Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris.

JERROLD S. COOPER is Professor of Assyriology at the Department of Near Eastern Studies, The Johns Hopkins University.

ROBERT K. ENGLUND is Professor of Assyriology and Sumerology at the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, University of California.

STEPHEN D. HOUSTON is Professor of Anthropology, Brown University.

JOHN S. ROBERTSON is Professor of Linguistics at Brigham Young University.

BRUCE G. TRIGGER is James McGill Professor at the Department of Anthropology, McGill University, Montreal.

HENRIK WILLIAMS is Professor i Nordiska Språk, Institutionen för Nordiska Språk, Uppsala Universitet.

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