What were the first things humanity ever wrote?

By | 18:53 2 comments

It's hard to imagine getting by in life without writing nowadays...

While of course there is still illiteracy in the world, nevertheless a huge number of societies wouldn't be able to function without writing, whether it's the imaginative novels that sustain our spirits or the complex data entry that keeps our bureaucracies ticking.

It all started with accountancy
The Kushim Tablet

The oldest recognised piece of writing dates to around c3,400-3,000 BC by the Sumerians in the city of Uruk. Recorded on a stone tablet it made use of a measurement system for numbers as well as well known symbols for words - a form of 'cuniform' writing.  Before cuniform writing there was a manner of recording types of objects and numbers by using token pebbles; for example one with a cross carved on it meant a sheep. But if you has 38 sheep you needed 38 tokens and it was hardly efficient. this new cuniform writing enabled far more detail with far less effort.

Unfortunately there is no great piece of history or story recorded on the stone tablet: it served a wholly practical purpose. Scholars, after much study, managed to translate the tablet as reading:

"29,086 measures barley 37 months Kushim"

What is the most interesting about the Kushim tablet - aside from it serving a a snapshot of an ancient business transaction - is the word 'Kushim'. It seems not to fit with any other symbol, but is instead made up of two separate symbols that make two separate sounds: 'ku'  and 'shim'. We can assume, then, that the Sumerian people made use of not just symbols that represent their literal origin, but something more phonetic. By using symbols that corresponded to the words as spoken, you could mould them together to make new words. 'Kushim' could the the official title of the transaction or official occupation of the person handing out the transaction. Or, most interestingly, it could be a name. If so, 'Kushim' is the first name in recorded history. 

It wasn't long before the Sumerians began to get creative and the Epic of Giglamesh was born.

The Epic of Giglamesh is largely credited as the first novel ever written, with its earliest copy dating to around 2,100 BC. The most complete version we have was written on twelve stone tablets (one of which currently resides in the British Museum) and tells the story of the King Giglamesh who ruled over Uruk in around 2,700 BC. 
Gilgamesh was worshipped after his death due to his wisdom ans judiciousness and celebrated for his abilities as a warrior and a builder. He even is thought to make a feature in the bible as 'Erech'. To this day the story of Giglamesh's quest for immortality is still being bought and read by scholars and the general public alike.

But not everyone used writing for quite such a 'noble' purpose

Once writing took hold it was here to stay and with great power - and increasingly widening literacy - comes great responsibility. We all know what trouble writing has brought through history as well as what goodness. Perhaps, for the armchair historian, the best pieces of writing are those that were a little rebellious without being grim; those that show us that, no matter when they lived, people have always been people and nothing much ever really changes.

You can find one cute example through Erik Kwakkel's Tumblr page. Here he shows off a discovery from the 1950s from near the city of Novgorod in Russia. Archaeologists dug up hundreds of pieces of birch bark with all sorts of texts written on them. One set were from a medieval classroom where, in the 13th century, young boys were learning to write. Like many students they inevitably got bored and when they did they started to doodle...

Nothing much changes when it comes to children's drawings

Another charming (if crude) example of people using writing for more rebellious purposes are in the infamous pieces of Roman graffiti, the best of which can be found in Pompeii and Herculaneum. If you pardon a little profanity, here are a few gems that would not look out of place scrawled in a nightclub's toilets.

Found on the house of Peascius Hermes:
"Watch it, you that shits in this place! May you have Jove's anger if you ignore this."

"Apollinaris, medicus Titi Imperatoris hic cacavit bene"
"Apollinaris, doctor to the emperor Titus, had a good crap here."

"Oppi, emboliari, fur, furuncle"
"Oppius, you're a clown, a thief and a cheap crook."

Found on the Barracks of the Julian-Claudian gladiators:
"Celadus of Thracian makes the girls moan!"

"Philiros spado"
"Phileros is a eunuch."

Found in the Basilica:
"Chie, I hope your hemorrhoids rub together so much that they hurt worse than when they ever have before!"

A note carved on the door of the Inn of the Muledrivers:
"We have pissed in our beds. Host, I admit that we shouldn't have done this. If you ask why? There was no potty."

In a Herculaneum bar next to a drawing of a phallus (still bizarely popular today!)
"Handle with care."

As ever, turn to 'The Life of Brian' for your Roman history!

For more Roman goodness try these related posts:

How did the Roman Empire begin?
No accounting for taste: the painted statues of ancient Greece and Rome
Review: I Claudius by Robert Graves
Historical hairstyles to try at home

For more ancient history try these related posts:
Was the agricultural revolution the worst mistake in human history?
Historical honey's 'The fascinating history of cosmetic surgery'
Legends of the sun
The golden eyed lady of Shahr-e Suketh
5 Advanced ancient technologies that shouldn't be possible.

Sapiens, a Brief History of Humankind - Yuval Noah Harari
-The British Museum: Historic Writing
-The Development of Writing Erik Kwakkel
- The History of Writing, G Carboni
- Medieval Doodles on Birch bark - Erik Kawakkel via tumblr
-The birth of writing: the Kushim tablet
-The first book ever written
-The epic of Giglamesh; Sparknotes
-11 colourful phrases of ancient Roman graffiti
-The bawdy graffiti of Pompeii and Herculaneum
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  1. Your blog is amazing, I'm so glad I came across it! It almost inspires me to create one of my own! What a great post. :)

    1. Hi Christine, that's so kind of you to say, thank you :)
      I must admit it's a great way to learn about new things, if you ever fancy it make sure to let me know, I'd love to give it a read ;)