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Originally published Thursday, September 30, 2010 at 7:05 PM

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Before Twitter, tweets were made in stone

Exhibit shows earliest known written documents.

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — When ancient scribes invented the world's first systems of writing by cutting symbols into stone and clay, they unleashed an anxiety the Facebook generation can relate to: worry about how the new technology might upend their culture.

As the technology caught on in Egypt and Mesopotamia, ancient writers recorded the anxiety of some in Pharaonic Egypt that the written word would impair memory and turn humans into ignorant fools.

An exhibit at the Oriental Institute pulls together information that has emerged in the last 25 years showing how the written word was invented independently at four places around the world: in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China and in what today is southern Mexico and Guatemala.

The exhibit, "Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond," has as its centerpiece some of the earliest known written documents: rudimentary markings pressed into small sun-baked clay tablets by ancient scribes in Mesopotamia 5,200 years ago. This is the first time the tablets have been shown in the United States.

Gil Stein, director of the Chicago museum, called the origin of writing "the first true information revolution."

"The origin of writing is so fundamental to the idea of civilization and so deeply ingrained in us that it is almost hard to frame this invention as something worth us looking at," he said.

He said writing is one of the key human achievements that marks the transition from more primitive societies to people organizing into nations, creating cities and complex systems of law, commerce and intellectual life.

One intriguing finding is that there were four instances in history when people invented writing from scratch, with no previous examples of writing to guide them, said exhibit curator Christopher Woods, an associate professor and curator at the institute.

"To the best of our knowledge, writing was invented separately about the same time in Mesopotamia and in Egypt, roughly around 3200 B.C. China invented a writing system around 1200 B.C. that is still in use in China today. Meso-America saw the invention in the first millennium B.C.," he said.

The exhibit draws on examples of ancient writing from the museum's extensive collections and from other museums to tell the story of how different pressures stimulated the invention of writing in each place.

In Mesopotamia, Woods said, evidence suggests that writing was invented 5,200 years ago in a short span of time, perhaps 25 years, probably in the town of Uruk in what is now Iraq. Uruk grew into a city of 40,000 as it grew wealthy from the invention of irrigation canals that turned the desert between the Tigris and Euphrates into fertile farm fields.

Wood said writing came about so bureaucracies and businesses could keep track of trades, herds of animals, production of beer and the labor pool for constructing large, monumental buildings.

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"Most people in those days worked for religious temples, so incomes had to be kept track of and paid, and the only way of keeping track of so many people and transactions was to record the information," he said.

Before writing, Mesopotamian peoples used clay tokens, often inscribed with pictographs representing goods and animals being produced and disbursed, as a means of record-keeping. Early scribes refined those pictographs and added symbols representing syllables of spoken Sumerian, the language of Uruk.

Having a system of writing spoken language meant civil officials and priests could create written laws and regulations and formulate legally binding contracts. Messages could be reliably sent to friends and foes hundreds of miles away. Rulers and priests could inscribe their stories on monuments and buildings, assuring they would be read by future generations.

The exhibit features 5,200-year-old cuneiform writings on small clay tablets on loan from Berlin's Vorderasiatisches Museum. Most are receipts of business transactions, such as one that records the sale of 25 nanny goats and five billy goats.

"Ninety percent of the early documents are administrative documents," said museum curator Geoff Emberling, "but 10 percent are lists of things — like animals, cities, metal and wooden goods — that students copied endlessly to practice writing. We learn a lot about society just from what is in those lists."

It took 700 years before writing was used for literature and more intimate, person-to-person correspondence. In one such tablet in the exhibit, a petitioner seeks a loan from a noble benefactor.

"Write down the good news (about) yourself upon a tablet and send it to me," the petitioner says in the letter, buttering up the benefactor while trying to wheedle "10 shekels so I may buy a slave girl" which would replace another slave girl who had been "carried off as war booty" by enemy soldiers.

In Egypt, hieroglyphic writing was invented less for record-keeping and more to record religious dogma and to glorify and proclaim the supremacy of the Egyptian king.

The Chinese writing system, which appeared about 1200 B.C., is still in use. Its earliest uses were for religious divination, Woods said.

Royal priests invented language symbols to write out questions they wanted answered by the gods, he said. The questions were written on ox bones or the tummies of turtle shells, then heated in fires until they cracked. From the way they cracked, the priests supposed they could divine the answers.

Extensive but difficult-to-decipher hieroglyphic-like carvings in Mayan temples in southern Mexico and Guatemala seemed to represent language, but, "Writing in the New World cultures was always poorly understood," Woods said.

In recent decades, however scholars have begun to break through the code and establish it as true writing, much of it dedicated to commemorative declarations to Mayan gods or relating to the complicated Mayan calendar. All of it remains preserved in masterful stone carvings.

Mayans also wrote on other materials, such as paper, wood and even human skin, Woods said, but because of Central America's heat and humidity, few of those materials survive.

The invention of writing may not have spread as quickly as more recent world-changing information innovations, such as the printing press, telegraph, telephone, radio, television and the Internet, but like them it disrupted old ways of doing things, often setting off societal fears.

The Greek philosopher Plato revealed the fears some Egyptians expressed when he wrote of the Egyptian myth that the god Thoth invented writing and then boasted to the chief god, Amun, that it was an "elixir of memory and wisdom."

In reply, Amun predicted trouble for readers and writers.

He said it would cause forgetfulness in writers because they would not use their memory. Moreover, he predicted, readers would give only the appearance of knowing things while remaining "ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise but only appear wise."

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