Writing has always been a passion of mine, and when I was 16, in an effort to improve my English, I began writing a book. I ended up with a thousand pages of foolscap, which still sits in a drawer, but the art of wordsmithing became a way for me to learn the language, and express a creative outlet. Since then I have written hundreds of articles, published 11 books and taken an active interest in literacy and its rewards.
I mention this, because I recently had the pleasure of attending a lecture at the museum on the history of writing. It was presented by Dr. Amy Baron, whom I have had the pleasure of knowing for several years. It was one of the more interesting talks I have attended in quite a while. Although Dr. Baron has a Bachelor’s, a Masters and a Ph.D., her passion is Mesopotamian history and language (an area now made up mostly of Iraq and parts of Syria).
The presentation centered on how we, as a human race, began to write and track our information, and it was quite an interesting journey. It seems that in days of old, back in the Middle East, people were mostly goat herders and farmers and sold their goods to neighbours for other goods or items of value.
Dr. Baron describes the process, which fundamentally explains, if I own a number of goats and decide to sell them to someone a far distance away, it would be quite a dilemma. I can’t just pack up the farm and leave for a few weeks, therefore I would hire a friend to take my dozen goats and herd them to the location of the seller. A problem arose when the friend stops along the way, spends some money at a pub or two, and arrives at the buyer’s house with only ten goats left. The buyer, none the wiser, pays for ten goats and my friend explains, upon his return, the buyer gave him less money. This became quite the conundrum for the farmers.
Someone came up with the idea of molding small marble-type ingots, which represented numbers of items. For example, if I was selling ten sheep, I would give my delivery person a triangle ingot (representing 10 sheep). The buyer would then know how many sheep were in the transaction. There were still drawbacks, such as theft of the ingots, but it was a start.
It was later decided the sellers would create a hollow, clay ball, place the ingots inside, seal it and place their mark on the outside, so no one could tamper with it. This process worked well, but there was still margin for error. To avoid further fraudulent behavior, the seller started engraving the shapes of the ingots, contained within the clay ball, on the outside. That way the buyer would know exactly what was supposed to be inside, again decreasing the risk of swindle.
It quickly became apparent if they etched symbols on the outside of the clay, why bother putting ingots inside? In fact, why not flatten the clay into a small tablet, and etch the numbers on the outside? The idea was widely accepted and writing began.
Next time you pick up your smart phone or tablet, take out your stylus and click on the virtual keypad, think about the early Mesopotamians, 3,500 years ago, who picked up a clay tablet, took a wooden stylus and etched markings to represent numbers and words. My how things have changed.