One of the ancient Near East’s greatest contributions to human history was writing. Among many other things, this invention made it possible to pass information down from generation to generation, and consequently to accumulate knowledge.
The earliest known forms of writing were cuneiform and hieroglyphic script. The bowl in the foreground helps to explain the evolution of cuneiform script. It is a clay bowl that was used as a measure of grain: the portion of food with which public works labourers were paid in Mesopotamia over 5,000 years ago. The pictogram is part of the representation of the word “eat”, placed beside a head in profile that means “mouth”. Over time, the head pictogram moved to a horizontal position. Later, pictograms became more schematic and turned into signs, with no connection to the original images or their meaning. Cuneiform script was used on clay tablets and foundation bricks, which often contain the name of the ruler who ordered them made, such as King Gudea of Lagash.
Hieroglyphic script, made up of pictograms, ideograms and determinative signs, is just as complex. The inscription on the back of the sculpture of Pharaoh Nectanebo I lets us take a closer look at this form of writing. This text gives the pharaoh’s names and includes a pictogram, an arm, which means exactly what it portrays. There are also more complex ideograms, such as the one consisting of a duck figure with a circle to its right. The duck represents the concept “son”, while the circle symbolises the god Re. Thus, the two signs together signify “Son of Re”.