Scholars agree that writing originated somewhere in the Middle East, probably Mesopotamia, around the fourth millennium B.C.E. It is from the great libraries and word-hoards of these ancient lands that the first texts emerged. They were written on damp clay tablets with a wedged (or V-shaped) stick; since the Latin word for wedge is cunea, the texts are called cuneiform. The clay tablets usually were not fired; sun drying was probably reckoned enough to preserve the text for as long as it was being used. Fortunately, however, many tablets survived because they were accidentally fired when the buildings they were stored in burned.
Cuneiform writing lasted for some 3,000 years, in a vast line of succession that ran through Sumer, Akkad, Assyria, Nineveh, and Babylon, and preserved for us fifteen languages in an area represented by modern-day Iraq, Syria, and western Iran. The oldest cuneiform texts recorded the transactions of tax collectors and merchants, the receipts and bills of sale of an urban society. They had to do with things like grain, goats, and real estate. Later, Babylonian scribes recorded the laws and kept other kinds of records. Knowledge conferred power. As a result, the scribes were assigned their own goddess, Nisaba, later replaced by the god Nabu of Borsippa, whose symbol is neither weapon nor dragon but something far more fearsome, the cuneiform stick.
Cuneiform texts on science, astronomy, medicine, and mathematics abound, some offering astoundingly precise data. One tablet records the speed of the Moon over 248 days; another documents an early sighting of Halley’s Comet, from September 22 to September 28, 164 B.C.E. More esoteric texts attempt to explain old Babylonian customs, such as the procedure for curing someone who is ill, which included rubbing tar and gypsum on the sick person’s door and drawing a design at the foot of the person’s bed. What is clear from the vast body of texts (some 20,000 tablets were found in King Ashurbanipal’s library at Nineveh) is that scribes took pride in their writing and knowledge.
The foremost cuneiform text, the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, deals with humankind’s attempts to conquer time. In it, Gilgamesh, king and warrior, is crushed by the death of his best friend and so sets out on adventures that prefigure mythical heroes of ancient Greek legends such as Hercules. His goal is not just to survive his ordeals but to make sense of this life. Remarkably, versions of Gilgamesh span 1,500 years, between 2100 B.C.E and 600 B.C.E., making the story the epic of an entire civilization.
The ancient Egyptians invented a different way of writing and a new substance to write on --papyrus, a precursor of paper, made from a wetland plant. The Greeks had a special name for this writing: hiero glyphic, literally “sacred writing.” This, they thought, was language fit for the gods, which explains why it was carved on walls of pyramids and other religious structures. Perhaps hieroglyphics are Egypt’s great contribution to the history of writing: hieroglyphic writing, in use from 3100 B.C.E. until 394 B.C.E., resulted in the creation of texts that were fine art as well as communication. Egypt gave us the tradition of the scribe not just as educated person but as artist and calligrapher.
Scholars have detected some 6,000 separate hieroglyphic characters in use over the history of Egyptian writing, but it appears that never more than a thousand were in use during any one period. It still seems a lot to recall, but what was lost in efficiency was more than made up for in the beauty and richness of the texts. Writing was meant to impress the eye with the vastness of creating itself. Each symbol or glyph--the flowering reed (pronounced like “i”), the owl (“m”), the quail chick (“w”), etcetera--was a tiny work of art. Manuscripts were compiled with an eye to the overall design. Egyptologists have noticed that the glyphs that constitute individual words were sometimes shuffled to make the text more pleasing to the eye with little regard for sound or sense.
学者们一致认为文字起源于大约公元前4000年中东的某个地方，可能是美索不达米亚平原。在这些古老土地的大图书馆和词汇表中，第一批文字出现了。它们是人们使用楔形（或“V”型）木棍写在潮湿的泥板上的。因为在拉丁语中把楔形叫做cunea，所以这些文字也被叫作楔形文字。泥板通常也不用火烧制，日晒被认为就足以保存文字使用它的时候了。不过，幸运地是，许多泥板都幸存下来，因为当存放它们的建筑起火时，它们也意外被烧了。 楔形文字延续了大概3000年，传承用范围非常广，贯穿苏美尔、阿卡德、亚述、尼尼微和巴比伦，并在以现代伊拉克、叙利亚、伊朗西部为代表的地区为我们保存了15种语言。最古老的楔形文字记录着收税者和商人的交易情况，即城市社会中销售的收据和账单。它们涉及像谷物、山羊和房地产这样的事情。后来，巴比伦的抄写员记录了法律和其他事情。知识授予力量。结果，这些抄写员就有了自己的女神——尼沙巴，后来被另一位神——波西帕拿布代替，她的象征既不是武器也不是巨龙，而是更吓人的东西——楔形棍子。 楔形文字广泛用于记录科学、天文、药学和数学知识，其中有一些标注着精确的数据，令人惊讶。一块泥板上记录着月球运转速度超过248天；另一块上记录着早期看见哈雷彗星的情形，从公元前164年的9月22日持续到9月28日。一些更晦涩的文字还尝试解释古巴比伦风俗，比如治疗病人的过程，包括在病人的家门上涂抹焦油和石膏和在病人的床脚上画图。大量的文字（在国王亚述巴尼帕位于尼尼微的图书馆中发现了大约2万块泥板）都清晰地表示抄写员以他们的文字和知识为荣。 最重要的楔形文本——吉尔伽美什的巴比伦史诗——描述了人类征服时间的尝试。在史诗中，身为国王和战士的吉尔伽美什被他最好朋友的死击垮，因而开始进行冒险活动，就像古希腊神话中的英雄（如赫拉克勒斯）一样。他的目标不仅仅是通过重重考验，而是搞清楚人生的意义。引人注目的是，吉尔伽美什的不同故事版本跨越1500年，从公元前2100年到公元前600年，使得这个故事成为整个文明的史诗。 古埃及人发明了另一种不同的文字和一种新的书写材料——由一种沼泽植物制成的纸莎草纸，即纸的前身。希腊人给这种文字起了一个特殊的名字：象形文字，字面意思是“神的文字”。他们认为这种文字是和神沟通的语言，这也说明了为什么它被刻在金字塔和其他宗教建筑的墙上。可能象形文字是埃及对文字历史的卓越贡献：象形文字，使用于公元前3100年到公元前394年，导致了用于艺术和沟通的文字的出现。埃及赋予了抄写员不仅仅是受过教育的人也是艺术家和书法家的传统。 学者们在埃及的书写历史中发现了大约6000个在使用中的独立象形文字，但是似乎任何一个时期在使用中的文字都不会超过1000个。似乎还有很多需要回想，但功能上失去的不仅仅是文字的美学和丰富性。文字意味着被创造性本身的伟大所吸引。每一个符号或字符——开花的芦苇（发音类似“i”）、猫头鹰（“m”）、小鸡（“w”）等等——都是一件小型艺术作品。手稿的编辑会考虑到整体设计。埃及学家发现组成单个文字的字符有时会被拖拽，使其更好看，但却较少顾及声音和感官。