Childe on Writing in Ancient Sumeria and Egypt

V. Gordon Childe was and Australian-born professor of Prehistorical Archaeology as the University of Edinburgh, famous for his documentation of ‘the neolithic’, farming revolution.

The economic revolution [that accompanied the first urban settlements] was possible only because Sumerians, Egyptians, and Indians [developed] a body of accumulated experience and applied science. … The beginnings of writing and of mathematics and the standardization of weights and measures coincide in time with the revolution. The synchronism is not accidental. The practical needs of the new economy had, in fact, evoked the innovations.

In Sumer … the resources needed to transform economic organization were accumulated in temples and administered by priests. The administrators were not isolated individuals, but continuing corporations. Nor were the temples isolated units. In the earliest historical times we find temples to the same deity in several Sumerian cities. The gods worshipped in them were not, or at least not exclusively, local deities; they were common to the whole land, like many of the saints to which Christian churches are dedicated. Presumably their priests too were not entirely restricted in their allegiance to the single city, but had a sort of international citizenship in “the kingdom of heaven” again like mediaeval clerics. Probably, though not certainly, these conditions go back to prehistoric times. The sovereignty of the same deities over the whole land would be the theologico-political counterpart of the uniformity of material culture throughout Sumer (and eventually throughout Babylonia).

A Sumerian temple [typically consisted] of vast estates, flocks, and herds, and of huge revenues. It expended and augmented that wealth by assisting its votaries with advances and loans. Now the priests who administered that revenue must given an account to their divine master of their dealings with his property and must ensure the conservation and enrichment of his estates. They were confronted with a problem unprecedented in human history; never before had such vast wealth been concentrated under unitary control. To keep track of the god’s dues and of his transactions the priest dare not rely on his memory. Nor would private mnemonic devices, like tying a knot in a handkerchief, help. The individual priest was mortal, but the corporation to which he belonged was immortal, like the god it served. The priest might die before his master’s loan had been repaid, but his duty of exacting repayment would be fulfilled by a colleague or successor. The god’s minister must record how many jars of seed and of what quality he had advanced, how many sheep and of what breeds he had entrusted to a shepherd. And the transactions must be recorded in such a way that the priesthood, not just the priest, could interpret the record and secure satisfaction for the god. In a word, writing as a socially recognized system of recording was essential for keeping the temple accounts satisfactorily.

It will be recalled that in the first temple at Erech which signalized the transformation of the village into the city a primitive account-tablet was found. The symbols on it attest, if not a system of writing, at least a system of numeral notation. Rather later (but not later than 3000 b.c.) clay tablets bearing accounts are found not only at Erech, but also at Jemdet Nasr and other sites.

On the clay the priest has drawn characters and also numerals. The characters are mostly shorthand pictures—a jar, a bull’s head, two triangles, and so on. The script is therefore termed pictographic. You can guess what the signs mean by simply looking at them. Even so they are already to some extent conventional. Society has selected and sanctioned one out of several possible ways of representing summarily, say, a bull. And some of the signs already mean more than the simple picture can indicate: the jar means a jar containing so much—in fact, a unit of measurement. Such a sign, standing for an idea, is termed an ideogram; its value is said to be ideographic (our mathematical symbols … are examples of ideograms).

Finally, there are already signs that cannot be recognized as depicting any specific object. The meaning of these ideograms is purely conventional. The priest has rightly despaired of indicating with a few strokes the distinction between several kinds of sheep. Instead he has adopted conventional signs to denote mouflon, urial, ram, wether, ewe. These signs are deliberate inventions by individual priests. But they must be accepted by the corporation, sanctioned by society to be useful.

Just because the accounts were not private documents and the signs were more than reminders to an individual, the system of writing employed had to be conventional. A canon of signs had to be established and authorized by society. In fact, we possess actual lists of signs as well as accounts from this period. And all administrators must be initiated into the convention. The process of initiation is what we call learning to read and write. (That consists, of course, in learning what meanings, i.e. sounds, the usage of our society attaches to twenty-six arbitrary symbols and learning to form the characters in the way approved by our fellows.)

There must accordingly have been schools for scribes. The sign-lists which have been dug up could serve very well as school-texts.

Moreover, since the same signs were employed both at Erech in Sumer and at Jemdet Nasr in Akkad, there must have been an interchange of pupils and masters between the various cities. The system of writing was not a convention peculiar to a particular temple-corporation, but was recognized and authorized by Sumerian society as a whole.

A large collection of tablets unearthed at Shuruppak (Fara) illustrates the development of Sumerian writing at the beginning of the historical period—alter 3000 B.C. These documents are exclusively temple accounts and sign-lists used as school-texts. In the latter the signs are grouped by subjects; different sorts of fish, for instance, are listed consecutively. And after each sign is added the name of the clerk or priest who invented it.

The signs are now highly conventionalized. The pictograms have been so simplified and abbreviated that the object intended is barely, if at all, recognizable. …

After 3000 B.C. we begin to find documents other than accounts, contracts, and sign-lists—at first mainly names and titles, then treaties, liturgical and historical texts, spells, and fragments of legal codes. And the script is further simplified;, instead of being drawn, the various elements of the sign were stamped on to the soft clay with a wedge-shaped stylus. Because the signs are composed of wedge-shaped impressions, this classical Babylonian script is termed cuneiform. …

The invention of writing (as here defined) really marks an epoch in human progress. For us moderns it seems significant primarily because it offers an opportunity of penetrating to the very thoughts of our cultural ancestors, instead of trying to deduce those thoughts from their imperfect embodiments in deeds. But the true significance of writing is that it was destined to revolutionize the transmission of human knowledge. By its means a man can immortalize his experience and transmit it directly to contemporaries living far off and to generations yet unborn. It is the first step to raising science above the limits of space and time.

The utility of early scripts for this high mission must not be exaggerated. Writing was not invented as a medium of publication, but for the practical needs of administrative corporations. The earlier Sumerian and Egyptian scripts were distinctly clumsy instruments for expressing ideas. Even after a process of simplification lasting over 2000 years, the cuneiform script employed between 600 and 1000 distinct characters. Before one could read or write it, one had to memorize this formidable array of symbols and learn the complex rules for their combination. Egyptian hieroglyphic and hieratic scripts, despite their alphabetic elements, remained cumbered with a bewildering multitude of ideograms and determinatives, so that the number of characters required ran to about 500.

Under these conditions writing was inevitably a really difficult and specialized art that had to be learned by a long apprenticeship. Reading remained a mystery initiation into which was obtainable only by a prolonged schooling. Few possessed either the leisure or the talent to penetrate into the secrets of literature. Scribes were a comparatively restricted class in Oriental antiquity, like clerks in the Middle Ages. This class, it is true, never became a caste. Admission to the schools did not depend upon birth, though quite how scholars were selected is uncertain. But the “reading public” must have been a small minority in a vast population of illiterates.

Writing was, in fact, a profession, rather like metallurgy or weaving or war. But it was a profession that enjoyed a privileged position and offered prospects of advancement to office, power, and wealth. Literacy came thus to be valued not as a key to knowledge, but as a stepping-stone to prosperity and social rank. …

An amusing group of Egyptian documents dating from the New Kingdom contrasts the prestige and privileges of a scribe with the hardships of a craftsman or a cultivator. They take the form of paternal admonitions, but embody sentiments that might be expressed to-day by a farmer or small shopkeeper writing to a son who has to choose between proceeding to higher education or entering industrial employment.

“Put writing in your heart that you may protect yourself from hard labour of any kind and be a magistrate of high repute. The scribe is released from manual tasks; it is he who commands. . . . Do you not hold the scribe’s palette? That is what makes the difference between you and the man who handles an oar.

“I have seen the metal-worker at his task at the mouth of his furnace with fingers like a crocodile’s. He stank worse than fish-spawn. Every workman who holds a chisel suffers more than the men who hack the ground; wood is his field and the chisel his mattock. At night when he is free, he toils more than his arms can do (? at overtime work); even at night he lights (his lamp to work by). The stone-cutter seeks work in every hard stone; when he has done the great part of his labour his arms are exhausted, he is tired out. . . . The weaver in a workshop is worse off than a woman; (he squats) with his knees to his belly and does not taste (fresh) air. He must give loaves to the porters to see the light.”

… The foregoing quotation … accordingly recall[s] the fact that the second revolution had produced or accentuated a division of society into classes. In practice kings, priests, nobles, and generals stand opposed to peasants, fishermen, artizans, and labourers. And in this class division the scribes belong to the former class; writing is a “respectable “ profession.

Now material progress in prehistoric times had been due mainly to improvements in technique, made presumably by the craftsmen and husbandmen themselves. But in the class division of urban society scribes belong to the “upper classes,” in contrast to the working artizans and farmers; writing is a respectable profession while farming, metallurgy, and carpentry are not. … In entering the school the pupil turned his back on the plough and the bench; he had no desire to return to them.

Inevitably, too, words written with such difficulty and deciphered so laboriously must seem to possess an authority of their own. The immortalization of a word in writing must have seemed a supernatural process; it was surely magical that a man long vanished from the land of the living could still speak from a clay tablet or a papyrus roll. Words thus spoken must possess a kind of mana. Thus learned men in the East, like schoolmen in our own Middle Ages, were apt to turn to books in preference to Nature. In Egypt books on mathematics, surgery, and medicine, composed under the Old Kingdom (before 2500 B.C.) were slavishly, and often very incompetently, copied after 2000. …

Progress in these times was] made possible … not only by an absolute accumulation of real wealth, but also by its concentration in the hands of gods or kings and a small class dependent on these. Such concentration was probably essential to ensure the production of the requisite surplus resources and to make these available for effective social use.

None the less it meant in practice the economic degradation of the mass of the population. The lot of the primary producers—farmers, herdsmen, fishers —may, indeed, have been ameliorated by the public works, promoted by the State, and by the security regular Government guaranteed. Yet materially their share in the new wealth was minimal, and socially they were sinking toward the status of tenants or even serfs. The new army of specialized craftsmen and labourers could certainly have found no livelihood but for the expenditure of the surplus created by the revolution. But the fraction which came to them was again trifling. An unknown percentage of the new craftsmen were actually slaves working for a bare living wage; the rest, though legally free, must have been impoverished by the competition of servile labour, and were ultimately reduced to the straits described by the Egyptian father quoted [earlier].

The substantial balance of the new surplus was retained by the few—the kings, the priests, their relatives, and favourites. Society is divided into economic classes. A “ ruling class” of kings, priests, and officials is contrasted to the “ lower classes “ of peasants and manual labourers. The division is typified for the archaeologist by the contrast between the overpowering magnificence of royal tombs and the simplicity of private graves in Egypt or by that between the luxurious houses of merchants and the hovels of artizans in an Indus city. As compared to these the graves in a predynastic cemetery or the huts in a neolithic village reveal equality, albeit equality in squalor. …

The ruling classes who now emerged owed their power largely to the exploitation of … superstitions. The Egyptian pharaoh may have started as a magician; in any case, he did claim to be a god and spend much of his time performing magic rites. The first beneficiaries of the revolution in Sumer were the temple priests; the king, when he emerges there, is closely associated with the god whom he impersonates in periodical ceremonies. … [T]he new rulers now commanded almost unlimited reserves of labour recruited from subjects fired with superstitious faith and captives taken in war … .

At the same time, the new middle class of scribes and learned men was firmly attached to the ruling class. They were in many instances actually “ clerks in holy orders,” and thus as closely identified as the rulers with the maintenance of vain superstitions. The learned professions were “respectable,” and actually offered opportunities for advancement into the ruling class itself. Finally, the private interests of the “wise men” tempted them as a class to set undue store by mere book-learning as against experiment and observation in the living world. The new sciences for which the revolution gave scope were thus all too often fettered by subservience to superstition and divorced from the applied sciences that produced results.


Childe, V. Gordon. 1936. Man Makes Himself. London: Watts, pp.179-182, 186-189, 229-231. || WorldCat


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