National Geographic : 1951 Jan
The National Geographic Magazine Sumerian culture, itself a composite prod uct, gradually developed into a cooperative civilization embracing the whole of Mesopo tamia. The basic social, intellectual, and ma terial attainments of that broader civilization appear eventually as the common property of the larger section of western Asia known as the Fertile Crescent. They spread also to other adjoining areas, and in course of time crossed over to Europe. Like bread cast upon the waters, they proved amply rewarding, in that Mesopotamian civi lization lived on after the mother country had fallen under foreign domination. By then the foreign conquerors had become in many ways the disciples and the zealous guardians of the Mesopotamian way of life. It remains only to show how the separate cultural elements relate to one another as parts of a harmonious and living pattern. If the entire system got its start from the local con cept of the individual in relation to society and of society in relation to Nature, it was writing that emerged first as that system's most nota ble by-product, and later as its very nerve center. The strongly developed sense of private property which characterized the Sumerians led them to identify their possessions-notably those that were presented to the gods as offer ings-by means of personal markers engraved on their cylinder seals. The seals were rolled out on soft clay and the impressions could then be attached to the given object as labels (page 66). Similar identifying markers were used for temples and cities. As such, they were more than just pictures to be seen; they were at the same time names to be pronounced. From proper names the notations extended to ob jects of importance to contemporary economy, finally to words in general. At the same time, means were devised to express not only entire words but also compo nent syllables, the development proceeding from the concrete to the abstract. It was a decisive step forward; for it marked a genuine liberation from mere word painting, a step, incidentally, made possible largely by the peculiar characteristics of the Sumerian lan guage. Thus we soon have a flexible medium for recording speech and thought. It is tempting, but vain, to speculate on how much longer man might have taken to discover writing without the favorable back ground of the Sumerian social system and of the Sumerian language. The fact is that the earliest Sumerian written records are also the oldest forms of actual writing from anywhere. Moreover, the complicated process, from concrete symbol to abstract syllable, takes place, step by step, before our very eyes, as it were. The possibility that the entire procedure was repeated independently elsewhere is extremely remote. It is true that Egypt constitutes the other great cultural center whose antiquity is comparable to that of Mesopotamia. We know, however, that Egyp tian writing appears after the Sumerians had perfected their medium, and that it is full-grown virtually from the moment of its appearance. The preliminary experimental stage is lacking. Since Egypt and Mesopotamia are known to have maintained close cultural contacts with each other in the centuries prior to the advent of writing, particularly so after the coming of copper, the means were there for the idea of writing to be readily communicated from one to the other. For all these reasons many scholars are now agreed that Egypt took over the basic idea from Mesopotamia, but em ployed its own specific symbols to put that idea into effect. Achievements of this magnitude are difficult and rare. Even though the basic problems had been overcome, it required more than 1,000 years before the next great stride was taken-this time from syllabic to alphabetic writing. That secondary discovery, which was to prove of inestimable value to all mankind, was likewise the contribution of the Near East, worked out somewhere along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.* This achievement would not have been possible, however, with out the underlying labors of the early Meso potamians. Mesopotamian Words Still in Use Writing by means of separate signs for words or syllables is a complex procedure. It calls for a key if it is to be used with speed and precision. Since the symbols are based on models found in daily life, the key takes the form of lists of things and beings systemat ically catalogued. Even the earlier Sumerian documents con tain lists of birds, fishes, domestic animals. plants, implements, and the like-all intended as aids to writing and reading. Such group ings imply careful observation and organiza tion. They are in fact the first steps in a scientific approach to zoology, botany, min eralogy, and so on. * See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Secrets from Syrian Hills," July, 1933; and "New Alphabet of the Ancients Is Unearthed," October, 1930, both by Claude F. A. Schaeffer.