National Geographic : 1951 Jan
How Seal Engraving Led to the Invention ofWriting OF THE MANY contributions of Mesopotamia to the progress of mankind, no other can compare in im portance with the achievement which was to result in the introduction of writing to the world. It was a discovery that literally made history, for no true history is possible without the help of written records. Today many scholars consider it certain that the idea of writing was first developed in southern Mesopotamia, among the Sumerians of the late prehistoric period. Other peoples, near and far, soon came to appreciate and put to use the fruits of this discovery; and systematic prog ress in various sciences, particularly in language and in the natural sciences, received a powerful stimulus. The mainspring in this development was the strong sense of private property, which was particularly characteristic of the Sumerians, and with it their use of the cylinder seal to identify such property for temple and private economy. The cylinder seal was to the Sumerians what the stamp seal had been to their predecessors. The gradual spread of Sumerian cultural influence, as far as Egypt and the Aegean, can, in fact, be gauged by the appearance of the cylinder in other countries. Significantly enough, when the cultural heirs of the Sume rians-the Assyrians and the Babylonians-succumbed at length to conquerors from the east, in the first millennium B. c., the stamp seal came back with the invaders. By that time, however, writing had long been established, not only in Mesopotamian cuneiform and in Egyptian hieroglyphs but also in the form of several alphabets developed in Syria and Palestine, the forerunners of our own alphabetic writing. Some time before 3000 B.c.the Sumerians made the dis covery that the same symbols which could beused toidentify persons, cities, or gods when engraved on cylinders, could also serve the same purpose when impressed on clay tablets. Once that transition had been made, the rest was largely a matter of time. When thescribes had progressed from the expression of names to theexpression of words and sentences, full-fledged writing appeared. This plate seeks to emphasize the close connection between the cylinder seal and the beginnings of writing. The scene is laid in a temple yard of ancient Uruk (Biblical Erech), inasmuch as it is this sitethat has provided us with the earliest known forms of actual writing. The time isthat of Uruk IV-that is, four main occupation levels before the first historic stratum on that site. An old seal cutter is completing his newest piece, while a young apprentice has been rolling out on clay some ofthe seals already finished. Topoint up the details, the seals have been made slightly larger than natural size. Near by is seated another seal cutter, working with a stylus on clay. The stylus heisusing isdesignated for the writing of numbers. Tojudge from later illustrations of the Assyrian period, thestylus was not held between the fingers but under the thumb inan otherwise closed fist. In the background areseen several attendants who look after various commoditiesthat have been brought tothe temple. One is pouring water into afish bowl, and the scribe is listing the fishes just delivered.