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October 21, 2010

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Hunting for the Dawn of Writing, When Prehistory Became History

By Geraldine Fabrikant
From The New York Times

CHICAGO -- One of the stars of the Oriental Institute's new show, ''Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond,'' is a clay tablet that dates from around 3200 B.C. On it, written in cuneiform, the script language of ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia, is a list of professions, described in small, repetitive impressed characters that look more like wedge-shape footprints than what we recognize as writing.

In fact ''it is among the earliest examples of writings that we know of so far,'' according to the institute's director, Gil J. Stein, and it provides insights into the life of one of the world's oldest cultures.

The new exhibition by the institute, part of the University of Chicago, is the first in the United States in 26 years to focus on comparative writing. It relies on advances in archaeologists' knowledge to shed new light on the invention of scripted language and its subsequent evolution.

The show demonstrates that, contrary to the long-held belief that writing spread from east to west, Sumerian cuneiform and its derivatives and Egyptian hieroglyphics evolved separately from each another. And those writing systems were but two of the ancient forms of writing that evolved independently. Over a span of two millenniums, two other powerful civilizations -- the Chinese and Mayans -- also identified and met a need for written communication. Writing came to China as early as around 1200 B.C. and to the Maya in Mesoamerica long before A.D. 500.

''It was the first true information revolution,'' Mr. Stein said. ''By putting spoken language into material form, people could for the first time store and transmit it across time and space.''

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