Writing: It started with the Sumerians

January 8, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: history, writing.

The earliest writing that is anything close to what we do today comes from the Sumerians, the ancient civilization that occupied the Tigris and Euphrates valley (now Iraq and Iran) more than 3,000 years ago.

Paper and ink, as we know it, were nonexistent then in that part of the world. Instead, the Sumerians made soft clay tablets and used some kind of pointed instrument to impress upon these tablets a set of symbols they had developed to represent the information and ideas they wanted to record. These tablets hardened into permanent records, and we in the twenty-first century have been the lucky inheritors of a few thousand of them – enough to know a little about what the Sumerians were like.

Archeologists have figured out enough about Sumerian writing to translate the first story we have in writing, The Epic of Gilgamesh. The story – the journeys of a legendary hero of the time – has drawn the widest attention to the writing of the Sumerians and is even considered to be in the realm of literature.

But much of the writing of Sumerians has nothing to do with literature. Many of the tablets we possess are simply recordings of the everyday concerns of the Sumerians. They contain information about what was grown and stored, how buildings should be constructed, and a variety of other mundane concerns.

These early writers went to great pains to record this information. Preparing and writing on a clay tablet was undoubtedly much more difficult than firing up a computer or grabbing a pen and a sheet of paper. Yet these ancients wrote with care and precision. They tried to get it right. They tried to get down good information that they could refer to and that others could use.

They did this not because they thought that distant civilizations such as ours would be reading their work 3,000 years after it was produced. Rather, they went to the trouble to write things down because it was important to them at the time, and it was important that they pass on information to their contemporaries and immediate successors. These ancient authors certainly believed that what they were doing was beneficial to them and to their society. They approached the job of writing with a serious purpose in mind.

So should we.


Why do we know anything about Sumerian writing at all? A lot of the credit goes to a 19th-century English aristocrat named Austen Henry Layard, whose amateur interest in archaeology and Mesopotamia led him to the astounding discovery of Ashurbinopal’s Library in the late 1840s.

More on Layard and the ancient library next week.

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