Pithy History / The Invention of Writing

This is a summary of the first four chapters of Megg’s History of Graphic Design. It is by no means comprehensive. I hope that you enjoy it regardless. 

The Invention of Writing

It is difficult to pinpoint the origin of writing because we cannot map intent onto the countless Neolithic individuals who created what some call “pictograms.” Even calling cave paintings pictograms contains assumptions. What we can state is that the ability to represent physical objects with images was the earliest step towards creating written language, and the rebus, a visually allusional device that plays a large role in early writing. The transition between pictogram and what can be called written language is a gradient, not a leap, and the process took thousands of years. By the late Paleolithic period, in some cases, pictograms took on a symbolic quality akin to letters. This brings us to the “cradle of civilization” and one of the first known peoples to develop written language: the Sumerians.

The Sumerians settled in the lower part of the Fertile Crescent before 3000 BC.[1] It’s theorized that this bustling, complex society needed to keep records of goods for trade purposes. It is interesting to note that the writing of numbers for record keeping came long before the invention of written language, which possibly supports the theory that writing was developed for trade and record keeping purposes. For example, in Mesopotamia, the Sumerians developed clay tags that identified the contents of sacks and pots.[2] Scribes would use a wooden stylus on clay in order to create these tags and tablets. Over the centuries, this system developed, and the stylus became a sharpened reed that was pushed into the clay rather than dragged. Sumerian pictographs became abstract, wedge-shaped signs now known as “cuneiform.”

On this note, we return to the rebus. Some words, such as names and adverbs, couldn’t be represented with pictures. Megg’s History of Graphic Design, the source material for this summary, encapsulates the transition that Sumerian writing went through in order to address this hurdle: “picture symbols began to represent the sounds of the objects depicted instead of the objects themselves.”[3] Phonograms, or graphic symbols for sounds, were the highest development of cuneiform writing.[4]

Eventually Mesopotamia fell to the Persians. A series of imperial powers conquered the region thereafter, including the Greeks, and finally, the Romans. At this point, “a number of Sumerian inventions had reached Egypt,” most notably, “the fundamentals of writing.” [5]

The first Egyptian pictographic writing dates from around 3100 BC, but by 394 AD, the time of the last known inscription, hieroglyphs were a mystery to many people. In 1799, Napoleon’s troops unearthed a slab in the town of Rosetta, Egypt. Dubbed “the Rosetta stone,” the slab was inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphics, Egyptian demotic script, and Greek. In the 19th century, it was this reference point that allowed Jean-François Champollion a major breakthrough in the translation of hieroglyphs. Champollion determined that hieroglyphs primarily consist of pictograms, phonograms, and determinatives, and with more versatility than cuneiform, hieroglyphs can express a plethora of complex ideas.

The development of papyrus was a major step in visual communication because it allowed for the creation of scrolls and “books.” Hieroglyphs written with a brush on papyrus differed from those carved in stone, and by 1500 BC,[6] hieratic script, “a penstroke simplification of the hieroglyphic book hand,”[7] was recognizable. Another script, demotic, came into use in 400 BC.[8] This script was mostly used for legal documents. Other than necessary bureaucratic texts, the Egyptians wrote about a host of different subjects, such as Death and the afterlife. The famous Book of the Dead, a funerary text, combines text and illustration, a technique first used by the Egyptians.

Their culture greatly influenced the Phoenicians and the Greeks. “Hieroglyphics, papyri, and illustrated manuscripts,”[9] coupled with Sumerian innovations, created the foundation for what we now call the alphabet.


Although the origins of the alphabet are unknown, the Northwest Semitic people had an early form of alphabetic writing. North Semetic Writing is found throughout the Mediterranean region, with the earliest examples originating in ancient Phoenicia. Despite cross-influence with the Sumerians and Egyptians, the Phoenicians developed a unique writing system. In the oldest Phoenician city-state, stone and bronze documents written in the proto-alphabet Sui Generis date back to 2000 BC.[10] The Phoenician alphabet would influence Greek and Roman writing, whereas the Aramaic alphabets influenced Hebrew and Arabic.

Tribes in Aram, or modern Syria, developed the Aramaic alphabet, with the earliest evidence of the script dated at about 850 BC. Israelites facing Babylonian exile discovered that this script had replaced Old Hebrew in some regions, and from a possible amalgamation of the two, the square Hebrew alphabet was born, and later developed into Modern Hebrew. The Semitic Alphabet, with some additions, led to the two principal forms of Arabic: Kufic and Naskhi.

Megg’s states that “the Phoenician alphabet was adopted by the ancient Greeks and spread through their city-states around 1000 BC,”[11] but we are not sure what originally introduced the script. Their alphabet went under stylistic changes in the second century BC with development of uncials, a quick, rounded style of writing used on soft surfaces. Because Greek civilization spread across the globe, their alphabet influenced many cultures, and can be considered an ancestor of Etruscan, Latin, and Cyrillic alphabets.[12]

In a broad sense, the Latin alphabet is a Roman version of the Greek alphabet. The Romans developed a series of fonts to suit their purposes, which include capitalis monumentalis, capitalis quadrata, and capitalis rustica. Like the Egyptians, the Romans wrote a variety of surfaces, but the invention of parchment (animal skin sheets for writing) allowed for more durable manuscripts. Eventually parchment codices overtook scrolls, likely for pragmatic reasons.

Another example of an alphabet-based system is the Korean alphabet, Hangul, which “the Korean monarch Sejong (1397–1450 ce) introduced royal decree in 1446.”[13]

Asian Contribution

Like the hieroglyphs, the Chinese writing system is pictorial, and was never broken down into syllabic or alphabetic signs. Chiaku-wen (“bone-and-shell” script) is the first form of Chinese writing. It was used from 1800 to 1200 BC until the development of chin-wen, or “bronze script.” Chin-wen was engraved on bronze items, such as pots. Under emperor Shih Huang Ti’s (c. 259–210 BC) command to standardized the system, Li Ssu (c. 280–208 BC) designed “small seal style” calligraphy. The final phase, “regular style” script, has been used for almost 2000 years. Chinese calligraphy requires nuanced brush strokes and is still considered an art form, just as it was in the past.

The invention of paper was a useful alternative to the heavy materials needed in producing bamboo slats, and it was cheaper than fabrics. This, combination with printing and stamp-making technology, gave the Chinese the ability to produce paper money in the year 1000.[14] Efforts were made towards creating a device similar to a printing press, but the technology never became popular in Asia, possibly due to limitations of pictorial writing systems.

Illuminated Manuscripts

            I will summarize the history of manuscripts with these broad categories, based on Megg’s History of Graphic Design: classical style, Celtic, Carolingian, Spanish, Romanesque and Gothic, Judaic, Islamic, and late medieval. Classic applies to Late Greek and Roman manuscripts, which contained text and illustration. In terms of style and content, The Vatican Vergil is an example that employs rustic capitols and Pagan themes.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, former Roman colonies faced a time of upheaval. Christianity played an especially important role in preserving knowledge and providing education at this time. Although warfare waged on mainland Europe, Ireland was left in relative peace, and the rise of Celtic Christianity and Celtic book design began. “The Book of Kells” is a stunning example. The art is characterized by swirling, complex, geometric details, and abstract, twisting animals, among many other elements.

The reign of Charlemagne brought about another development in writing. During the medieval period, writing systems had slipped out of standardization. Charlemagne assembled a team of scholars who, inspired by Celtic innovations, such as using spaces between words, developed Caroline minuscule, the foundation for our lower-case alphabet.

Spanish pictorial expressionism could be viewed as the amalgamation of Spanish Christian and Islamic design motifs. Megg’s describes the art as such: “Flat shapes of intense color were used. Sometimes they were sprinkled with stars, rosettes, polygons,or garlands in optically active contrasting colors. Flat, schematic drawing had prominent outlines.”[15]

The Romanesque Period lasted from 1000–1150 AD. The Gothic Period followed and lasted until the Renaissance. It was during this time that the rise of universities created a greater demand for books, and scriptoriums flourished. Beautiful Gothic fonts, such as Textura, came into use.

Superb Judaic manuscripts survive, but there are rare. Some of the finest examples are Haggadot: religious literature. Islam, another Abrahamic religion, also has a rich history of religious manuscripts. However, unlike the Jewish tradition, Islam embraced aniconism, or, religious opposition to representational art. But Islam is by no means homogeneous, and in some regions representational art was tolerated or even embraced.

Many late medieval manuscripts in Europe were also religious, and devotional prayer books, such as the Book of Hours, became incredibly popular in the 1400’s. Attempts at using perspective and realism became more successful, but eventually, the art form would give way to the rise of the typographic book.


[1] Meggs, Philip B, Alston W. Purvis, and Philip B. Meggs. Meggs’ History of Graphic Design. Hoboken, N.J: J. Wiley & Sons, 2006. Print. Page 9.

[2] Page 9.

[3] Page 11.

[4] Page 11.

[5] Page 12.

[6] Page 18.

[7] Page 18.

[8] Page 18.

[9] Page 21.

[10] Page 23.

[11] Page 25.

[12] Page 29.

[13] Page 32.

[14] Page 43.

[15] Page 52.


2 thoughts on “Pithy History / The Invention of Writing

  1. But weren’t the Dark Ages called the Dark Ages because they were like… Dark and stuff? I mean, it was so dark with the black plague and like.. no literature, but like… SO Dark.


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