Origins of Early Writing Systems
October 5 to 7, 2007 | Peking University, Beijing


The Institute of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Peking University was established in 2005 to foster research related to Western Asia among scholars at Peking University. It is the research home of leading Chinese scholars in Assyriology, Egyptology, Hittitology, Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies, Islamic Studies and Persian Studies.

The CAENO Foundation, New York, is a non-profit organization established in 2000. It supports historical and physical research pertaining to the chronology of events, epochs and civilizations.

Abstracts Papers Presentations

Pier Giorgio Borbone, Univ. di Pisa
Semitic Writing in China
A study of the use of the Syriac alphabet in China, both for Turkic and Semitic languages. PRESENTATION (4137kb)

Francoise Bottero, French National Center for Scientific Research
Chinese Writing: Ancient Indigenous Perspective
1) Mythologizing the origins of writing (Cangjie), 2) Systematizing the evolution of Chinese writing (Shuowen xu), 3) Classifying the Chinese graphs, 4) Analyzing the Chinese graphs, 5) Sorting out terminologies.
DISCUSSION (492kb)---FULL PAPER Adobe pdf Format

Eva Cancik-Kirschbaum, Freie Universitat, Berlin
Spaces in between. Reading and the Origins of Early Writing
The Ancient Near Eastern documentation regarding early script is formest considered under the aspect of writing ( as a developping technique, as a cognitivie skill, etc.). The paper will adress another perspective, namely the process of reading. Unfolding the clusters of information given in protocuneiform and early cuneiform means to active a number of perceptive tools and skills. To what extent did this process influence the conception and development of early writing? PRESENTATION (3284kb)

Gregory Chambon, Freie Universitat, Berlin
Counting, Calculating, Representing: Origins of writing sexagesimal numbers in Mesopotamia
The information we have about the representation (both mental and graphic) of numbers base on the written sources. Writing however is more than a means to represent concepts, objects and words: it is a Kulturtechnik which follows rules of tradition, transmission and innovation. The aim of the present paper is to address new questions about sexagesimal numbers in place value notation, which will try to take into account the functions of writing: What do exactly 'origins' mean? How were the number notations read? In which context were the different sumstems of number notation used? PRESENTATION (6488kb)

Jerrold Cooper, Johns Hopkins University
Pictures of the Mind: Early Writing in Ancient Iraq and Ancient China
Similarities and differences of 1) the structural and formal properties of the two writing systems, 2) the contexts in which they arose, 3) the influence of writing on language and the way the ancients analyzed language, and 4) the influence of the two writing systems on neighboring regions. PRESENTATION (4816kb)

Jacob L. Dahl, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science & Freie Universitat, Berlin
Deciphering Proto-Elamite
Dahl will address the following questions: (When) can we distinguish early Iranian writing from early Mesopotamian writing? Can we isolate distinct writing-phases in proto-Elamite? Can we verify Meriggi's proposal of the existence of restricted 'vocabularies' in proto-Elamite? Can we use what we know about the proto-Elamite writing-system to say something about early Iran? PRESENTATION (4756kb)
FULL PAPER Adobe pdf Format

Robert Englund, UCLA
The Smell of the Cage
Englund will assess the impact of the archaic Sch?yen collection on our understanding of the development of early cuneiform from Uruk V (clay bullae and tokens) through III (emphasizing labor organization). This matter is tied in with the question of how professional organizations in Europe and the US are restricting expert communications concerning information deriving from unprovenienced collections.
PRESENTATION (4923kb)---FULL PAPER Adobe pdf Format

Jean-Jacques Glassner, French National Center for Scientific Research
The Invention of Writing, the Old Babylonian school and the Semiology of the Diviners
Teaching the way to built written signs in old Babylonian schools, and reading omina as written signs by old Babylonian diviners.
PRESENTATION (4923kb)---FULL PAPER Adobe pdf Format

Yinghui Ge, Peking University
The Origin of Numbers and Characters
When we discuss the origin of Chinese writing, the foremost question to ask is what the earliest characters are and how these characters were invented.
Scholars in the Han dynasty thought that the earliest characters were all pictographic. Scholars in the Qing dynasty supposed that "the numerals are earlier than other characters". In the past half century, the study on the prehistoric carved signs has established the conformity of these theories with what we now know as facts about the origin and the development of Chinese characters.
Numbers were important elements of the prehistoric carved signs. According to our study, the numbers also came from pictures, although they stand for abstract notions. The objects which the numbers imitate are the tools that the ancient people used. Numbers were used to manage clan affairs and protect the society system. So, it's very natural that numbers are the components of the initial characters.
The pictorial approach to express and record numbers is exactly the same method ancient Chinese used to develop the earliest writing system. All the later characters that are not pictographic are the development of the early pictographs. PRESENTATION (5921kb)

Yushu Gong, Peking University
Graph Typology of Ancient Chinese and Sumerian Writing Systems
A comparison of the cuneiform and Chinese writing systems and their origins. Because the systems are so similar structurally, comparing them may be crucial to understanding how these systems work and how they came about. PRESENTATION (3886kb)

Wayne Horowitz, Hebrew University
Old Babylonian Period Tablets at Hazor: The Earliest Writings of The Cuneiform Southwest
Cuneiform came late to the Land of Canaan (Modern Israel and Palestine) when compared with Mesopotamia and Syria, arriving only in the time of The Old Babylonian period, c. 1800-1600 BC. At this time, Hazor in the Galilee emerged as center of cuneiform writing and maintained ties with cities such as Mari on the Middle Euphrates and Hammurabi¡¯s Babylon. This paper will examine the Old Babylonian period Hazor tablets, the earliest written records from The Cuneiform Southwest (Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt) as a test case of how foreign scripts (Mesopotamian cuneiform in this case) come to be borrowed into new territory for local use, and then undergo change to fit their new environment. Comparisons may be drawn from the spread of Chinese characters beyond the borders of China in Asia, and the subsequent use of the characters to represent languages other than Chinese.
PRESENTATION (3656kb)---FULL PAPER Adobe pdf Format

Jun Ikeda, Tsukuba Univ., Japan
An Examination of Early Japanese Writing.
An examination of early Japanese writing to determine whether any parallels exist with Mesopotamian writing. PRESENTATION (2768kb)---FULL PAPER Adobe pdf Format

Isabelle Klock-Fontanille, Univ. de Limoges
The genesis of Luwians hieroglyphics
Concerning the question of Luwians hieroglyphics, a certain number of debates have arisen, especially about its origin, the place and date of its manifestation. About the first point, some researchers go for a foreign origin, but most of them agree on the fact that hieroglyphics were produced by the Hittites. Nevertheless, two points still remain: the right moment the hieroglyphics become a writing system proper; the kind of relationships between Luwians hieroglyphics and cuneiforms used by Hittites. I would examine the change from a system of symbols used for administrative or commercial exchanges to the system regarded as hieroglyphic, strictly speaking. Can critiria be defined? Can processes be depicted? Can models be proposed, and be generalized and applied to other writing systems? PRESENTATION (4938kb) ---FULL PAPER Adobe pdf Format

Th. J. H. Krispijn, University of Leiden
The Earliest Mesopotamian Script and the Dawn of Phonetics
The lexical lists from the Uruk IVa and Uruk III are important sources for our understanding the mechanisms of the earliest script in Mesopotamia. In my paper I will discuss the phonetics of the protocuneiform script mainly in the lexical lists in relation to its logographic use and the problem which language the earliest script records.

Fan Lin, Univ of PLA, China
A Calligrapher's Interpretation of Early Chinese Writing.
The eminent calligrapher Lin Fan will present a calligrapher's interpretation of early Chinese writing.

Joachim Marzahn, Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin
Scribal Techniques in the Material of the Texts from Uruk IV-III. PRESENTATION (3803kb)

Gebhard Selz, University of Vienna
The Evolution of Early Mesopotamian Writing Systems as Reflected in Lexical Lists
In the last years, the earliest lexical tradition received considerable interest, the interpretations either stressing their technical purpose as tools for teaching and transmitting literacy or their historical value permitting insight in the world-view of these early societies. The paper is based on the assumption that classification processes are a corner stone for any understanding of the development of early writing. Drawing on the results of Glassner, Veldhuis and others it will address the question which principles of order can be observed, from sign formation, the sequence of signs to the establishment of lexical ¡°themes¡±. A short final section of the paper argues that writing was essential for the creation of various new sub-systems in the mental and societal spheres and that there was never a strict distinction between these newly created "worlds" and the physical world. PRESENTATION (4203kb)

Theodora Seal, University of Geneva
A peculiar aspect of the cuneiform script: the Diri-compound
Assyriologists name "Diri-compound" a certain type of complex logogram, a number of which are attested in the earliest texts. The Mesopotamian lexical tradition, which is the result of centuries of scribal reflection on the Sumerian language and writing system, constitutes a possible source for a better understanding of these logograms. In particular an analysis of certain features of the Diri lexical lists should shed some light on how the Babylonian scribes themselves conceived of their writing system.
PRESENTATION (2352kb)---FULL PAPER Adobe pdf Format

John Steele, University of Durham
Some of the earliest preserved Chinese writing deals with divination and corresponding celestial phenomena. Consequently, it would be worthwhile to explore the language of astronomy in Babylonia and China in an attempt to understand whether there are any conceptual similarities between Babylonian and ancient Chinese astronomy.
PRESENTATION (4128kb)---FULL PAPER Adobe pdf Format

Benjamin Studevent-Hickman, Oriental Institute, Chicago
Directionality in the Cuneiform and Chinese Scripts.
Cuneiform and Chinese are among those scripts that could--and still can, in the case of the latter--appear in different directions depending on context. The evidence and reasons for this vary, and while there are studies comparing the two scripts, few of them have looked at directionality. This paper hopes to fill this gap by examining the origins and development of the two scripts with directionality in mind. Various factors that might have led to differences in script direction are considered, including foreign influence and the pictographic and logosyllabic nature of the Chinese and Sumero-Akkadian writing systems (following Xu Shen's six principles). Considerations from Cognitive Science also inform the discussion.
PRESENTATION (4883kb)---FULL PAPER Adobe pdf Format

John Tang, Peking University, Beijing
A comparative study of phonetic complements in Near Eastern cuneiform and Jurchen siniform
The cuneiform originating from Sumerian proto-pictography will be investigated along with phonetic complements in Jurchen script (which stems from the neighboring Chinese characters and Khitan scripts). This analysis may aid in deciphering some medieval Northeastern scripts.
PRESENTATION (3784kb)---FULL PAPER Adobe pdf Format

Gordon Whittaker, Universitaet Goettingen, Germany
Chinese and Mesoamerican writing: A further comparison of early systems
A presentation comparing the Shang script with the earliest Mesoamerican systems of writing. PRESENTATION (3090kb)

Mark Wilson, CCSG, London
New Sources and New Implications: Fossil Rabbits in the Precambrian
The work is based on a previously unresearched archive of 140 archaic administrative tablets, the largest and most significant source of new evidence on the origins of cuneiform writing since the discovery of the Uruk IV tablets in the early part of the last century.

We look forward to seeing you in Beijing!