The Oriental Institute’s exhibition “Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond” was recently featured in the New York Times Art & Design section. The show explores a number of artifacts, including those from an ancient Sumerian civilization that flourished between 3500 B.C. and 1800 B.C., as a means of helping us understand how scribes in the ancient Middle East invented writing and transformed prehistoric cultures into ancient human civilizations. This is the first exhibition in the United States to focus on comparative cuneiform writing in almost twenty-six years. Some of the oldest featured tablets, such as clay tags consisting of only a few signs (see photo) that may have been affixed to goods to record deliveries, date to about 3200 B.C.
“Visitors to our exhibit will be able to compare the parallel pathways by which writing came into being,” says Oriental Institute Director Gil Stein. “Seeing examples of early writing from these four areas together in one place, you can’t fail to be impressed by the wonder of human creativity in these independent inventions that fundamentally transformed the very nature of civilization.” The exhibition relies on advances in archaeologists’ knowledge to shed new light on the invention of scripted language and its subsequent evolution.
From the New York Times:
An important part of the Oriental Institute exhibition’s allure is that it describes some of the unknowns that still intrigue archaeologists, including the birth of the alphabet. The show includes a plaque dated from 1800 B.C. that contains signs that seem to be inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphics but that are actually the earliest letters of an alphabetic script representing Semitic languages. It was found near an ancient turquoise mining site in the Sinai Peninsula, in what was part of ancient Egypt, but the men who worked there spoke the Semitic language of the Canaanites.