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WRITING (Scripts, Materials, and Inscriptions ).

scripts and materials

General Survey

From the end of the third millennium b.c.e., the art of writing was practiced in the ancient Near East (see *Alphabet). Here, the pictographic, cuneiform, and hieroglyphic scripts were invented and developed. In particular Canaan, situated on the cultural crossroads between Egypt and Mesopotamia and beneficiary of their scribal traditions, produced new indigenous writing systems. Some, like the Byblian pseudo-hieroglyphs, the enigmatic Balua stele, or the inscribed bricks from Deir ʿ Allā, ancient Succoth, were limited to specific centers. These short-lived systems indicate a high degree of scribal experimentation and originality. It is no wonder then that the Canaanites invented the alphabet. They discovered that their language contained some 30 phonemes and that each one could be represented by an individual sign. The social effects of this revolutionary discovery were not to be felt for several generations.

Between the 17th and 12th centuries b.c.e., the primitive, pictograph-like alphabet was employed in Shechem, Gezer, Tell al-Ḥāsī, Tell al-ʿAjūl, Beth-Shemesh, Megiddo, Tell Rehov, Tell Beit Mirsim, and Lachish. These inscriptions are generally called Proto-Canaanite. Another, larger group, the so-called Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions (1500 b.c.e.) were probably written by a colony of northwest Semitic slaves who worked the mines in Wadi Ma'ara, near Sarābīṭ al-Khādim. It seems that this script generally served a religious function and may have been developed by a Canaanite priesthood. Certainly, all official government documents were written in cuneiform (e.g., el-Amarna letters) which obscured the alphabetic script.

It was during this period that a novel attempt to employ the alphabet was initiated at *Ugarit (1370–1200 b.c.e.). Perhaps as a result of the desire to express the local literature in its own medium, a cuneiform alphabet, influenced by the dominant Mesopotamian system, was devised. A similar trend may be noted in other Canaanite cities as well (Beth Shemesh, Taanach, Mount Tabor). This script as well as an earlier attempt to adapt the cuneiform signs to surfaces other than clay by giving them linear form (personal name incised on a pottery jar from Hazor, arrowhead from Lebanon) did not survive the disappearance of the Babylonian scribal centers in Canaan and Syria toward the end of the Bronze Age.

The political and cultural break with Mesopotamia, as well as the administrative needs of emerging young societies, accelerated the development of the linear alphabet. The letters were simplified, beginning the process that was to evolve into a cursive form. The first alphabetic system to emerge was the 22-letter Phoenician script, which appeared by about 1100 b.c.e. Most likely it was this script, or a slightly older form, that is found on bronze arrowheads in Beth-Lehem and Lachish. This system retained the general form and order of the earlier alphabetic scripts and probably the mnemonic device for its study – all thanks to a strong local scribal tradition. It was the Phoenician alphabet that was to be adopted by the Israelites, Arameans, and later by the Greeks. The new medium was adopted early in Israel's history and deeply affected its civilization. Monotheism was grasped now in terms of a written covenant between God and Israel. The central cult object was the Decalogue cut in stone, and later became the Torah scroll. Israelite religion elevated writing from a means of recording the mundane to a medium of revelation.

Perhaps it was because of the relative simplicity of the alphabet or the fact that Israel had no conservative scribal class with vested interests, that biblical society as a whole became "book-centered." Any tribesman, even a non-priest, could emerge as a literate leader (Josh. 8:32–35; 24:26). The establishment of the monarchy and the process of urbanization resulted in a greater diffusion of writing (among members of the government service, army personnel, the mercantile class, stonemasons, ivory cutters, potters, and others; see the following section). By the time that Deuteronomy appeared in the late seventh century, it might be taken for granted that a king could read, and that there would be enough people in a town who could write the Decalogue or a portion of it on the gates of a city or a house (Deut. 6:9; 17:18).

By Hezekiah's time, a great deal of literary activity was going on. Older written traditions were collected and edited (Prov. 25:1). The classical prophets, or their disciples, wrote down their messages. Prophesies were illustrated by written texts (Isa. 8:1; Jer. 17:1; Ezek. 37:16; Hab. 2:2), which could only have meaning for a populace with a reasonable number of readers (cf. Isa. 10:19). Furthermore, a paleographic study of Hebrew epigrapha indicates an increased diffusion of this skill toward the end of the monarchy. Similarly, the wide use of inscribed personal seals bearing fewer designs and iconographic motifs again argues for a growing literate social body during the First Temple period.

Writing Surfaces


Stone is the earliest known writing surface; it continued to be used throughout the ages, especially when permanence was desired. Three main types of stone inscriptions can be noted in the ancient Near East: a) monumental inscriptions for public display; b) seals made of semiprecious stones; and c) flakes or pieces of soft stone (e.g., limestone) which constituted cheap writing material.

Monumental Inscriptions

Both Egypt and Mesopotamia had long traditions of writing on stone. The latter area, poor in natural stone, imported the material for royal inscriptions. During the second millennium b.c.e. several Egyptian kings set up their victory stelae in Canaan: Thutmose iii, Seti i, Ramses ii, and Ramses iii. This custom was followed by Sheshonk i (935–915), the biblical Shishak, at Megiddo. Assyrian kings, as well, left several stone monuments describing their victories in Canaan and indicating the extent of their rule. Tiglath-Pileser i (1114–1076 b.c.e.) set up an inscription at Nahr el Kalb, as is already noted by Shalmaneser iii (858–824 b.c.e.) who did the same. The latter erected a second stela on Mt. Baal Rosh, which some scholars identify as Mt. Carmel, while Tiglath-Pileser iii (745–727 b.c.e.) erected one in the vicinity of Wadi el-Arish, the biblical Brook of Egypt. Isaiah, in referring to such "boundary stones," said: "In that day there shall be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt and a pillar at the border thereof 'To the Lord'" (19:19).

Fragments of a three-dimensional stone inscription of Sargon ii, discovered during excavations at Ashdod and dating to between 712–705 b.c.e., have also been published. Prior to the establishment of the Israelite monarchy, there seem to have been few local stonemasons in Canaan (ii Sam. 5:11). The earliest stone monuments were probably not inscribed at all. They were composed of natural, unfinished stone found at hand (Gen. 31:45–48; Josh. 4:3; i Sam. 7:12; 15:12; ii Sam. 8:13). The emphasis upon unhewn stones in the cult reflects the presedentary stage of Israelite history (Josh. 8:31). While this was generally the case, it was during this period of Israelite history that stone was first used as a writing surface for documents of religious importance. Foremost was the Decalogue, incised on two stone tablets (Ex. 24:12; 34:1; Deut. 4:13). At Shechem, the covenant was rewritten on large natural stones, smoothed over with plaster (Deut. 27:2–3; Josh. 8:32; cf. 24:25–26).

With the establishment of the Davidic monarchy and the subsequent influence of Phoenician material culture (i Kings 7:13ff.), monumental inscriptions must have been composed though they have yet to be found (cf. ii Sam. 18:18; Ps. 2:7). This is suggested by the many monumental inscriptions discovered in neighboring countries (see below). These monumental inscriptions can be classified into four types: (1) Display inscriptions proclaiming the king's achievements in subduing his enemies and bringing prosperity to the local citizens. Among the northwest Semites, these documents are characterized by the introductory formula: "I, N. (son of N.) king of pn." Generally, much credit is given to the patron deity who came to the king's aid in the time of his distress. The document usually concludes with a series of curses against those who might want to damage its text. (2) Votive inscriptions recording donations, the name of the donor, and the name of the recipient deity, and noting the donor's piety. The text concludes with a request for a blessing, usually long life (cf. i Kings 3:11ff.). (3) Funerary inscriptions noting the name of the deceased and his title or profession, and containing a word to potential grave robbers that there are no valuables in the sepulcher, and a curse on anyone who disturbs the dead. These notices were written on the sarcophagus or at the entrance to the tomb. (4) Border markers and treaties, a legal genre defining the relationship between two parties. The former, known as kudurrus in Mesopotamia, were most extensively used during the Kassite period. The most impressive known treaty written on stone is the Sefire inscription between Matti'el and Barga'yah (c. 750 b.c.e.) composed in Aramaic.


Many *seals found in and around Israel are decorated with various scenes or designs that are derived ultimately from Egyptian or Phoenician iconographic motifs. Most often, there was a space or register left empty for the name of the buyer. Besides his own name and that of his fathers, he would note also his title ("scribe," "chamberlain," "servant of king…"). Some seals have a dedicatory formula, as well, and may indicate that the seal was a votive offering, especially when cut in the positive. The seal was used to indicate ownership, and was often impressed on jars before firing. It also served to verify standard measures, or, in official documents and letters, the name and authority of the sender (i Kings 21:8; Esth. 8:8).


Flakes or small pieces of stone were used as a cheap writing surface for business notations or school texts. The most famous Hebrew inscription of this type is the *Gezer Calendar written on limestone and shaped to roughly resemble the rectangular form of a writing tablet. It is most probably a school text, an assumption corroborated by the fact, among others, that at least one side is a palimpsest.


The papyrus reed, cultivated from earliest times especially in the Delta, was a major natural resource of ancient Egypt. The hieroglyphic sign for Lower Egypt is the papyrus plant. Papyrus was found in the Ḥuleh swamp, though in limited quantities, and near the Naḥal Arnon in Transjordan. During the Arab conquest it was introduced into Sicily where it can still be found.

In Egypt, it was an all-purpose plant used for making, among other things, clothing and boats (cf. Ex. 2:3; Isa. 18:2); primarily, it was employed as a writing surface. The earliest written papyri date from the Fifth Dynasty (2750–2625 b.c.e.), though uninscribed rolls have been found dating to as early as the First Dynasty (c. 3000 b.c.e.). Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist (d. 79 c.e.), gives a detailed description of the manufacture of papyrus writing material:

The raw material taken from the tall plants – some as high as 35 feet – consisted of strips cut lengthwise from the pith of the three-sided stalks. Strips of equal length and quality were then arranged on a flat surface, in the manner of latticework, in a horizontal and vertical layer, the former representing the recto and the latter the verso side of the sheet. Through the application of pressure and water from the Nile – perhaps with the occasional addition of glue – the layers were merged into a fairly homogeneous mass, which was then exposed to the sun. After drying, the sheets were rubbed smooth with shells or ivory and perhaps whitened with chalk. Excess moisture was forced out by additional pounding.

The manufacture and trade in papyrus was probably always a royal or state monopoly. Such was the case in the time of the Ptolemies and Caesars. J. Černy has even suggested that the Greek word "papyrus" is derived from an original, though undocumented, p3pr – ʿ, "the [stuff] of Pharaoh," indicating a royal monopoly. The earliest reference to papyrus in Canaan is found in the Egyptian text "The Journey of Wen-Amon to Phoenicia" (c. 1090 b.c.e.). Smendes (Ne-su-Ba-neb-Ded), the founder of the 21st Dynasty and ruler of Lower Egypt, sent 500 rolls of papyrus to Zakar-Baal, king of Byblos, in partial payment for a shipment of cedars. This large quantity of writing material most likely reflects the extensive use of the alphabetic script by this time in Canaan, which is corroborated by the repeated references to written documents in the story (letters, royal records, and stelae). Byblos became an agent for the export of papyrus throughout the Mediterranean lands. So much so that it gave its name to the product: in Greek, biblos came to mean "book" or "papyrus," and from this the word "Bible" is derived. By Herodotus' time, papyrus had become the standard writing material for most of the ancient world surrounding the Mediterranean Sea (Persian Wars, 5:58). It was to remain in use until replaced by true paper, brought from China between the seventh and tenth centuries c.e. There is no specific reference to papyrus in the Bible (but cf. Isa. 23:3). Some scholars, though, infer from the description in Jeremiah 36:23–25 that the prophet's scroll was made of papyrus, which is more easily cut and less odorous than leather.

The earliest Hebrew papyrus dates from the late eighth or early seventh century b.c.e. and was discovered in 1951 in Wadi Murabba'āt in the Judean Desert. This palimpsest contains the remains of a letter and instructions for the delivery of food supplies. Several clay bullae from the sixth century bear the marks of papyrus fibers upon which they were impressed. The most famous is the impression of Igdlyhw ʾ šr ʿ l hbyt (Le-Gedalyahu ʾ asher ʿ al ha-bayit; cf. ii Kings 25:22) found at various sites in Judah.

The oldest known Aramaic papyrus is a letter discovered in Saqqāra, Egypt, from a king by the name of Adon to his Egyptian overlord. Most scholars agree that it was sent from the Philistine coast, possibly from Ashdod, just before Nebuchadnezzar's invasion in 604 or 598 b.c.e.

The second half of the first millennium b.c.e. saw the widespread use of papyrus for sundry government, religious, and personal documents. Of particular Jewish interest are the *Elephantine papyri (late fifth century). They include official letters and private papers that shed much light on the internal affairs, religious life, and relations with gentile neighbors in this military colony situated near the First Cataract on the Nile. Among these documents, is a fragment of the oldest known version of the Sayings of Ahikar. A small number of the Dead Sea Scrolls were also written on this material.

animal hides

Sheep, goat, and calf hides, after proper preparation, served as one of the principal types of writing surfaces in the Fertile Crescent. There is no contemporary record of preparation of this material, which probably did not differ from the modern process. The skins were washed, limed, dehaired, scraped, washed a second time, stretched evenly on a frame, scraped a second time, inequalities being pared down, and then dusted with sifted chalk and rubbed with a pumice. In the earlier period, the skin was prepared to receive writing only on the hairy side, though in exceptional cases, such as in a long text, it was inscribed on both sides (Ezek. 2:10; cf. Er. 21a).

During the Hellenistic period the skins were treated so as to receive writing on both sides. The improved method was attributed to Eumenes ii (197–158 b.c.e.), whose capital, Pergamum, gave its name to the new product – "parchment." In due time, a distinction was made between the coarser and finer types of this material. The latter was manufactured from more delicate calfskin or kidskin, especially from stillborn calves or lambs, and was called "vellum." By the second century c.e., vellum began to compete with papyrus. In the next two or three centuries, with the introduction of the codex, its popularity was assured and it superseded ordinary parchment for the most valued books.

The earliest mention of a leather writing surface is found in an Egyptian text from the Fourth Dynasty (c. 2550 b.c.e.), while the oldest extant example of such a writing surface dates from the 12th Dynasty (2000–1800 b.c.e.). It continued to be used in Egypt until the Arab conquest, though to a limited extent, because of the ubiquitous papyrus.

The use of skins as a writing surface first appeared in Mesopotamia in eighth-century Assyrian reliefs. No doubt, this surface was introduced by the Aramean scribes who found clay tablets unsuitable for their alphabetic script. The fifth-century Greek historians Herodotus and Ctesias noted that the barbarians continued to use leather for writing, while on the Greek mainland this substance had been replaced by papyrus. Ctesias remarked that the Persians wrote their royal records on diphtherai, i.e., skins. This has been corroborated by the discovery of 12 letters belonging to Arsames, the satrap of Egypt (fifth century b.c.e.), where the cache was found.

There is no explicit biblical reference to writing on leather, nor are there extant leather rolls, prior to those discovered at Qumran. In spite of this, there is general agreement that throughout the First and Second Temple periods the ancient Israelites primarily used animal hides on which to write their official documents and religious literature. Leather is a much more durable surface than papyrus. The sheepherding Israelites, like the Arameans and the Transjordanian nations, were more likely to use this local resource than to import Egyptian papyrus. During the Second Temple period the references to writing on animal hides are clearer. They no doubt reflect a continuation of the earlier period, since there was no reason to change suddenly to leather at this time.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are the earliest Hebrew texts written on leather that have been discovered so far. They provide firsthand evidence of the ancient scribal technique of preparing and writing on this surface. This scribal tradition was codified by the rabbis (Tractate Soferim) and is still followed in the writing of Torah scrolls, mezuzot, and *tefillin.


By far the largest number of inscriptions from the biblical period were written on *pottery. The material can be classified into two distinct types: (1) whole pots that bear a short notice, inscribed either before or after firing and (2) *ostraca, or broken potsherds, generally bearing longer inscriptions. While there is no biblical reference to this writing surface, this cheap and easily available material was widely used not only in Israel but throughout the ancient world. The inscriptions on pottery usually give the owner's name, the capacity of the jar, i.e., bt lmlk, "royal bath," or a dedicatory notice. An example of the latter has been found on a pot bearing the word qdš, "holy," at Hazor, and on another container in the excavations at Tell Beer-Sheba, which was probably used for a minḥah offering at the local sanctuary (Y. Aharoni).

From the end of the eighth century b.c.e., it became customary to indicate important data on the handles of jars. Generally, this was done by impressing a seal on the soft clay before firing. Some 80 "private" and about 800 lmlk seal impressions were counted. The latter indicate a standard capacity assured by the king, as well as noting one of the four Judean cities where the contents were "bottled" (Hebron, Ziph, Socoh, and mmšt). Most of the inscribed handles from Gibeon were incised after firing and probably indicate a tax formula: Gb ʿ n, Gdr, Amryhw, i.e., "(To) Gibeon (from the village) Gedor (sent by) Amaryahu."

Ostraca (singular: ostracon) is the technical term for potsherds that were used for writing. Pottery was particularly suitable for those scripts employing pen and ink or brush and paint, though the surface might be incised as well. The earliest literary reference to ostraca is that of the fifth-century Athenian custom of voting powerful and dangerous citizens into exile. In order to do so, 10,000 ostraca had to be inscribed with the unlucky man's name. The term "ostracism" is derived from this custom. In Israel, small pieces of potsherds seem to have been used in local lotteries in biblical Arad and Masada of the Second Temple period. (For a list of the ostraca of ancient Israel known at present see Inscriptions, below.) A survey of the ostraca shows that this surface was used for letters, tax dockets, fiscal notices, name lists, and at least one court petition. The cheapness of the material indicates the secondary importance of most of the inscriptions or possibly the hard-pressed circumstances at the time of writing, when papyrus and leather were reserved for more important documents. Furthermore, the ostraca provide some idea of the caliber and diffusion of writing among the bureaucracy, army personnel, and local scribes in ancient Israel.


This substance was the standard writing material in Mesopotamia from the third to the first millennia b.c.e. The alluvial soil of the Tigris-Euphrates valley made clay the most readily available and thus the cheapest form of writing material in this area. This medium spread with the cuneiform script to the Elamites, Hittites, and Canaanites.

The Ugaritic literature and the el Amarna letters, in addition to other smaller archives (Alalakh, Taanach) and single documents from Syria and Canaan, were inscribed on clay. With the decline of Mesopotamian influence toward the end of the second millennium b.c.e., this writing surface became obsolete. Furthermore, suitable clay was not commonly found in this area, nor was it easily adaptable to the emerging linear alphabet. The only biblical reference to an incised clay tablet is one found in a Babylonian context and interestingly not an inscription but rather a "blueprint" of Jerusalem: "Son of man, take thee a tile [ levenah ] and lay it before thee and trace upon it a city, even Jerusalem" (Ezek. 4:1).


Various inscriptions from the ancient and classical worlds have been found written on gold, silver, copper, bronze, and lead. These artifacts corroborate the many Hebrew and north Semitic literary sources which mention these writing surfaces. A small (6.7 cm. × 2.2 cm.) gold case from the north Syrian kingdom of Sm ʾ al bears the dedicatory inscription: "This smr fashioned by Kilamuwa son of Ḥayya, for Rakabel. May Rakabel grant him long life" (c. 825 b.c.e.). Similarly, Yehawmilk, king of Byblos (fourth century b.c.e.), presented a gold votive inscription to his divine patroness. In ancient Israel, this precious metal was employed in Temple ornaments and priestly vestments. The high priest's diadem was made of gold and inscribed: "Consecrated to the Lord" (Ex. 28:36–38).

Examples of ex-voto inscriptions on silver platters were found near Ismailiya in north Egypt. One of them reads: "This Qinu the son of Gashmu, king of Kedar, offered to Hani ʾ ilat." These date from the fifth century b.c.e. The donor may be the son of Nehemiah's enemy Geshem the Arab (Neh. 6:1ff.).

The famous Copper Scroll from Qumran is a unique find. This writing surface was chosen specifically to record a list of fabled treasures. Its weight and inflexibility would make it an impractical writing surface for frequently read scrolls.

Bronze seems to have been a more common writing surface. Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, inscribed bronze arrowheads and javelin heads as well as a spatula were discovered in Phoenicia and Israel. Some have been explained as cultic or magical texts. These inscriptions date from the 12th century to 950 b.c.e. and, therefore represent paleographically the earliest form of the Phoenician alphabet. Several inscriptions in the so-called pseudo-hieroglyphic script of Byblos were written on bronze as well.

There is a growing collection of bronze weights, many of which were cast in the form of animals or parts of the human body. One turtle-shaped weight found at Ashkelon reads "quarter shekel" (cf. i Sam. 9:8) and weighs 2.63 gm. Another of the same design from Samaria reads "a fifth" and weighs 2.499 gm.

There are many references in Greek and Roman sources to lead as a surface for magical texts and even for such literary works as that of Hesiod. Probably following this tradition, a lead scroll inscribed with Psalm 80 in Greek was found at Rhodes. No such material is known from ancient Israel, though some have understood the term ʿ oferet, "lead" (Job 19:24), as referring to such a writing surface. Apart from the bronze weights, inscriptions on metal were generally of a religious nature, many of which bore dedicatory formulas and were ultimately donated to a temple treasury.


Excluding several personal seals, most, if not all, inscriptions on ivory can be classified into two types: joiners' markings and dedicatory formulas (cf. below Wax). The former are single letters of the alphabet incised on the back of ivory inlays in order to facilitate the process of assembling them. The ivory inlays found in the palace at Samaria are indicative of contemporary styles of decorative art favored by the Israelite aristocracy (Amos 3:15).

As was the case with precious metals, ivory was donated to the patron deities. Of particular interest is one of the Megiddo ivories dated between 1350–1150 b.c.e. which bears the hieroglyphic inscription:

The Singer of Ptah, South-of-His Wall

Lord of the Life of the Two Lands [i.e., Egypt] and Great Prince of Ashkelon. Kerker.

The dedication is to the Egyptian god Ptah, who is here called by three of his titles, the third of which indicates a cult seat in Ashkelon. The votaress Kerker seems to be a singer at that Canaanite temple. W.F. Albright has suggested that she be identified with Calcol, a pre-Israelite singer of renown (i Kings 5:11).

Ivory gifts were presented to the king as well. An example may be found in a recently discovered ivory piece from Tell Nimrūd, ancient Calah, dating to the mid-eighth century b.c.e. The legible part of the inscription is in good Hebrew (probably from Samaria) and reads mmlk gdl, "from the Great King." This title is probably a Hebrew translation of the well-known Akkadian royal epithet šarru rabû (cf. ii Kings 18:19; Isa. 36:13). There is a similar ivory inscription from Arslan Tash, north Syria, which reads lmrn ḥz'l "for our lord Hazael" (i Kings 19:15). It was most likely among the spoils taken from Damascus in 796 b.c.e. by Adad-nirâri iii, king of Assyria.


Wood was employed throughout the ancient world as a writing surface. Egyptian inscriptions have been preserved on wooden statues and sarcophagi, as well as on wooden tablets coated with stucco which were frequently used for school exercises. The Bible seldom explicitly mentions this surface. The earliest clear reference to writing on wood is found in connection with an attempt to challenge Aaron's priestly authority and is employed in substantiating his legitimacy: "Speak to the Israelite people and take from them – from the chieftains of their ancestral houses – …12 staffs in all. Inscribe each man's name on his staff… also inscribe Aaron's name on the staff of Levi…" (Num. 17:17–26). The inscription is the simple type indicating ownership and was probably incised le-Aharon – the writing surface being almond wood (verse 23).

Ezekiel employed a wood writing surface in his famous prophesy of the restoration of national unity (37:16–23): "And thou, son of man, take thee one stick [ʿeẓ] and write upon it: 'For Judah' [li-Yhudah] and for the children of Israel his companions; then take another stick, and write upon it: 'For Joseph' [ le-Yosef ], the stick of Ephraim, and all the house of Israel his companions; and join them for thee one to another into one stick, that they may become one in thy hand" (verses 16–17).

P.J. Hyatt has suggested, en passant, that the prophet may have used wooden writing tablets and joined them together in the form of a diptych, i.e., a two-leaved "book." This suggestion might be reconsidered in the light of the later discovery of such writing material from Mesopotamia (see following paragraph) as well as the prophet's known use of other local surfaces (Ezek. 4:1) and general familiarity with the scribal art. Wooden writing boards may be implied in the undefined term luḥot (Hab. 2:2). Since clay tablets were not used in Israel at this time and stone tablets are usually defined as such (Ex. 24:12; 31:18; Deut. 4:13, et al.), the prophet may have been referring to tablets of wood. Furthermore, the verb beʾer, as shown by Z. Ben Ḥayyim, means to incise on a hard surface.


It has long been known that wax writing surfaces were employed in Egypt, Greece, and Italy during the Classical period. In addition to much pictographic evidence, especially from Italy, a school text from Fayyum, Egypt, from 250 b.c.e. was found that had a red wax surface and on the reverse one in black. Properly treated, wax has the quality of being a lightweight substance that can be easily reused.

This surface is mentioned in older literary sources from Mesopotamia. An important discovery at ancient Calah during the 1950s were 16 ivory boards with the same number of wooden boards in a well in Sargon ii's palace (717–705 b.c.e.). They were constructed so as to contain an inscription on wax. One of the tablets was still covered with beeswax, compounded with sulphide of arsenic or orpiment, bearing the text of a well-known astrological text Enuma Anu Enlil. Since these boards were tied or hinged together forming a diptych, triptych, or polyptych, they may be called the earliest known form of the book.

An Aramean scribe holding an oblong, book-shaped object, with ribbed markings at the edge for hinges, is clearly depicted on the stele of Bar-rākib, king of Sm ʾ al. This picture predates the above Calah material by about a quarter of a century and demonstrates the Western Semites' familiarity with this writing surface.


These are rough scratchings of names, short notices, and etchings incised by an unpracticed hand on walls or on natural stone surfaces. Two examples of graffiti from the biblical period were discovered during the 1960s. In 1961 several short notices were found in a burial cave northeast of Lachish dating from the sixth century b.c.e. One or two seem to be prayers and another a series of curses. The longest inscription reads: "The Lord is God of the World, the mountains of Judea are His, the God of Jerusalem." From ninth-century Kuntillet Ajrud in Sinai we have mention of yhwh and his *Asherah. Later, several other graffiti have come to light from Khirbat al-Kawm, in the same general vicinity as the above. From this eighth-century site we have again mention of yhwh and his Asherah. Here again several curse formulas have been scribbled on the walls of a family tomb.

tattoo marks

A more unusual writing surface was the human skin, originally incised with a slave mark indicating ownership, but occasionally with a sign demonstrating fidelity to a deity. It was done by cutting into the skin and filling the incision with ink or a dye. This method is already noted in the Mishnah: "If a man wrote [on his skin] pricked-in writing [he is culpable]… but only if he writes it and pricks it in with ink or eye-paint or aught that leaves a lasting mark" (Mak. 3:6). The Bible categorically forbids this practice: "You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead or incise any marks (ketovet qaʿaqaʿ) on yourselves; I am the Lord" (Lev. 19:28). While this was generally the rule, there seem to have been cases where devotees of yhwh did incise His name on their arms. Isaiah may be referring to this custom when he says: "One shall say: 'I am the Lord's'; And another shall call himself by the name Jacob; and another shall inscribe his hand 'Belonging to the Lord'…" (44:5; cf. also Job 37:7), and perhaps figuratively: "Surely I have graven upon your palms: Thy sealings (!) are continually before me" (Isa. 49:16). Furthermore in Elephantine, slaves of Jews were marked with the name of their owner (Cowley, Aramaic, 28:2–6), as was the general practice.

Writing Equipment

the pen

Several different types of writing implements were employed in accordance with the different types of surfaces. Inscriptions on stone or metal required a chisel, whereas for clay or wax a stylus would suffice. In Mesopotamia, the stylus was made of reeds, hardwood, or even bone and metal. There is no pictographic evidence from ancient Israel nor is there any artifact that can be definitely identified as a stylus. The literary sources do mention at least two kinds of tools for writing on stone: an "iron pen," ʿeṭ barzel, and a hard stone stylus, ẓipporen shamir (Jer. 17:1; Job 19:24). The ḥereṭ may have been a tool for working on metal or wood (Ex. 32:4).

The Egyptians used a rush, cut obliquely and frayed at the end forming a brush, to write with ink on papyrus, hides, ostraca, and wood. A similar type of pen seems to have been used on the Samaria and Lachish ostraca. This instrument was probably called "the scribe's pen," ʿeṭ sofer, [soferim] (Jer. 8:8; Ps. 45:2), in order to differentiate it from the stone engraver's "iron pen." Likewise, the ḥereṭ ʾenosh, the "common or soft stylus" (Isa. 8:1), is not the same as that mentioned above.

At the end of the third century b.c.e., Greek scribes living in Egypt invented a new type of reed pen pointed and split at the end. The quill, used to this day by Torah scribes (soferei setam), was introduced during the Middle Ages in Ashkenazi communities.

From earliest times, the Egyptians wrote in black and red ink. Black ink was made from carbon in the form of soot mixed with a thin solution of gum. This solution was molded and dried into cakes, which were mixed with water before use. In producing red ink, red ocher, or red iron oxide was substituted for carbon.

In Israel, a similar type of black ink was probably used, though the Lachish ostraca show traces of iron. The Hebrew word for ink is deyo (Jer. 36:18), a term whose etymology is uncertain. In at least one of its solutions, the ink did not easily penetrate the writing surface and could be erased with water (Num. 5:23). Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls were written with a carbon ink, while the badly damaged Genesis Apocryphon was written with the metallic mixture.

The copy of the Septuagint presented to Ptolemy ii was written with a gold additive (Aris. 176), a practice followed among some circles in writing the Tetragrammaton but which the rabbis specifically forbade (Sof. 1:9).

pen case and palette

The ancient Egyptians carried their brushes in a hollow reed case. They added to this a wooden palette containing two depressions for the cakes of black and red ink. This was joined by a cord to a small cup designed to hold water for moistening the ink. A stylized drawing of these three pieces became the hieroglyphic sign S Š, meaning "writing" or "scribe." Later the pen case and palette were combined and easily carried on the belt (cf. Ezek. 9:2–3, 11). An Egyptian ivory pen case dating from the time of Ramses iii was found at Megiddo. The biblical term for this item is qeset, derived from the Egyptian gsti. A razor for cutting leather or papyrus (Jer. 36:23) and probably a straight edge for ruling lines as well as a cloth or sponge for erasures completed the equipment required by the scribe.

[Aaron Demsky]


The number of inscriptions found in Palestine is relatively small. The only monumental inscription of the type known from neighboring lands found there (except for a three letter fragment from eighth-century b.c.e. Samaria) is the Tell Dan Inscription (bibliography in Schwiderski, 409). This Aramaic inscription has attracted wide attention because it appears to mention "the House of David." This paucity of material is undoubtedly due to the fact that Palestine often served as a battlefield and many of its principal cities were frequently destroyed.

The earliest inscriptions in a language closely related to Hebrew are (a) those in the Proto-Byblian script, which has not been fully deciphered as yet, from the early second millennium; (b) those in the Proto-Sinaitic pictographic script from the 15th century b.c.e. found at Sarābīṭ al-Khādim; and (c) those in the *Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet from Ras Shamra. The Proto-Canaanite inscriptions on artifacts from Gezer, Lachish, and Shechem ranging from the 17th to the 14th centuries b.c.e. are closely related to the Proto-Sinaitic, while short tablets in a form of the Ugaritic alphabet from Beth-Shemesh, Kawkab al-Hawā ʾ, and Taanach are from the 14th–13th centuries b.c.e. and early alphabetic writing comes from a variety of sites of the 13th–12th centuries b.c.e. There is still some degree of disagreement as to the deciphering of these brief inscriptions. Inscribed bronze arrowheads from the end of the 12th century found at Al-Khaḍr, near Beth-Lehem, and similar artifacts from a slightly later period found at other sites provide a link with the later developed Phoenician-Hebrew script.

The earliest Phoenician inscriptions are those from Byblos, beginning with that on the Ahiram sarcophagus from the tenth century and those of the other members of Ahiram's dynasty. The earliest Hebrew inscription is on a limestone plaque from Gezer; it contains an agricultural calendar and was written toward the end of the tenth century (see *Gezer Calendar). The Moabite stone from about 840 b.c.e. (discovered in 1868) recounts, in a dialect close to Hebrew, the rule of Omri over Moab (ii Kings 3) and subsequent Moabite victories over Israel. It is of prime linguistic importance, but also gives an insight into Moabite religion and the history of the period (see *Mesha Stele). The fragmentary Amman Citadel Inscription, whose language is very close to Hebrew but whose meaning is far from certain, is also from this period. The Kulamuwa inscription in Phoenician from Zenjirli, in southwestern Turkey, celebrates the victory of Kilamuwa over his enemies and records his role in bringing prosperity to his people. One of the earliest Aramaic inscriptions was found near Aleppo. It is dedicated to Melqart, god of Tyre, and comes from the middle of the ninth century b.c.e. (cos ii, 152–53). Of great importance is the bilingual Aramaic and Akkadian royal inscription found at Tel Fekherye in 1979 (Swiderski, 194, with bibliography; cos ii, 153–54). Minor Aramaic inscriptions have also been found at En-Gev, Hazor, and Tell Dan in Galilee.

From the late ninth and the eighth centuries there are a number of Hebrew inscriptions: (a) a series of small inscriptions from Hazor which contain primarily names; (b) the *Samaria ostraca: 63 dockets written in ink on potsherds referring to deliveries of oil and wine. Although they are short – listing the regnal year, a place name, a personal name, and a quantity of oil and wine – they allow an insight into the administration of the Northern Kingdom. They shed light on the northern dialect of Hebrew and since they contain many Ba ʿ al names, they are of use in discussion of the religious situation in the Northern Kingdom; (c) the Tell Qasīla ostraca: one refers to a shipment of oil, while another reads: "gold of Ophir for Beth-Horon, 30 shekels"; (d) a series of *seals that can be ascribed to this period, some containing names familiar from the Bible such as Ahaz, Jeroboam, and Isaiah; and e) the inscription qdš on vessels from Beer-Sheba and Hazor.

The *Siloam tunnel inscription, discovered in 1880, dates from the end of the eighth century. It commemorates the completion of the tunnel between the "Virgin's Spring" and the pool of Siloam – whose purpose was to bring water to the city (cf. ii Kings 20:20; ii Chron. 32:30). The six-line inscription is written in straightforward Hebrew. From this period also come tomb inscriptions found in caves in the village of Silwān such as that of the royal steward "…yahu, who is over the house" (cf. Isa. 22:15). The papyrus palimpsest from Murabb ʾ āt may be dated to the end of this period, while a jar inscription found at Azor, near Jaffa, reading lšlmy is in the Phoenician script.

It is from this century that there are important Phoenician and Aramaic inscriptions from Syria and southwest Turkey. The Karatepe inscription, from the Adana area, is the longest Phoenician inscription known to date. It commemorates the victories and deeds of King Azitawadda of the Danunians and was inscribed upon orthostats and statues as part of the city gate along with a version in hieroglyphic Hittite. In phraseology and idiom it is often very close to biblical Hebrew and sheds light on the religious practices of the period. There are also texts in the Ammonite language from this period: a) the inscription of King Yariḥʿazor of Beth ʿAmmon; and b) the Ammonite text in Aramaic script from Deir ʿAllā.

The Aramaic inscriptions include the Zakkur inscription (c. 775) commemorating the victory of Zakkur of Hamath and Luath over the Aramaic league under Bir-Hadad son of Hazael of Damascus. This inscription contains important references to prayer and prophecy. The Sefire treaty inscriptions from north Syria contain the treaty made by the king of Arpad and his overlord, the king of the Kashkeans. This is the longest extant inscription in early Aramaic. It contains details concerning the parties to the treaty, the witnessing gods, imprecations upon the treaty breaker, details of the treaty's provisions, and also geographic information. Besides its philological importance, it has supplied considerable information of a cultural and historical nature and has clarified biblical terms and formulas. Of the Aramaic inscriptions from Zenjirli, two (Hadad, Panamu) are in the local dialect (Samalian; known already from Kulamuwa's time) while the others are in Early General Aramaic. They are important for Aramaic religion and also attest to the growing power of the Assyrians under Tiglath-Pileser iii.

Phoenician had spread during these centuries to the Mediterranean isles and inscriptions have been found in Cyprus, Sardinia, and elsewhere. The incantation plaque, in Aramaic script but Phoenician language, from Arslan Tash in upper Mesopotamia attests to the continuity of literary idiom and to the symbiosis of the Canaanite and Mesopotamian cultures among the Arameans in the early seventh century. The spread of Aramaic as the lingua franca of the Near East (cf. ii Kings 18:26) is seen in the use of Aramaic on an ostracon containing a letter found at Ashur and also in the use of Aramaic dockets on cuneiform tablets at Ashur and elsewhere. Two inscribed funerary stelae in Aramaic come from Neirab near Aleppo. An interesting ostracon from Nimrūd presents a list of exiles with typical Israelite names. Excavations at Nimrūd have also produced inscribed objects (bronzes, ivories, and ostraca) in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Phoenician.

In Palestine during the seventh century, Hebrew inscriptions are found on seals, weights, measures of capacity, and jar handles. *Weights bearing the inscription bq ʿ or pym, both known from the Bible, and nṣp are found in many Judahite sites and the words hīn and bat (bt lmlk) – well known from the Bible as names of units of cubic measure – have been found on pots and jugs. There are, from the mid-seventh century onward, an important series of jar handles engraved with the winged sun disk scarab seal, or ṭet symbol, with the royal stamp reading lmlk, "of the king," and the name of one of four cities: šwkw (Socoh), hbrn (Hebron), z (y) p (Ziph), and mmšt (unidentified). The legend lmlk refers to weights and measures standardized by the royal administration. The lmlk and ṭet symbols are found at a later period on jars from Phoenicia, Elephantine in Egypt, and Carthage. The jars were in all likelihood used for wine. From the reign of Josiah there are a number of ostraca from a site south of *Yavneh-Yam. The longest one consists of 14 lines in which an agricultural worker, protesting his innocence, petitioned a superior asking for the return of a cloak wrongly taken from him (cf. Ex. 22:25). The language reflects the legal terminology of the period (i.e., line 10: "and all my brothers will testify for me," y ʿ nw ly). The graffiti from the area of El-Qom, near Hebron, are primarily tomb inscriptions recording the name of the owner of the tomb. Inscriptions on a bowl and a decanter were also found there, as well as inscribed weights. The Hebrew ostraca found at *Arad are from the late seventh century. They are concerned mainly with the delivery of wine, flour, bread, and oil to certain persons and also to the Kittim (ktym), a term used in the Bible for people from Cyprus or the Aegean isles. Small ostraca bearing the names of the priestly families Pashhur (pšḥr) and Meremoth (mrmwt), known from the Bible, were also found. One ostracon has a reference to the Korahites (bny qrh), and another to the Kerosites (qrwsy), known from Ezra 2:44 and Nehemiah 7:47 as a family of temple servants, and also to the Jerusalem temple (called byt whwh). There are also references to the city Ramath-Negeb and to the Edomites and to events in the area.

The Ophel ostracon found in Jerusalem and containing a poorly preserved list of names with patronymics and residences in all likelihood belongs to the beginning of the sixth century. The jar handles from al-Jīb reading gb ʿ n (together with personal names) has clinched the identification of that site with Gibeon. Three inscriptions in a cave at Khirbat Beit-Lay, south of Jerusalem, are of religious significance since they ask help of yhwh and refer to Judah and Jerusalem. The 21 ostraca found at Tell al-Duwayr (commonly known as the "*Lachish letters") are of prime importance since they come from the period shortly before the destruction of the Temple in 587 and reflect the circumstances of that period. Only seven are well enough preserved to offer a continuous text. They contain lists of names, simple business documents, and the correspondence of the military governor Yaush and his subordinates. They are written in idiomatic classical Hebrew and contain interesting expressions such as the oath ḥyhwh, "as Yahweh lives." There is also a reference to a prophet in these texts. Many of the personal names found in these ostraca are familiar from the literature of the period. Seals of the period contain names such as Gedaliah, Jaazaniah, and that of King Jehoiachin. Seals from Ammon, Moab, and Edom are known from this and earlier periods. An Aramaic letter, written by a ruler of one of the cities of the Philistine coast, was found at Saqqarah in Egypt.

The excavations at Lachish produced for the post-Exilic period an interesting inscribed incense altar (Ibntʾ) which may have been dedicated to the Lord (line 3: lyh – if this reading is correct). Recent excavations have greatly increased the number of inscribed objects found in Palestine from the Persian and Hellenistic periods. From Arad alone there are about 100 ostraca in Aramaic from the late fifth century; they deal primarily with matters of local economy. An ostracon from approximately the same period was found at Ashdod referring simply to a plot of land as 'Zebadiah's vineyard' (krm zbdyh; in Ashdodite? cf. Neh. 13:24). Ostraca in Aramaic from this period have been found at Tell al-Fār ʿ a and Beer-Sheba in the south and at Tell Sa ʿ īdiyya in the Jordan Valley. An ostracon from a slightly earlier period was found at Heshbon in Moab.

The earliest stamp seals of the Persian period are those inscribed msh (or mwsh). There are several types of yhd, yhwd, and yh stamps from this period with the yh stamps presumably the latest. The coins from Judah are also inscribed with the legend yhd in archaic Aramaic lapidary script. Some stamps have yhwd plus a name; the stamps from Ramat Raḥel contain a name and in all likelihood the word pḥrʾ, "the potter."

The Aramaic papyri found in a cave in the *Wadi Daliya are dated from 375 to 335 or slightly later. The content of all the papyri is legal or administrative and they were executed in Samaria. They deal with possession of slaves and also with loans, sales, and marriages. The name Sanballat appears on both papyri and sealings. The papyri were probably hidden in these caves by refugees from Samaria at the time of Alexander the Great's conquests. Aramaic ostraca from En Gedi and Elath from the early fourth century have been published; and from the latter site ostraca in Phoenician and Edomite are known. The Tobiah inscriptions from ʿ Araq el-Emir in Transjordan stem typologically from this period.

A revival of the Paleo-Hebrew script takes place during this period. It is found on seals from Daliya and Makmish and also on several coins. It is frequently found on the jar stamps of the third century from Judah, on stamps inscribed with yhwd (Yehud) plus symbol, and on the pentagram stamps bearing the inscription yršlm (Jerusalem). This script is then used for some texts found at Qumran and on Hasmonean coins and also on those of the first revolt and the Bar Kokhba revolt. It is from this late Paleo-Hebrew script that the Samaritan script developed. The earliest Samaritan inscription, found in the Ionian capital at Emmaus, stems in all likelihood from the first century c.e.

Many of the important inscriptions from the Phoenician coast such as the Eshmunazor, Bodashtart, and Tabnit funeral inscriptions, etc., as well as those from Umm al-ʿAwāmid, come from the Persian and Hellenistic periods. These inscriptions are replete with phrases reminiscent of biblical idiom (e.g., stock (usually, but erroneously, "root") below, boughs (usually, but erroneously, "fruit") above) and religious phraseology that clarify biblical references (e.g., "a place to lie on with the Rephaim"). Inscribed ostraca, seals, and coins are also found. In the east, Phoenician spread to Greece and Egypt; Cyprus, Malta, Sardinia, Sicily and the isles remain a source of written material. In the west, Carthage, rich in inscriptions, became an important center of Phoenician culture, and from there it radiated to Spain, the Balearic islands, and southern France. The sacrificial tariffs from Marseilles and Carthage list animal offerings with payments due to the priests and the sharing of sacrifices. Scholars have noted marked similarities to the Priestly Code. The bilingual Phoenician-Etruscan Pyrgi inscriptions from fifth-century southern Italy have great linguistic importance, while many Punic and neo-Punic inscriptions from North Africa provide an insight into the continuity of Canaanite culture and language outside the Phoenician mainland. Jars inscribed in Phoenician were found at Bat Yam and Shiqmona; a lead weight was found at Ashdot-Yam.

Aramaic became the official language of the Achaemenid Empire and inscriptions in this language are found for this and later periods in North Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Georgia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and India. The many papyri and ostraca from Elephantine, Hermopolis, and elsewhere in Egypt, and the Arsham letters are of prime importance. The Sheikh Faḍl inscriptions (fifth century) mentioning Tirhaka, Neco, and Psammetich and the silver bowls from Wadi Tumilat, mentioning Gashmu the Kedarite (cf. Neh. 2:19; 6:1, 2, 6) are noteworthy. Aramaic versions (on papyrus) of the Behistun and Naksh-i Rustam inscriptions of Darius i, albeit fragmentary, are known. The Taymā ʾ inscription attests to the penetration of Aramaic culture into North Arabia and the many Aramaic dockets on Neo-Babylonian cuneiform tablets (fifth century) attest to the spread of Aramaic there. These tablets often record business transactions of the Judean exiles.

The Aramaic-Lydian bilingual from Sardis and the boundary, funerary, and commemorative inscriptions found elsewhere in Turkey and later in Armenia are of philological and cultural interest. In these countries, Greek often superseded Aramaic during the Hellenistic period. In those areas in which Aramaic remained a language of spoken or written communication, national scripts developed such as the Jewish, Nabatean, Palmyrene, Elymaic, Hatrene, and Syriac. The earliest Nabatean script was found at Ḥaluṣa (c. 170 b.c.e.); other inscriptions were found at 'Avdat and in the Sinai Peninsula. It is in this script that the inscriptions in Palestine of the late Second Temple period are written. Among the inscriptions from the late period of the Second Temple besides those found at Qumran on jars and ostraca, leather parchment, papyrus, and metal, which cannot be enumerated here, the following may be noted: (1) the Jason Tomb inscriptions in Aramaic from the period of Alexander Yannai; (2) the inscriptions on ossuaries usually listing simply the name of the person reinterred therein. Three are worthy of particular attention: (a) from the Bethpage cave whose lid contained a list of workers; (b) from Giv ʿ at ha-Mivtar in north Jerusalem mentioning "Simon, builder of the sanctuary" (smwn bnh hklh); and (c) from Jebel Hallat eṭ-Ṭūri which declared that all the valuables in the ossuary were a qorban to God; (3) the Bene Ḥezir inscription on a tomb in the Kidron Valley; (4) the Aramaic inscription now in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem that announced the removal of Uzziah's bones to their new resting place; (5) the inscriptions found during the excavations at the Western and Southern retaining walls of the Temple mount, especially the one reading lbyt htqy ʿ h, "to the place of the (trumpet) blowing," which surely came from the Herodian Temple; (6) the small stone weight found in the "burnt house" in the "Jewish Quarter" of Jerusalem bearing the name of the highly placed priestly family Kathros (qtrs); (7) the relatively long Aramaic inscription in Paleo-Hebrew script found in a burial cave in Giv ʿ at ha-Mivtar; (8) inscribed objects from Masada including 14 biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian scrolls. Jugs are inscribed with their owner's name; column drums are marked, and a great number of ostraca contain Hebrew names and a variety of letters. The name Ben Ya'ir (bn y ʾ yr) surely refers to Eleazar ben Jair the Zealot leader.

[Jonas C. Greenfield]

in the talmud and halakhah

The tremendous importance attached by the talmudic sages to the art of writing is reflected, according to one interpretation, in Mishnah Avot 5:6, which includes among the "ten things which were created on the eve of the Sabbath" (of creation, i.e., which partake of the semi-miraculous) ha-ketav ve-hamakhtev ("writing and the instrument of writing"). The usual explanation is that the phrase applies to the writing of the Decalogue, which is mentioned afterward, but another view is that it applies to the art of writing as a whole. On the other hand there was the realization that the committal of doctrine to writing had a possibly deleterious effect in that it introduced an inflexibility and a finality to doctrine which should remain flexible and elastic. According to I.H. Weiss (Dor, i, 1–93), it was this which lay behind the prohibition on committing the Oral Law to writing. The Written Law was final and decisive; its interpretation had to remain open to adjustment.

Writing, its materials, its regulations, and its instruments play a prominent part in the halakhah. They are important in the laws of writing a *Sefer Torah, which must be written on parchment with a quill and indelible ink (the same applies to *tefillin and *mezuzot, with slight variations). An exception is the portion of the *Sotah (the woman suspected of adultery – Num. 5:11–31), since the Bible explicitly states that the writing had to be erased in the bitter waters. There are different regulations for the writing of a bill of divorce, and lastly there is the prohibition of writing on the Sabbath, and the regulations as to what constitutes writing. It is almost entirely in connection with those laws that the many details concerning writing and writing materials occur (cf. especially Shab. 12:3–5, Git; 2:3–4 and the corresponding Tosefta and the relevant discussion in the Talmuds). Whereas for the writing of the Sefer Torah and other sacred writings only parchment made from the hide of permitted animals could be used, after the required treatment, bills of divorce could be written on paper made from papyrus. The prohibition of writing on the Sabbath applied to all permanent writing materials. A differentiation is made between permanent writing materials and non-permanent ones. In the former the Mishnah enumerates olive leaves and a cow's horn, to which the Tosefta (Shab. 11 (12):8) adds carob leaves or cabbage leaves. It is difficult to see how they could be used widely. Non-permanent writing materials are given as leaves of leeks, onions, vegetables, and the sorb apple tree.

Owing to the scarcity and high cost of paper, particularly parchment, it was used more than once, by rubbing out the writing with stone and superimposing new writing. It is this palimpsest which is referred to in the dictum of Elisha b. Avuyah, who compares learning as a child to "ink written on clean paper" and learning in one's old age to "ink written on erased paper" (Avot 4:20; Git. 2:4, where erased paper is equated with diftera (Gr., διφθέρα), hide which has been treated with salt and flour, but not with gall nuts).

A similar distinction is made between permanent and non-permanent inks. To the former belong ink proper (deyo), caustic, red dye, and gum (Shab. 12:4; Sot. 2:4). The Tosefta (Shab. 11 (12):8) adds congealed blood and curdled milk, as well as nutshells and pomegranate peel, which were widely used for making dyestuffs. Ink was made from a mixture of oil and resin, which hardened and to which water was added. Any oil or resin could be used, but the best quality was that of olive oil and balsam (Shab. 23a; 104b). The most permanent ink, however, was made by adding iron sulphate or vitriol (kankantum or kalkantum, properly קלקנתים, Gr. χάλκανθον) to the ink, which made it a deep black, and it was therefore also used as boot-blacking (Git. 19a). This admixture made the ink completely indelible and was therefore prohibited for use in writing the passage of the Sotah (Er. 13a). Non-permanent inks were made from "taria water" (juice of wine), fruit juices, and juice of gall nuts (Git. 19a). There is an interesting reference to invisible writing: "These people of the East are very cunning. When one of them wishes to write a letter in secret writing to his friend he writes it with melon water and when the recipient receives it he pours ink over it and is able to decipher the writing" (tj, Shab. 12:4, 13d; Git. 2:3, 44b).

It would appear originally the custom to use gold lettering for the writing of the Sefer Torah, since the Midrash (Song. R. 1:11; cf. ibid. 5:11) applies the verse "we will make the circlets of gold, with studs of silver" (Songs 1:11) to the writing and the ruled lines respectively. According to the Letter of Aristeas, the Sefer Torah presented by Eleazar the high priest to Ptolemy Philadelphus was written in letters of gold (cf. Jos., Ant., 12:89). However, such ostentation was later forbidden and tractate Soferim (1:9) states, "it is forbidden to write [a Sefer Torah ] in gold. It happened that in a Sefer Torah of Alexandria all the divine names were written in gold, and when it was brought to the notice of the sages they ordered it to be hidden away." There is also mention of Queen *Helena of Adiabene having the passage of the Sotah written on a gold tablet (Yoma 37a; Git. 60a). Simeon b. Lakish, however, said that it referred only to the initials. The professional scribe, the livlar (librarius), used a kalmus (calamus), a quill made of reeds (Shab. 1:3; cf. Ta'an. 20b). For ordinary writing the makhtev, a two pointed pin, or stylus, was used, one end for writing and the other for erasing (Kel. 13:2; Tosef., Kel.; bm 3:4). The inkwell, called a kalmarin (καλαμάριον), was provided with an inner rim to prevent spilling (Mik. 10:1). This inkwell was used by ordinary people. The inkwell of the scribe, called the bet deyo (ink container), had a cover (Tosef., Kel. bm 4:11) and mention is made of the "inkwell of Joseph the Priest which had a hole in the side" (Mik. 10:1).

Pen, paper, and inkstand are referred to as "things of honor" in a peculiar context. Rabban Simeon b. Gamaliel states that any idol which bears something in its hand is forbidden. The Jerusalem Talmud makes an exception in the case of "something of honor" and specifies "paper, pen, and inkwell" (Av. Zar. 3:1, 42c bottom). The word kalmarin is also used for the pen-case (Yalk, Num. 766). Among the other instruments of the scribe were the olar, the pen-knife used for cutting the reed to make the quill (Kel. 12:8; Tosef. Kel.; bb 7:12); the izmel, a knife for cutting the paper (Targ. Jon. to Jer. 36:23; Heb. ta'ar, cf. Targ. Jon. to Ps. 45:2); and the sargel, a sharp instrument for drawing the lines on the parchment or paper. For sacred writings the sargel had to be made from a reed (tj, Meg. 1:11, 71d; Sof. 1:1). "Writer's sand" was used to dry the ink (Shab. 12:5).

After the invention of printing, the question was raised whether the laws of writing – e.g., with regard to the Sefer Torah, the prohibition of writing on the Sabbath, and the writing of a bill of divorce – apply to the printed word (cf. Resp. Samuel di Medina (Maharashdam) yd 184; B. Slonik, Resp. Masat Binyamin 94).

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]


general literature: P.J. Hyatt, in: ba, 6 (1943), 71–80; B. Maisler (Mazar), in: Leshonenu, 14 (1946), 166–81; D. Diringer, The Alphabet (19492); J. Gelb, A Study of Writing (1952); G.R. Driver, Semitic Writing: From Pictograph to Alphabet (19542); M.D. Cassuto, in: em, 1 (1955), 79–89; W.W. Hallo, in: jbl (1958), 324–38; J. Licht and M.D. Cassuto, in: em, 4 (1962), 372–77; A.L. Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia (1964), 228–87; D.R. Hillers, in: basor, 173 (1964), 45–50; F.M. Cross, in: Eretz Israel, 8 (1967), 8–24 (Eng. sec.); idem, in: basor, 190 (1968), 41–46; S. Yeivin, in: B. Mazar (ed.), Ha-Avot ve-ha-Shofetim (1967), 17–24; J. Naveh, in: htr, 61 (1968), 68–74. stone: A.T. Olmstead, in: jaos, 41 (1921), 372; D. Simons, Handbook for the Study of Egyptian Topographical Lists Relating to Western Asia (1937); W.F. Albright, in: basor, 87 (1942), 254; H.L. Ginsberg, in: Louis Ginzberg Jubilee Volume (1945), 171; B. Porter and B.L.B. Moss, Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Reliefs and Paintings, 7 (1951), 369f.; N. Avigad, in: iej, 3 (1953), 137–52; idem, in: em, 3 (1958), 68–86; idem and M.D. Cassuto, ibid., 4 (1962), 380–90; H. Tadmor, in: Eretz Israel, 8 (1967), 241–5; L. Della Vida, in: In Memoriam Paul Kahle (1968), 162–6. papyrus: B. Landsberger, in: olz, 17 (1914), 265; A. Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Centuryb.c. (1923); W.F. Albright, in: jbl, 56 (1937), 145–76; E.G. Kraeling, in: jnes, 7 (1948), 199–201; H.L. Ginsberg, in: basor, 111 (1948), 25–26; G.J. Thierry, in: vt, 1 (1951), 130–1; F.G. Kenyon, Books and Readers in Ancient Greece and Rome (19512); E.G. Kraeling, The Brooklyn Museum Aramaic Papyri (1953); J.T. Milik, Les grottes de Murabbáat (1961); F.M. Cross, Jr., in: basor, 165 (1962), 34–42; idem, in: ba, 26 (1963), 110–21; N. Avigad, in: iej, 14 (1964), 193–4; J. Naveh, in: Leshonenu, 30 (1966), 68. leather: O. Schroeder, in: olz, 20 (1917), 204; R.P. Dougherty, in: jaos, 48 (1928), 109–35; E. Chiera, They Wrote on Clay (1938); H. Tur-Sinai (Torzcyner), Lachish Letters (1938); B. Maisler (Mazar), in: jpos, 21 (1948), 117–33; idem, in: Eretz Israel, 1 (1951), 66–67; D. Diringer, Early Hebrew Inscriptions (1953), 331–9; Y. Yadin, in: iej, 9 (1959), 184–7; idem, in: Scripta Hierosolymitana, 8 (1961), 9–25; S. Iwry, in: jaos, 81 (1961), 27–34; R. de Vaux et al., Discoveries in the Judean Desert of Jordan, 3 (1962), 201ff.; E. Stern, in: em, 4 (1962), 846–78; H. Donner and W. Roellig, Kanaanaeische und aramaeische Inschriften (1962–64), nos. 183–8, 190, 192–9; J. Naveh, in: Leshonenu, 30 (1966), 69ff.; Y. Aharoni, in: basor, 184 (1966), 13–19; idem, in: ba, 31 (1968), 2–32; Pritchard, Texts, 501, 502. ivory, wood, wax, graffiti, tattoo marks: M. San Nicolò, in: Orientalia, 17 (1948), 59–70; I. Mendelsohn, Slavery in the Ancient Near East (1949), 42ff.; M.E.L. Mallowan, in: Iraq, 16 (1954), 59–114; M. Howard, ibid., 17 (1955), 14–20; D.J. Wiseman, ibid., 3–13; A.R. Millard, ibid., 24 (1962), 45–51; J. Naveh, in: iej, 13 (1963), 74–92; W.G. Dovers, in: huca, 40–41 (1969–70), 139–204. inscriptions: G.A. Cooke, A Text-Book of North Semitic Inscriptions (1903); Diringer, Iscr; A. Reifenberg, Ancient Hebrew Seals (1950); S. Moscati, L'epigrafia ebraica antica (1951); H. Donner and W. Roellig, Kanaanaeische und aramaeische Inschriften (1962–64); Y. Yadin, Masadah (1966), 168–91; N. Avigad, in: iej, 17 (1967), 100–11; idem, in: Near Eastern Archaeology in the Twentieth Century (1970), 284, 287–95; R.D. Barnett, in: Eretz Israel, 8 (1967), 1–6; F.M. Cross, in: ibid., 8–24; 9 (1969), 20–27; idem, in: D.N. Freedman and J.C. Greenfield (eds.), New Directions in Biblical Archaeology (1969), 41–62; Y. Aharoni, ibid., 25–39; J. Peckham, The Development of the Late Phoenician Scripts (1968); J. Naveh, The Development of the Aramaic Script (1970); idem, in: iej, 20 (1970), 33–37; idem, in: Near Eastern Archaeology in the Twentieth Century (1970), 277–83. in the talmud and halakhah: L. Loew, Graphische Requisiten und Erzeugnisse bei den Juden (1871); L. Blau, Studien zum althebraeischen Buchwesen (1902); Krauss, Tal Arch, 3 (1912), 144–58. add. bibliography: J.C. Gibson, Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions (3 vols.; 1971, 1975, 1982); J. Naveh, Early History of the Alphabet (1982); B. Sass, The Genesis of the Alphabet and its Development in the Second Millennium B.C. (1988); J. Jamieson-Drake, Scribes and Schools in Monarchic Judah (1991); J. Fitzmyer and S. Kaufman, An Aramaic Bibliography, Part i: Old, Official, and Biblical Aramaic (1992); A. Lemaire, abd, 6:999–1008; J. Tropper, Die Inschriften von Zincirli (1993); J. Hoftijzer and K. Jongeling, Dictionary of the North-West Semitic Inscriptions (hdo; 2 vols., 1995); M. Haran, The Biblical Collection… (1996); M. O'Connor, in: P. Daniels and W. Bright (eds.), The World's Writing Systems (1996), 88–107; N. Avigad and B. Sass, Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals (1997); N. Na'aman, in L. Handy (ed.), The Age of Solomon (1997), 57–80; F. Cross, Leavesfrom an Epigrapher's Notebook (1993); D. Schwiderski, The Old and Imperial Aramaic Inscriptions, vol. 2 (2004); S. Ahituv, Handbook of Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions (20052).


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WRITING The term writing encompasses four pairs of linked senses. It may refer to: (1) An activity (reading and writing) or the product of that activity (What illegible writing!). (2) A concrete process (a writing exercise) or the concept behind that process (Writing was invented over 5,000 years ago). (3) Handwriting alone (specimens of their writing) or both handwriting and print (Writing systems were extended by the invention of movable type). (4) A general skill regarded as a social necessity (Writing is part of everybody's education) or a minority art form, occupation, hobby, and/or obsession (This novel is the best example of her writing to date).

Although written signs need not be permanent (as in writing on a blackboard or sky-writing from an aircraft), they are generally taken to be more or less durable. In the Germanic languages, as the etymology above indicates, the concept of writing related to cutting signs on wood or inscribing them on stone (see RUNE), but in principle the making of graphic signs is not restricted in either materials or methods: they may be cut with knife, chisel, drill, and other tools on stone, wood, plastic, and similar surfaces, or applied by pen, brush, type, and other instruments to surfaces such as paper, parchment, or cloth. The electromagnetic charges of the computer are also understood to be writing, whether temporary on screens or more permanently on disks and other devices for information storage and retrieval.

A medium of language

Each medium that carries language (such as speech, writing, or signing among the deaf) has its special features. All language is linear, but each medium has its distinctive units and marshals them differently: for example, an alphabetic letter, a dash, or the indenting of a paragraph has no equivalent in speech. Forms of writing and print have cultural resonances distinct from those of speech and song, as for example the contrast between capital and small letters, or between the use of roman or italic script. Although each medium of language can ‘say’ things about another, there is no way in which one medium can be another. In addition, many scholars consider that social systems such as religions and governments for which writing is a normal activity are quite different from those that depend on the more fluid and ephemeral processes of speech and memory: issues of morality become more abstract, reasoning more rigorous, and language more open to objective and logical analysis. With the help of writing, draft plans can be formulated and administrative routines can develop, and in the process the speech of such communities is also changed, becoming imbued with the styles and patterns of written language.

Speech versus writing

Since classical times, there have been two contradictory approaches to speech and writing: (1) The view that writing is the primary and speech the secondary medium, because writing is more culturally significant and lastingly valuable than speech. The term grammar, for example, derives from the Greek verb gráphein to write. The systematization of classical Greek GRAMMAR by such theorists and teachers as Dionysius Thrax, c.100 BC, was the first attempt at language description in the Western world, and unlike the early studies of language in India, which were soundbased, it rested entirely on writing. This tradition was extended to the study and teaching of many languages throughout the world with little change until the early 20c. (2) The view that speech is primary and writing secondary, because speech is prior to writing both historically and in terms of a child's acquisition of language. In the 4c BC, Aristotle said: ‘Spoken sounds are symbols of affections of the soul, and written marks are symbols of spoken sounds’ (On Interpretation, 16a 3–4). Comparably, but long afterwards, the Swiss philologist Ferdinand de Saussure observed: ‘Speech and writing are two separate systems of signs; the sole purpose of the second is to represent the first’ (1916: translated from Cours de linguistique générale, ed. Tullio de Mauro, Payot, Paris, 1978, Introduction, ch. 6). When Saussure made this comment, he was reacting against centuries of scholarship and education in which the text had been regarded as fundamental.

Writing systems

A major feature of writing is that it can operate over distance and time. Memorized and stylized speech that passes from person to person has some of this capacity, but has no existence apart from the performance of one speaker at one time. There is also no guarantee that an oral message will be the same after several stages of transmission, whereas a written document can be read at different times by different people and remain stable, unless overwritten. Although people may interpret such a document differently, they agree that it is an invariant object, and may accept it as incontrovertible evidence in a court of law. The signs on a well-kept 4,000-year-old clay tablet are virtually as legible and perhaps as intelligible today as at the time of writing, save that some shades of meaning and implications of context are likely to have been lost. There was nothing comparably durable for spoken language until the invention of the phonograph in the late 19c, but even so audio-recording remains distinct from text in its effect, its usefulness, and its technologies.

The first known system of writing was not a re-expression of spoken language. It was pictorial in origin, creating two-dimensional analogues of three-dimensional things in the world; only much later did writing systems acquire the capacity to ‘reflect’ or run parallel to the words and sounds of speech. The first writing was invented in West Asia 5,000–6,000 years ago, in Sumer in southern Mesopotamia. Since that time, writing systems have used a variety of symbolic forms, sometimes as relatively ‘pure’ systems of one kind of sign, but more commonly in combinations of the following two broad categories of signs:

Picture-based signs.

The longer-established variety of sign is representational and analogous, as with early Sumerian. Scholars generally identify three types that are not always easy to set off one from another: (1) Pictograms, that directly represent things in the world, such as animals, people, houses, and geographical features, often in stylized and simplified outline forms such as a wavy line for water. (2) Ideograms (in effect ‘idea grams’), that represent concepts, such as the numerals I, II, III or 1, 2, 3, usually arising from the further stylizing and simplifying of pictograms. (3) Logograms, that represent words proper, such as the icons used in international airports: a drawing of a telephone directly standing for telephone, a man and a woman side by side indirectly standing for toilets (or their equivalents in different languages). The early writing systems of Sumer and Egypt and the writing of China belong almost wholly in the picture-based group, which deals directly in meanings and not in sounds.

Sound-based signs.

The somewhat younger variety of sign is phonographic, relating sound to symbol. Two types can usually be kept distinct (but see ALPHABET): (1) Syllabograms, representing individual syllables, as in the kana systems of Japanese (see JAPAN). (2) Phonograms, or as they are more commonly known, letters, signs that represent individual sounds. Such signs have over the centuries often become detached from the specific language in which they were first used, as demonstrated by the many variants of the Roman alphabet (for English, French, German, Polish, etc.), and may therefore represent different sounds in different systems, as for example the letter c as used in English and Italian. Phonographic writing systems deal in sounds, not meanings.

Writing technologies

The development of technologies of writing is contingent on time, place, and environment. The Sumerian system, for example, developed in marshy terrain, where its inventors used a cut reed to impose wedge-like (cuneiform) marks on a soft clay tablet (the reed held in one hand, the tablet in the other). The inscribed clay was then left to dry in the hot sun, or for greater permanence was baked in an oven. Their system was an integrated technology of stylus, clay, and cuneiform that was at first pictographic and became in due course ideographic and syllabographic. The Egyptians, also a riverine people, did not develop clay but concentrated on plants, using a reed brush to paint their signs on papyrus stems that were pressed together to form sheets held in place by their own gum. Theirs was a technology of brush, papyrus, and hieroglyph that later developed phonographic elements. Both Sumerian and Egyptian writing methods were also applied successfully to large vertical surfaces, such as walls and pillars. In medieval Europe, scribes used trimmed feathers from the wings of large birds and various inks to mark a set of alphabetic letters on parchment skins. Theirs was a technology that combined pen, parchment, and alphabet. At the end of the 20c, as a sum of all the operations of the past throughout the world, a vast array of calligraphic and typographic options is available, for example word-processing, for the preparation of texts of many kinds on surfaces of many kinds.

Writing implements

The pen (a 13c term from Latin penna feather) is the oldest writing implement in general use. It has its origins in both the Sumerian reed and the medieval feather. Vast flocks of geese were once kept in Europe to provide quill pens that were sold in bunches. The writing ends of the goose quill feathers were cut and split with a pen knife, after which they could be dipped in ink-wells or ink-horns and put to use, the ink flowing down the split while one wrote until it was used up. Pens with metal nibs are an industrial-age adaptation of by reed or quill have thick and thin strokes, a feature that influenced the shapes given to letters in printing. The fountain pen, equipped with a reusable cartridge for holding a large supply of ink to be steadily fed to the nib, was a late 19c advance on the basic metal-nibbed pen. After the Second World War, however, all such pens were generally replaced by the cheap, easily disposable ball-point (pen) or biro (named after László Biró, its Hungarian inventor). The present-day pencil (a 14c term from Latin penicillum a painter's brush, ultimately from penis a tail) is more recent than the pen. It consists of a stick of graphite (often erroneously called ‘lead’, as in lead pencil), protected by a machined sheath of wood. It developed as a variation of the markers that medieval scribes used to draw lines in manuscripts. The late 20c felt-tip pen (BrE) or marker (AmE) is a variation on the ancient reed brush, its ink supply stored in its stem like a biro.

Pen and print

Generally, documents written in ink have had both a higher social cachet and greater physical permanence than documents written in pencil, while texts in print have had still higher prestige and greater permanence (depending on the quality of paper used). Because documents written in pencil and pen are no longer widely circulated, there is less pressure on students to cultivate clear handwriting. Writing by hand continues to be basic to education while at the same time its value has declined in occupational terms. It is useful in note-taking, note-writing, and personal letters, but there are fewer and fewer clerical careers that require no more than the making of handwritten entries in books and ledgers. Handwriting and handwritten documents have become as a result increasingly demotic and spelling and grammar in personal letters appear to be increasingly seen as personal matters.

Type and word-processing

In 20c public life, writing by hand has long been displaced by typing. In recent years, the word-processing personal computer (the PC: whether desktop, laptop, or palmtop) has adopted and adapted many features from the typewriter, particularly the format of the keyboard, while advanced or ‘smart’ typewriters have come more and more to resemble PCs. With its battery of word-processing software, spelling and style checkers, dictionaries, thesauruses, and other built-in aids, the PC is, however, as different from the typewriter as the typewriter from the traditional printing press, and the press from the pen. Transmission systems known as modems (short for ‘modulator demodulators’) can send and receive texts electronically over distance, and scanners capable of optical character recognition (OCR) can read printed documents and transcribe them directly on to disk with ever greater accuracy. In addition, large computers routinely direct typesetting machinery in the production of books and periodicals. As a consequence, computers used for language work are changing many aspects of, and attitudes towards, traditional written and printed language.

Learning to write

All writing systems demand long periods of apprenticeship in which the student memorizes and learns to use the inventory of signs and the tools associated with them. Over the last two centuries, more and more societies have grown to expect more and more of their members to be able to write. Universal LITERACY became an aim in most industrialized nation-states over a century ago, but the concept of an adequately literate society remains unclear, and changes over time. There is also ongoing controversy over the teaching and acquisition of styles and skills in handwriting, and in learning how to spell and read adequately in languages with complex orthographies, such as English and French: see READING, SPELLING, SPELLING REFORM.


Basically, methods of teaching children to write have not changed greatly over the centuries. The principal procedure remains an introduction to the elements of the writing system. Models are then provided for copying and developing in various ways: usually the teacher's own handwriting and specimens in copybooks. For English, as with other languages originating in Europe, a cardinal feature in learning to write is learning to join letters as opposed to leaving them in an unjoined form known as print script. The ability to link separate letters by means of connecting lines is highly valued as proof of a child's success in learning to write. A significant subsidiary feature is the ability to move from large early letters formed with great care to smaller letters in a maturer ‘hand’ that stays within an acceptable size range. Once this is achieved, individuals are free to develop their own handwriting, descriptions of which include such evaluative terms as generous or cramped, neat or untidy, rounded or spiky, legible or illegible. In educational terms, such matters as a steady reduction in the size of letters relate to stages in children's neuromuscular development and physical coordination.

Aids to learning.

Analogies and mnemonic devices continue to be common in helping young children write individual letter forms. Such devices are often reminiscent of past or different kinds of writing, as with the pictorial analogy: ‘Letter S is a swan who holds her head up high’ ( Ruth Fagg, Everyday Writing, University of London Press, 1963). The visual system developed by Lyn Wendon uses animal and other shapes as templates for the child to work with (Pictograms, Barton, Cambridge, 1973/84). One of her pictographic examples is the character Dippy Duck, used to teach the direction and flow necessary when forming small d: ‘Stroke Dippy's back. Go round his tum. Go up his neck. Then down you come!’

Factors in learning.

Teaching people to write includes such factors as: (1) Eliminating tension, especially in very young learners, through preliminary relaxing exercises. (2) Checking writing postures and hand grips. (3) Ensuring good writing conditions, such as a suitable seat, desk surface, and lighting. (4) Determining hand dominance and ensuring that left-handers in a society dominated by right-handers are not directly or indirectly penalized or neglected. (5) Providing adequate graded pattern exercises, such as the angular diagonal patterns that underlie the writing of capital M and the rounded equivalents for m. (6) Helping learners to achieve rhythm, fluency, and reasonable speed. (7) Constructively working on faults (such as wrong pencil grips, ill-formed letters, and inefficient directionality in the shaping of letters). (8) In due course allowing the learner to develop a confident individual hand.


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428. Writing

See also 12. ALPHABET ; 29. AUTHORS ; 53. BOOKS ; 236. LANGUAGE ; 249. LITERATURE ; 256. MANUSCRIPTS ; 346. READING ; 383. SPELLING .

1. the use of a symbol to represent phonetically the initial sound (syllable or letter) of the name of an object, as A is the flrst sound of Greek alpha.
2. the use of the name of the object as the name of the symbol representing its initial sound, as A in Greek is called alpha ox. Also called acrophony . acrologic , adj.
the act of writing something by hand. autographer , n. autographic , adj. autographically , adv.
the art or science of analyzing handwriting, especially that of manuscripts with the purpose of establishing their authorship or authenticity. bibliotist , n. bibliotic , adj.
an abbreviated writing; shorthand. brachygraphic , adj.
1. bad handwriting. Cf. calligraphy .
2. the possession of poor spelling skills. See also orthography . cacographer , n. cacographic, cacographical , adj.
1. the art of beautiful penmanship.
2. handwriting in general.
3. good handwriting skills. Cf. cacography.
4. a script of a high aesthetic value produced by brush, especially that of Chinese, Japanese, or Arabic origin. calligrapher, calligraphist , n. calligraphic, calligraphical , adj.
chirography, cheirography
1. the penmanship of a person, especially when used in an important document, as in an apostolic letter written and signed by the pope.
2. the art of beautiful penmanship; calligraphy. chirograph, chirographer , n. chirographic, chirographical , adj.
1. the art of writing in inks containing gold or silver in suspension.
2. the gold writing produced in this way. chrysographer , n.
1. the science or study of secret writing, especially code and cipher systems.
2. the procedures and methods of making and using secret languages, as codes or ciphers. cryptographer, cryptographist , n. cryptographic, cryptographical, cryptographal , adj.
curiologics, curiology
the representation of things or sounds by means of their pictures instead of by symbols or words, as in hieroglyphics or a rebus. curiologic, curiological , adj.
1. a document or other piece of writing in a large, bold hand.
2. a formal document, as a proclamation, suitably written in a calligraphic hand and often illuminated. engrosser , n.
Shorthand, a word that is represented by a single symbol or character.
the reading of character or personality from a persons handwriting. Cf. graphology . graphanalyst , n.
Linguistics. the study of systems of writing and their relationship to the systems of the languages they represent. Also called graphonomy . graphemic , adj.
the art or craft of writing or delineating. graphiologist , n.
the study of handwriting, especially as regarded as an expression of character. Cf. graphanalysis . graphologist , n. graphologic, graphological , adj.
an obsession with writing.
Psychology. the study of handwriting as a symptom of mental or emotional disorder. graphopathologist , n. graphopathological , adj.
a dislike for writing.
1. writing in excessive amounts, sometimes incoherently.
2. extreme wordiness in writing.
a form of divination involving the examination of a persons handwriting.
the accidental omission in writing or copying of one or more adjacent and similar letters, syllables, words, or lines, as tagme for tagmeme.
the study of hieroglyphic writing, or a system employing a conventionalized pictographic script, esp. that used by the ancient Egyptians. hieroglyphologist , n.
sacred writing or a sacred character or symbol. hierogrammatist , n. hierogrammatic, hierogrammatical , adj.
Rare. sacred writing; hierograms and the art of writing them. hierographer , n. hierographic, hierographical , adj.
the process of using a distinct character to represent each sound. homographic , adj.
a form of writing regarded as midway between picture writing, as hieroglyphics, and phonetic writing in which the names of the symbols are not the names of the objects they depict but phonetic elements only. iconomatic , adj.
a form of writing in which a written symbol represents an object rather than a word or speech sound. ideographic, ideographical , adj.
Rare. the imitation of another persons handwriting. isographic, isographical , adj.
the avoidance of a certain letter or syllable in a text. lipogram , n.
the act or process of representing with letters.
a sign or symbol used to represent a word, as $ for dollar. Also logograph. logographic , adj.
a method of reporting spoken language in longhand, esp. one using several reporters taking down a few words in succession. logographer , n. logographic , adj.
abnormally large handwriting, often the result of a nervous disorder in the writer.
an apparatus used for miniature writing or drawing. micrography , n.
the art or technique of writing with extremely small characters. micrographic , adj.
Pathology. physical difficulty in writing. mogigraphic , adj.
two or more letters, as initials, formed into a design to be placed on clothing, notepaper, etc., or as a crest. See also 305. ORNAMENTATION . monogrammatic, monogrammatical , adj.
excessive use of or fondness for, or incorrect use of the letter m and the sound it represents. Also mutacism .
Rare. a new or novel way of writing.
a writing frame designed for use by blind people.
a form of divination involving the examination of letters, possibly from a graphological standpoint. Also onomancy.
ogham, ogam
1. an alphabetical script originally used for inscriptions in the Irish language from the 5th to the 10th centuries.
2. any of the 20 characters of this script.
3. an inscription in this script. oghamist, ogamist , n.
onomancy, onomomancy
1. the practice of writing on both sides of the object used as a surface, as papyrus or stone.
2. the writing done in this fashion. opisthography , n.
paleography, palaeography
1. ancient forms of writing, as in inscriptions, documents, and manuscripts.
2. the study of ancient writings, including decipherment, translation, and determination of age and date. paleographer, palaeographer , n. paleographic, palaeographic , adj.
a flourish or other embellishment made after a signature, either as idiosyncrasy or to protect against forgery.
1. the art or skill of handwriting or writing with a pen.
2. a particular persons manner or characteristic style of handwriting.
a symbol or character, as in shorthand, that represents a word, syllable, or sound.
1. any system of phonetic shorthand, as that of Pitman.
2. phonetic spelling, writing, or shorthand. phonographer, phonographist , n. phonographic , adj.
a character or symbol, as in shorthand, that represents a phrase. Cf. phraseograph .
a phrase that can be represented by a phraseogram. Cf. phraseogram .
the use of pictorial symbols to communicate; picture writing with symbols that may be either ideographic or phonetic in function. pictograph , n. pictographic , adj.
the knowledge of runes and their interpretation; skill or expertise with runes.
the study of runes and runic writing. runologist , n. runological , adj.
an instrument for writing when unable to see.
1. illegible handwriting.
2. the work of an inferior or untalented author.
a mania for writing
Rare. handwriting, especially a particular style of handwriting such as that of a particular person or period.
the art and practice of the scrivener or copyist. scrivener , n.
the use of symbols other than letters in writing. sematographic , adj.
1. a system of symbolic notation. Also semiography . semeiographic, semeiographical , adj.
Rare. the art of writing and deciphering cuneiform characters. sphenographer, sphenographist , n. sphenographic , adj.
1. the practice of chiseling commemorative inscriptions in pillars, tablets, and stelae.
2. any inscription so done. stelographic , adj.
the art of writing in shorthand. stenographer, stenographist , n. stenographic, stenographical , adj.
a phonographic shorthand in which alphabetic letters, produced by hand or a special machine, are used to represent words and phrases. stenotypist , n. stenotypic , adj.
the art of drawing, writing, or engraving with a stylus or similar instrument. stylographic, stylographical , adj.
1. a table of syllables, as might be used for teaching a language.
2. a system of characters or symbols representing syllables instead of individual sounds. Also syllabarium.
1. the use of characters in writing that represent syllables rather than individual sounds, as in the Cherokee syllabary.
2. a division of a word into syllables.
1. the ancient Greek and Roman shorthand systems.
2. cursive writing. tachygrapher, tachygraphist , n. tachygraphic, tachygraphical , adj.
the transmission of writing or drawing such that the movements of the receiving pen copy those of the transmitting pen or pencil, yielding a facsimile reproduction at the receiving end. telautograph , n. telautographic , adj.
a form of large, rounded script found in Latin and Greek manuscripts from the 3rd or 4th century until the 10th century. uncial , adj.


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Clay Tokens. It is widely, though not universally, accepted that the origins of writing in Mesopotamia lie in the use throughout the ancient Near East since the eighth millennium b.c.e. of small clay tokens used for counting. These counters were modeled from pieces of clay that were pinched between the fingers into simple geometric shapes: spheres, discs, cones, tetrahedrons, and rods. The tokens might be further modified by the use of incised lines, notches, punches, and appliqué pellets. It is believed that each distinct kind of token represented one unit, or some aggregate number of units, of some discrete entity in the Neolithic Near Eastern economy, for instance a sheep or goat, a loaf of bread, or a jar of barley or oil. Accounts were apparently maintained by placing one counter for each object, or each aggregate number of objects, in a leather or cloth bag that was tied with string. The string was secured by enclosing the knot within a piece of clay onto which a stamp seal, representing the authority of the accountant or another responsible party, might be impressed. After some four thousand years of use, a new type of token—the “complex token”—with a much wider variety of shapes and surface markings, appeared alongside the older plain tokens at Uruk and other culturally related sites, including Habuba Kabira (an Uruk colony in Syria) and Susa in southwest Iran. The appearance of the complex tokens more or less coincided with the monumental expansion of the E-ana temple, dedicated to the goddess Inana, at Uruk during its transformation into a city proper. Toward the end of the first half of the fourth millennium b.c.e., a new means of securing the tokens representing a given account appeared; the counters were enclosed within a clay envelope, a hollow clay ball over whose outer surface a cylinder seal was rolled. Occasionally, the outer sealed surface of an envelope was also marked with an impression of each token placed within the envelope, allowing the viewer to see the contents of the envelope without having to break it open. This act may be taken as the first step in the transformation of a three-dimensional token into a two-dimensional graphic symbol; that is, writing.

Clay Tablets. Beginning about the middle of the fourth millennium b.c.e. there appeared at sites along the major trade routes in Mesopotamia, Syria, and Iran small solid rectangular clay tablets. These tablets, about the size of the palm of a hand, bear on their slightly rounded surfaces cylinder-seal impressions and a limited repertoire of impressed signs that can be traced to token prototypes. In addition, the tablets bear ideograms, drawings incised

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with a sharp stylus and graphically depicting some of the complex tokens and perhaps the personal name of the proprietor. The incised drawings rapidly gave way to more-abstract symbols made by impressing into the clay the tip of a wedge-shaped stylus, producing the first proto-cuneiform tablets. (Cuneiform means “wedge-shaped.”) Whether this step was the last in a series of evolutionary changes in an ever-increasingly complex accounting and bookkeeping system, or whether it represents an entirely new technology, invented as a system, remains to be determined. Clay tablets remained the preferred writing medium for the cuneiform system throughout its almost 3,500 years of use. Through much of that time period, cuneiform inscriptions were also incised on stone and metal surfaces, and—beginning in the middle of the second millennium b.c.e.—on wax-covered writing boards that could be “erased” and re-used.

Cuneiform. The signs on the earliest proto-cuneiform tablets are ideograms or logograms; that is, they are graphic symbols that represent nouns, a few basic adjectives, and perhaps some verbs for specific administrative actions; they do not represent grammatical elements, nor do they represent the sound of a word. Thus, the tablets can be “read”—that is, understood—by anyone initiated in the meanings of the signs, regardless of what language or languages that person speaks. Nonetheless, most scholars agree that the proto-cuneiform scribes spoke Sumerian. Because of gaps in the archaeological record, the precise steps in the path to recording natural language cannot be fully traced; nonetheless, by the middle of the third millennium b.c.e. cuneiform writing was becoming sufficiently flexible to capture spoken language, Sumerian first, and soon Akkadian, Eblaite, and Human. The cuneiform writing system is a word-syllabic system in which a sign may represent either a whole word (logogram) or an individual syllable (syllabogram) within a word. Certain signs may also serve as determinatives, visual markers placed either before or after a given word, whether written logographically or syllabically, that serve to classify the word in question, such as a woman’s name, an object made of wood, or a species offish. Initially, the signs were arranged in rectangular cases that were read horizontally from right to left. In the earliest stages, the signs within each case were drawn randomly. In an innovation introduced during the reign of Eanatum of Lagash (circa 2500 b.c.e.), scribes began to write the signs in vertical columns within the cases in the order in which they were to be read and vocalized. Toward the middle of the second millennium b.c.e., the direction of reading and writing, together with the orientation of signs, was rotated ninety degrees counterclockwise so that the signs were read in horizontal rows from left to right. The Sumerian-Akkadian repertoire of signs proved sufficiently flexible to be used in rendering several Anatolian languages;

Hurrian and Urartian; Iranian Elamite; as well as, on occasion, Aramaic. In the latter half of the second millennium b.c.e., the scribes at Ugarit in north Syria devised a completely new inventory of thirty cuneiform signs that were analogues to the Old Canaanite aleph-beth. Toward the end of the sixth century, the Persians devised a new cuneiform syllabary to render the Old Persian language in their royal inscriptions. Both the Ugaritic and Persian innovations proved transitory, but traditional cuneiform writing continued to be taught at a few Babylonian temple schools into the early centuries of the Common Era (C.E.).

Proto-Elamite. At the end of the fourth millennium b.c.e., the indigenous people of Susa in Khuzestan in southwestern Iran developed a writing system, apparently modeled on the proto-cuneiform system. Examples of proto-Elamite writing have been found distributed across the Iranian plateau. The signs appear to be logograms and numerals. Toward the end of the third millennium b.c.e., the complex script was simplified. Both forms of the script have so far eluded decipherment. The proto-Elamite script was abandoned and replaced by standard Akkadian cuneiform at the very beginning of the second millennium b.c.e.

The Aleph-Beth. The twenty-two-character West Semitic aleph-beth writing system appears to have developed among the Canaanites of the Levant during the last centuries of the second millennium b.c.e. Initially flexible in the orientation of its writing—like Egyptian hieroglyphs, from which is it thought to derive—the system eventually stabilized on being read from right to left. In its simplest form—as, for example, it was used by the Phoenicians—the graphemes, or signs, represent just the consonants, and the reader had to supply the vowels from context. Other users of the script, under specific conditions, used as many as four of the graphemes to represent certain long vowels; modern scholars call graphemes used in this way matres lectionis, “mothers of reading.” The Aramaic form of the script, written from right to left, was brought into Mesopotamia during the early centuries of the first millennium b.c.e. by the Aramaeans of north Syria, who were dispersed across Mesopotamia as a result of the Assyrian policy of mass deportation of captive peoples. Wall reliefs from eighth and seventh century b.c.e. Neo-Assyrian palaces clearly depict scribes writing with pen and ink on papyrus or prepared animal skins alongside traditional cuneiform scribes with stylus and clay tablet, or wax-covered writing board, in hand. Aramaic dockets (summary labels) appear penned or incised on cuneiform archival tablets throughout the latter half of the first millennium b.c.e. Examples of another aleph-beth, the South Arabic, dating from approximately the seventh century b.c.e., have been found in Mesopotamia at Ur and Nippur. Apparently an independent offshoot of the original proto-Canaanite script, the South Arabic script has twenty-nine letters and remained flexible with regard to the direction of writing, being written from left to right, right to left, and boustrophedon (Greek for “as the ox plows”).

The Alphabet. The Greek alphabet, the first true alphabet with individual characters for consonants and all vowels, was developed from the West Semitic aleph-beth during the eighth century b.c.e. Although initially flexible in the orientation of its writing, the system stabilized at being read from left to right—the opposite of the aleph-beth. The Greek alphabet was brought into Mesopotamia in the wake of the conquests of Alexander III (the Great) of Macedon in 333-331 b.c.e. and the consequent spread of Hellenic culture and the Greek language.

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Hieroglyphics. Although objects with Egyptian hieroglyphics are known from excavations in Syria, the Egyptian writing system appears not to have had any impact in Mesopotamia. In fact, it is often argued that the Egyptian system was in some way modeled on the Mesopotamian, perhaps as a result of contacts made during the so-called periods of Uruk expansion in the latter half of the fourth millennium b.c.e. In Anatolia, Hittite, or more properly Luwian, hieroglyphics came into use during the second half of the second millennium b.c.e. The system survived the fall of the Hittite empire and continued in use during the early first millennium b.c.e. in southern Anatolia and north Syria until the Neo-Assyrian conquests of the ninth and eighth centuries b.c.e. In the eighth and seventh centuries b.c.e., the Assyrians themselves appear to have experimented briefly with hieroglyphics for certain royal inscriptions.


Peter T. Daniels and William Bright, eds., The World’s Writing Systems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Irving L. Finkel and Julian E. Reade, “Assyrian Hieroglyphs,” Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Archeologie, 86 (1996): 244-268.

Piotr Michalowski, “The Earliest Scholastic Tradition,” Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus, edited by Joan Aruz with Ronald Wallenfels (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003), pp. 451-456.

Joseph Naveh, Early History of the Alphabet: An Introduction to West Semitic Epigraphy and Palaeography (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University / Leiden: Brill, 1982).

Hans J. Nissen, Peter Damerow, and Robert K. Englund, Archaic Bookkeeping: Writing and Techniques of Economic Administration in the Ancient Near East, translated by Paul Larsen (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

Michael Roaf and Annette Zgoll, “Assyrian Astroglyphs: Lord Aberdeen’s Black Stone and the Prisms of Esarhaddon,” Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Archeologie, 91 (2001): 264-295.

Benjamin Sass, The Genesis of the Alphabet and its Development in the Second Millennium B.C., Ägypten und Altes Testament, 13 (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1988).

Denise Schmandt-Besserat, From Counting to Cuneiform, volume 1 of Before Writing, 2 volumes (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992).


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Letters . Epistolography simply means “letter writing.” The Egyptians began to send one another letters almost as soon as they learned to write. Like modern letters, Egyptian ones had certain well-defined, regular features that anyone sitting down to write would employ automatically. A large number of letters from ancient Egypt are extant—some personal, some for business, and some even written to gods or to the dead! Scholars also have several “model letters,” examples that may have been based on real letters that had at one time been exchanged between real people but were preserved and given to scribal trainees as models on which to base their own letters. It should be remembered that few people, even those who could read and write, would have written their own letters. Rather, it was normal to go to a scribe, a professional writer, who would compose letters for pay.

Structure of Egyptian Letters . Egyptian epistolography became more complex through history. Early Egyptian letters simply begin with a date and a statement of the letter writer’s name and then go straight into the matter at hand. By the Middle Kingdom, letters are prefaced with various greetings, both to the recipient and to mutual friends. In the New Kingdom, this style becomes more elaborate still, with more-flowery greetings and lists of gods whose blessings the writer wishes to invoke on his behalf and that of the


There were times when a person was so outraged at the stupidity of another that he could not prevent himself from writing a hostile, abusive, or sarcastic letter. At least two such letters exist. One of them appears to have been a real letter written by a senior bureaucrat to an inept subordinate, a man who had bungled his duties in organizing shipping for an Egyptian temple. The other is a purely literary composition, written in the form of a letter. Here one scribe lambastes a colleague for his pretensions to the special knowledge required of an Egyptian envoy and attempts to show that his colleague could never survive one day outside of Egypt on a real diplomatic mission. The letter is extremely sarcastic and employs all sorts of rare words and expressions, many based on Semitic languages that an Egyptian envoy would be expected to know if he were to undertake a mission in Palestine. Here are two excerpts from these letters, first the real letter (P Anastasi VIII), and then the fictional letter (p. Anastasi I) In the excerpt from P Anastasi VIII, the writer is outraged that his subordinate has been so irresponsible as to let a ship travel from one port to another with a full crew but no cargo. The result was the shipowner was forced to pay for the operation of the ship without obtaining any benefit. The author uses a picturesque metaphor that appears to be an obscenity or vulgarity. The expression is unclear but it may imply that in making this mistake, the foolish scribe has smeared offal—the putrid remains of a dismembered, rotting carcass—all over himself. The meaning is probably something like the English expression “you’ve stepped in it”.

Something else—you have smeared offal (?) (on yourself); you have smeared yourself well! Is it true that what you did was to send the cattle-transport boat that used to carry wool with the boat-captain Sety to Heliopolis empty, with a crew of six men? Really, these people are now your responsibility!

In Papyrus Anastasi I, the scribe Hori sends a sarcastic and elaborate letter to a colleague. This text was popular as a school text. There are at least eighty ostraca with portions of the text known. Hori upbraids the recipient of his letter for his lack of the multitudes of types of knowledge that an expert scribe was supposed to possess, including, in this extract, knowledge of the geography of remote areas of Syria-Palestine. The recipient had earlier written to Hori claiming to have just such knowledge; Hori demanded that he prove it.

I will mention to you another difficulty: “The Pass of Hornets” (a route to Tyre in Lebanon). You will say that it burns more than a hornet’s sting. How miserable he is, a warrior! Come and put me on the road heading south to the region of Acco. Where does the route to Achshaph originate? Next to which city? Please inform me about the mountain of User. What is its summit like? Where does the mountain of Shechem rise? Who can conquer it? How does the warrior march to get to Hazor? What is its river like? Put me on the highway to Hamath, Dagel, and Dagal~El, the promenade of every warrior. Please instruct me about the soldier’s route and let me visit Yan. If someone is traveling to Adumim, in which direction should he head? Do not falter in your teaching—guide us to know these places!

Source: Edward F. Wente, ed., Letters From Ancient Egypt, edited by Edmund S. Meltzer (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990), pp. 98–110.

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recipient. As a general rule, the proper style for writing letters was one of the most important elements of a young scribe’s training, and many model letters have been discovered that were products of the educational process. Some of these letters are near-verbatim copies of real letters that the teacher may have composed or received himself, but others are elaborate exercises in rhetorical skill that teach not only basic letter-writing form but also obscure words and grammatical constructions that an advanced scribe was expected to be familiar with.


Abd el-Mohsen Bakir, Egyptian Epistolography from the Eighteenth to the Twenty-First Dynasty (Cairo: Institut français d’archeologie orientale, 1970).

Edward F. Wente, Late Ramesside Letters (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967).

Wente, ed., Letters From Ancient Egypt, edited by Edmund S. Meltzer (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990).


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writ·ing / ˈrīting/ • n. 1. the activity or skill of marking coherent words on paper and composing text: parents want schools to concentrate on reading, writing, and arithmetic. ∎  the activity or occupation of composing text for publication: she made a decent living from writing.2. written work, esp. with regard to its style or quality: the writing is straightforward and accessible. ∎  (writings) books, stories, articles, or other written works: he was introduced to the writings of Gertrude Stein. ∎  (the Writings) the Hagiographa.3. a sequence of letters, words, or symbols marked on paper or some other surface: a leather product with gold writing on it. ∎  handwriting: his writing looked crabbed.PHRASES: in writing in written form, esp. as proof of an agreement or grievance: he asked them to put their complaints in writing.the writing (or handwriting) is on the wall there are clear signs that something unpleasant or unwelcome is going to happen: the writing was on the wall for the old system.


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The art of calligraphy—elegant handwriting or lettering—evolved during the Renaissance. As humanists* stressed clarity and beauty in writing, they moved away from the cramped lettering of the Middle Ages. Instead, they looked toward ancient models of writing to create new styles of penmanship that were neater and clearer.

Many Renaissance scholars found medieval* calligraphy difficult to read. Two Italian humanists, Coluccio Salutati and Petrarch, criticized the unclear handwriting of most medieval scribes*. Humanists wanted a new, clear form of writing that would express the ideals of their movement. Two followers of Salutati, Poggio Bracciolini and Niccolò Niccoli, helped create a well-defined humanist script.

Poggio developed a style of calligraphy known as humanist round hand or humanist book script. Compared to the script of the Middle Ages, the round hand employed more uniform spacing between words, used fewer abbreviations, and distinguished more clearly between different letters. Poggio's round hand had a strong influence on later styles of writing. After the invention of the printing press in the 1450s, his script became one of the most widely used types and the basis for typefaces used today.

Niccoli learned Poggio's writing and used it to create his own style, known as cursive. This form of writing, in which the letters connect and have rounded angles, became the basis for modern italic script. Both styles of humanist calligraphy spread gradually throughout Italy and the rest of Europe. They had a major influence on the development of the writing style used in European manuscripts.

(See alsoIllumination. )

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

* scribe

person who copies manuscripts


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writing Process or result of making a visual record for the purpose of communication by using symbols to represent the sounds or words of a language. Writing systems fall into the following categories: ideographic (using signs or symbols that represent concepts or ideas directly rather than the sound of words for them); pictographic (in which a picture or sign represents the meaning of a word or phrase); syllabic (in which signs represent groups of consonants and vowels); and alphabetic (in which symbols stand for individual speech sounds or certain combinations of sounds). The Chinese dialects have long made use of ideographic symbols. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and cuneiform scripts from Mesopotamia and other regions of the ancient Middle East are originally pictographic, although later examples are syllabic. The linear scripts of ancient Crete and Greece are syllabic, as is the modern Japanese Katakana. The Phoenicians were the first to use a phonetic system, with an alphabet of signs representing speech sounds. The Greek and Roman alphabets in use for most modern non-Asiatic languages descend from the Phoenician alphabet.