Origins of writing make for engaging new exhibition at Oriental Institute Museum

A new exhibition at the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago will show visitors how scribes in the ancient Middle East invented writing, thus transforming prehistoric cultures into civilizations.

Writing is one of humankind's greatest achievements. It took a variety of forms, many of which are displayed in the exhibition, "Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond," which runs from Sept. 28 to March 6 at the museum, located at 1155 E. 58th St.

"In the eyes of many, writing represents a defining quality of civilization," said exhibit curator Christopher Woods, associate professor at the Oriental Institute. "There are four instances and places in human history when writing was invented from scratch - in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and Mesoamerica - without previous exposure to or knowledge of writing. It appears likely that all other writing systems evolved from the four systems we have in our exhibition."

The new exhibit will include engaging videos and other interactive features, including a computer station allowing museum guests to send e-postcards written in ancient languages.

Among the items on display will be the earliest cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), dating to about 3200 BC. On loan from the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin, they have never before been exhibited in the United States. The pictographic signs, a precursor to writing, are part of a writing system that developed into cuneiform, a wedge-shaped script that was incised on clay tablets. Examples of that form of writing also will be exhibited.

About the time the Mesopotamians were learning to write, ancient Egyptians were developing their own system. On display will be early Egyptian writing, which includes tags and labels from the tombs of the first kings (about 3320 BC), as well as hieroglyphic writing and other scripts from the Nile Valley.

The exhibition also will display examples of other ancient writing, which like cuneiform and hieroglyphs, developed independently. Chinese writing, which emerged about 1200 BC, will be shown on oracle bones that were used in rituals to guide the actions of the emperors. A miniature "altar" incised with an image of a mummy bundle and Mayan hieroglyphs from the seventh-century AD will show how early Mesoamericans wrote.

Visitors also will learn the most recent theories about the origins of the alphabet. Long believed to have been invented in Phoenicia about 1000 BC, the earliest alphabetic texts are now those found in the Sinai. This earliest alphabet was derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs as early as 1800 BC, more than 500 years earlier than had been known. Examples of early alphabetic texts in Proto-Sinaitic, Old South Arabian and Hebrew are included in the exhibit.

Oriental Institute Director Gil Stein said, "Visitors to our exhibit will be able to compare the parallel pathways by which writing came into being. Seeing examples of early writing from these four areas together in one place, you can't fail to be impressed by the wonder of human creativity in these independent inventions that fundamentally transformed the very nature of civilization."

"It has been 25 years since we've had a comparable exhibit in the United States on the origins of writing, and our understanding and interpretation of the earliest writing has advanced considerably since then," added Geoff Emberling, chief curator of the Oriental Institute Museum.

A computer kiosk will include videos and interactive presentations that enhance the exhibit. One video will show visitors how ancient scribes wrote cuneiform on clay tablets and painted hieroglyphs on papyrus.

Interactive presentations will show how Oriental Institute scholars have been the first to use CT scans to reveal the contents of sealed clay "token balls," which are thought to be a precursor of Mesopotamian writing. Another interactive component will demonstrate how the newest photographic techniques allow previously illegible texts to be read. Others will show how ancient cuneiform signs changed over time, and how early letters gradually evolved into the letters of our Latin alphabet.

An interactive portion of the exhibition will allow visitors to compare writing systems and write their name and simple sentences in various scripts. From a computer station, visitors will be able to send an e-postcard in hieroglyphs or cuneiform.

A fully illustrated catalog edited by Woods will accompany the exhibit, which is supported by a grant from Exelon Corp., the Women's Board of the University of Chicago and private donors.

The museum is open Tuesday and Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. Suggested donation for admission is $7 for adults, $4 for children. For additional information, go to