Archaeology and language – writing systems in the archaeological record

Weina Jin


History would not exist without writing. According to Gerd Carling, the amount of knowledge passed down from a society is higher if you have written sources about that culture, compared to non-written sources. She says this is down to the “methodology of linguistics. It’s easier to get certain knowledge about things in the past when you have language[1]”, especially language that survives to this time, though it is constantly evolving.

Most languages have undergone radical change – the development of writing systems means this evolution can be seen in the archaeological record.

One artefact inscribed in an unknown script may be regarded as an indecipherable cypher. Isolated, it may give limited information, but with subsequent discoveries of potentially related physical artefacts, their geographical and social contexts can be revealed.

This article is a shallow introduction of how artefacts from the archaeological record can augment the study of languages and writing.

The formation, types and purposes of writing systems

Full writing systems are said to have originated at least four distinct times across human history (Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and Mesoamerica), though there are also examples where they could have originated but remain undeciphered, such as in the Indus River Valley and Rapa Nui [2].

There are three criteria for a writing system: writing must be complete (have a purpose); it must have symbols that can be inscribed; the symbols must mimic spoken word (so that they can be communicated) [3]. It is generally agreed that the earliest writing systems were pictorial (diagrams represented specific concepts); the other two main categories are syllabic and alphabetical.

Writing may have begun as an alternate way of recording information than parallel systems at the time, but grew to encompass much more [4]. Developed to prevent fraud, parallel systems of recording or identifying information, for example, seals and pottery marks in Ancient Egypt, convey responsibility and ownership[4]. Trade routes can be worked out from the geographical distribution of seals in the archaeological record [4].

The discovery of writing systems involved in ancient accounting began with correspondence counting in the Near East, with 5000-year-old tablets [5]. To record transactions, small clay tokens shaped like the product involved were used to verify two amounts were the same without the need for a system of denoting numbers. For example, copies of a small jar shaped token would be used to count jars [5], then sealed in a spherical clay envelope [4]. However, since it was not possible to see how many tokens were inside without breaking the envelope, scribes imprinted on the outside how many tokens were inside.

It is said that the realisation that one only needed the outside imprint, which could be inscribed using a stylus, was what led to the formation of the Sumerian Cuneiform script [4]. This theory had not been considered before because the Cuneiform characters did not look like anything; Denise Schmandt-Besserat discovered this by noticing some Cuneiform on the tablets looked similar to some of the token shapes [5] (though Bywater’s thesis argues Schmandt-Besserat’s claims are not as solid [4], with the archaeological evidence pointing it may even be the other way around, or applying to a different form of Cuneiform).

Bywater’s thesis also discusses whether Cuneiform and hieroglyphs may or may not have influenced each other as writing systems – it is concluded that the purpose of writing is linked to the “display, hierarchy and ideology” of the society at the time and that while modern researchers have more insight, (“one must be familiar with several systems and understand the connection between them before understanding the idea of ‘writing’ [4]”), society back then may not have conceptually linked these two systems, regarding them as completely different. [4]

Writing as a creative tool?

While recording is one of the purposes of writing, another purpose of writing is as a creative tool. Bywater’s thesis mentions how in an alphabetic script, you can only write something one way (ignoring handwriting, etc). But “this is not the case for a script that uses syllabic signs and logograms such as cuneiform”, where the selection of signs and sign groups, as well as logograms, determinatives and rebus is an active choice made by the writer[4]. (This can also be applied to modern languages like Japanese which uses varying kana and kanji to denote levels of respect, the profile of the writer and reader, as well as other syllabic and pictorial languages.)

Bywater also argues that writing and art are not separated as some would suggest – writing systems must convey some information different to parallel systems for recording like tokens, otherwise it would not have developed.

This remains true: “there were always choices to be made in how the text was presented, and the tablet was shaped and sized. [4]” – the author says this would suggest “to the ancient Mesopotamians, representational designs were sometimes thought to be a better medium through which to express ideas than writing”. One example that is given is the discovery of some tablets likely to have been used by trainee scribes in a school setting, containing possible notes or teaching aids during an oral lesson, that may have been used to convey information better than the written word. [4]

For pictorial languages, the presentation of glyphs can convey meaning that cannot be spoken. “One way in which hieroglyphs are used as a creative tool is by giving the signs ‘life’ and the ability to perform actions.”[4]

Figure 1: Hieroglyphs from the Temple of Ramesses III, Medinet Habu, Egypt

As well as being used as figurative representation, “we also often find scenes in which the pictorial elements are incorporated into the writing”. Hieroglyphs only record the consonants, and ‘determinatives’ are used to help the reader fill in the blanks by presenting the context in which the order of consonants are meant to be understood.

Bywater’s thesis also argues that early writers took symbols they were already familiar with, such as tokens, and repurposed them into script, which would become more specific and standardised, and also include a phonetic element.[4]

The changes in writing systems and our understanding of them

Unfortunately, pictorial languages are less adaptable, more time-consuming to write, and using them it is harder to convey specific, uncommon details [6]. So languages that are more adaptable, (e.g. Japanese has the katakana syllabary specifically used for writing loan words), or can use characters to mean different things, are more widely used. Cuneiform was one of the first to use written words to represent sounds instead of meaning, and outlasted the language it was made to record (Sumerian) by almost three centuries [6]. The most recently dated document was an astronomical text from 75 AD [2].

The Rebus Principle makes writing easier by swapping in a homonym that was easier to represent than an abstract concept, like a drawing of an “eye” for “I”[7]. However, most pictorial scripts also became “less iconic and more stylised” over time, likely due to efficiency, replacing curved lines with straighter ones. This applied to both Cuneiform and Chinese characters, which both involve some phonetic component [7].

The Rosetta Stone was the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs as it allowed researchers to compare a message in hieroglyphs to the equivalent in Ancient Greek. It was thought that hieroglyphs mainly represented concepts, but it turned out they also had a phonetic component. The key to discovering the pronunciation fell to the fact that foreign proper names had to be pronounced the same way as in the original language. [8]

Some scripts last longer than others – of the first four, scripts from Mesopotamia, Egypt and Mesoamerica eventually died out, but Chinese script has survived for 3000 years [6] and has formed the basis of writing systems in Japan, which adopted kana syllabaries, and Korea, which developed hangul. When text written by a Cantonese native is read by a Mandarin native, though they use the traditional/simplified versions of the same characters (which can differ greatly) the spoken forms are very different (informal register is developing especially fast, especially over SNS) [9].

How they were recorded affected their discovery: survival and fakes

Deciphering dead languages has been described to be like cracking a code [1]. Since very little survives, the context is questionable. While knowledge of existing languages can be used as a template, there runs the risk that any inscriptions found may turn out to not be text at all.

Not only the content but also the way text is physically written, is of great interest to both linguists and archaeologists.

“Archaeological decipherment” involves quantitative analysis of ancient texts recovered in archaeological contexts, as well as using social contexts known from archaeological research to interpret the text.

There is also the issue of fakes and forgeries.

One artefact involving all of the above is the Phaistos Disk, which is discussed below.

Deciphering unknown text, with the example of the Phaistos Disk

Figure 2: One side (B) of the Phaistos Disk, New-Palace period (1600-1450 BCE). Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete.

The Phaistos Disk is a fired clay disk found in Crete in 1908 and associated with the Minoan civilisation [10], but not found related to any known script (the ones found in Bronze-Age Crete were hieroglyphic, Linear A and Linear B [11]).

241 instances of 45 distinct glyphs are stamped on both sides, rather than carved [10]. It has been described as “the earliest printed text” [11].

In 2009, the Phaistos Disk was completely undeciphered [10]. Some physical evidence gave speculation about the way it was written – from the overlap, right to left (suggesting this is also how it is read); from the outside spiralling inward as “the signs in the centre are slightly compressed [10]”. There are also what seem to be starting marks [11].

Some linguistic analysis suggests it may have used a syllabic writing system, due to the number of distinct characters – too many to be an alphabet, but too few to be pictographic. It is also possible that it is not writing at all, but a calendar or game. [10]

However, for syllabaries, you would expect “an even distribution of syllables within a given text [12]”, which is not found in the Phaistos Disk. Interpretation as a syllabary would also “surprisingly provide no one-syllable words and only 10% would have two syllables [12]”, so it is suggested the text could be a mix of syllabic and pictographic. [10]

One point of interest is that it “seems to have been fired intentionally [10]”, while other Minoan artefacts were fired accidentally, such as when buildings are burnt down. To shed light on the disk, one writer says “we need to answer the question, “Could the Minoans have chosen to preserve some forms of information permanently and not others?”[10]

Dating could help confirm the answer, but the museum it is held at refuses. There is speculation that it is a fake made by the archaeologist who discovered it [10]; the assumption it is genuine is supported by the discovery of similar, but not exactly matching characters on the Arkalochori Axe [12], displayed at the same museum.

The stamping of glyphs is referred to as movable type and suggests the idea of mass production [11]. Jared Diamond, in his widely cited non-fiction transdisciplinary book Guns, Germs and Steel, even compares the disc to Gutenberg’s printing press, saying it was made at the wrong time in history [14], because Crete at that time had no paper, so there was no use for movable type [13].

That no stamps with these characters have been found gave rise to suggestions the disk may have been a fake [10], but this also could be due to not having advanced enough technology at the time.

Regarding the content, linguist Dr Gareth Owens has claimed 99% of the script is deciphered — “Reading something, however, does not mean understanding [15]” – and has interpreted about 50% of it as of 2018. According to Owens, it is “a hymn to the pregnant goddess and the goddess Aphaea” [16]. though other alternate efforts have suggested a “ court list, an index of religious centres, a letter of greeting, a fertility ritual, and even musical notes [12].

In 2016, a paper was published on a computer-aided translation of the text. [17]

However, the above work all relied on the script being linear and phonetic – analysis of patterns on the disk and positioning of certain glyphs next to others calls into question whether the text is linear. If not one-dimensional, the way it is placed on the disk could affect the meaning. [18] In particular, there may be “relations between signs in adjacent windings of the spiral” – these researchers conclude that the probability that this is coincidental is unconventionally low [19].

Concluding: what about the future?

Regarding studying and deciphering past languages and writing systems

Coding, among other technological advancements, is now being used to help linguistic efforts. An atlas of the geographical spread of language, which would show how similarities cropped up geographically, is being worked on by a team in Sweden. Researchers hope that the mapping of when and where different categories of linguistic concepts arose would allow consistencies over time and space to be seen.[1] The atlas is based on an “extensive database [of words and vocabulary] and presents typological and lexical data of more than 200 ancient and modern languages.” New visualisations to “illustrate borrowability, co-lexification and semantic evolution provide entirely new perspectives [20]” on how language changes[1].

Attempts have also been made to apply statistical physics and machine learning to the Voynich Manuscript, alongside efforts from other disciplines like botany [21].

New information from different disciplines also question past work – Paul Heggarty says that “the traditional methods and findings of historical linguistics are now being challenged by radically different quantitative and ‘evolutionary’ analyses, co-opted from the biological sciences and set to work on language data.[22]”.

Regarding how writing may change in the future

Diagrams have through history been standardised globally in specific fields – musical notation, mathematical symbols, though these are not classed as writing systems [23].

The pen, printing press, typewriter, computer and smartphone all changed the speed, method, availability and perception of writing. Particularly with the latter two, the shapes of characters do not even need to be formed by hand; measured in simple button taps, now one’s competence in typing may overshadow one’s handwriting. Perhaps which words are chosen are even more important when digitally, all handwriting looks the same. (Typed text loses the distinctiveness of handwriting, as font and stylisation can in theory be accessed by all users.)

With the digitalisation of writing, humanity may be returning to easily-accessed pictorial representations to increase the efficiency of communication; emoji [24], GIFs and memes are not yet necessary in formal texts but have a global appeal as they can be recognised and referenced at once. Over SNS, for efficiency words are contracted without regard, and slang used perhaps more than correct speech – ideas like the Simplified Spelling Board have been relegated to the comedy column of the newspaper.

Languages are also constantly borrowing from each other – for example, loan words in Japanese, which are written in the katakana syllabary, and whose dictionary appearances are steadily growing in frequency each year.

Heggarty also says that globalisation is reducing the diversity of languages at a “breakneck” pace [22]. Since digital communication makes it easier than ever to communicate globally, we may see new patterns emerging through the use of internet slang across languages, and word borrowing becoming more even prevalent.

Regarding the ongoing archaeological record of today’s objects

Early writing may have used materials other than stone, metals or papyrus, but only the most durable survive. The storage of Medieval manuscripts was a concern[25] before printing presses gave rise to reproducible books.

Digital archiving is becoming more widespread, from Cloud documents and photos to hard drive backups (except for this hardware, the amount of data stored in physical objects with no digital equivalent is decreasing). Since an exponential flood of new data is being created every minute, data storage, and how to preserve information into the future, is a significant area of research.

The responsibility to preserve knowledge for the future is addressed in many forms – by individuals as well as organisations. In particular, museums make important decisions of how, when and what to preserve (the Rosetta Stone was moved to safety after worries of heavy bombing in 1917, with other “important” objects[26]).

What physical traces and changes will be left for future generations?


  2. British Library. “Where did writing begin?” Last modified 2019.
  3. Fischer, Steven R. A history of reading. London: Reaktion Books, 2019.
  4. Bywater, Mary. “The Impact of Writing: Ancient and Modern Views on the Role of Early Writing Systems Within Society and as a Part of ‘Civilisation’ : Chapter 5: Writing as a Recording System, Writing as a Creative Tool” p135-168. UCL Discovery. Accessed May 6, 2021.
  5. BBC News. “How the world’s first accountants counted on cuneiform.” Last modified 12 June 2017.
  6. Language Insight. “A SHORT HISTORY OF WRITING” Last modified May 3, 2019.
  7. Egyptology Man. “The Rebus Principle”. Last modified February 17, 2011.
  8. Connect Savannah. “How do we know how to pronounce ancient Egyptian?” Last modified July 22, 2017.
  10. Glossographia. “Is the Phaistos disk a phony?” Last modified September 14, 2008.
  11. Ancient World Magazine. “The Phaistos Disc: The earliest “printed” text.” Last modified September 28, 2019.
  12. World History Encyclopedia. “Phaistos Disk”. Last modified June 28, 2012.
  13. Diamond, Jared M. 1999. Guns, germs, and steel: the fates of human societies. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
  14. Joy of Museums. “Phaistos Disc – Famous Mystery of Archaeology”. Last modified 2021.
  15. Greek City Times. ““Phaistos Disc” mystery finally unravelled”. Last modified February 9, 2018.
  16. You Go Culture. “Is it the voice of the “Phaistos Disc” that was heard again?” Last modified 2021.
  17. Revesz, Peter. “A computer-aided translation of the Phaistos Disk”. ResearchGate. Accessed May 6, 2021.
  18. Ancient Origins. “New Research suggests recent phonetic decipherment of the Phaistos Disc is implausible”. Last modified November 18, 2014.
  19. ten Cate, Arie. “Patterns on an ancient artifact: a coincidence?” Statistica Neerlandica Volume 65, Issue 1 p.116-124. Accessed May 6, 2021.
  20. De Gruyter. “The Mouton Atlas of Languages and Cultures Vol. 1” Last modified 2021.
  21. Undark. “The Strange Quest to Crack the Voynich Code” Last modified December 2, 2020.
  22. fifteen eightyfour. “An Interview with Paul Heggarty.” Last modified March 17, 2014.
  23. Discover Magazine. “How Humans Invented Writing — Four Different Times”. Last modified December 19, 2018
  24. Shady Characters. “Emoji, part 9: going beyond”. Last modified November 7, 2019.
  25. History Extra. “Unusual things found in medieval manuscripts”. Last modified March 19, 2018
  26. The British Museum. “Everything you ever wanted to know about the Rosetta Stone” Last modified July 14, 2017.

Figure References

  1. Zero, Jeremy. “Temple of Ramesses III, Medinet Habu, Egypt.” Unsplash. Last modified March 8, 2021.
  1. Cartwright, Mark. “Phaistos Disk (Side B).” World History Encyclopedia. Last modified April 26, 2012.

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