Learning Activity 1:
|Inscription of Darius in Old Persian, Elamite and Akkadian, on a cliffside at Behistun, Iran. (c. Wojtek Buss)
The Impact of Writing on Society
- Ask students what they know about ancient texts and myths. Consider these questions, although at this point students may not have enough information to answer them:
- What are some of the ancient texts or myths you have studied?
- What types of stories do they tell? Are they historic? Religious?
- Can they be considered an accurate record of events?
- What are some of the similarities and differences among the myths and stories you have read?
- Explain to the class that they will be learning about the development of writing and its impact on civilization. As an introduction to the lesson, they are going to play the children's game "Telephone." You will whisper information in the ear of the first student, who is supposed to whisper the same information to the next student, etc. Students may not repeat the information after they have whispered it. They are to simply pass on whatever they have heard to the next student. The last student repeats the information to the class. The content of the message can pertain to a historical event, i.e., "Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939 officially began World War II." Or, for younger students it may take the form of a direction, i.e., "The last person to get this message should walk to my desk, find the chalk and write their name on the board." You should make note of the time it takes for the message to go around, and although it rarely completes a cycle intact, it is fine if it does.
- Tell the students that you have a picture of a historical event that you are now going to pass around (you should prepare this prior to class). The picture can be of anything - a war or a specific battle, a presidential event, etc - but the picture should contain no words, making it difficult to determine exactly what the image is. Pass this paper around, and ask students what they think it is. Once the whole class has seen the picture and taken a guess, discuss how symbols and pictures can mean different things for different people and in different contexts, making it difficult to determine what someone is trying to convey.
- Go through the same process except this time pass around a note that you have prepared with written words and instruct last person who gets the note to read it aloud. Again, make note of the time it takes to complete this activity.
- Discuss the differences in the three procedures. (clarity, time, ease, reliability, etc.)
Use the last 5 minutes of the class to frame the ideas of the lesson: an examination of the impact of writing on civilization. Ask students to think about how their lives would be different without written communication.
Students will now learn about the Mesopotamian culture in which writing was born and the ways in which writing significantly affected all spheres of society.
- Show students the Atlas, 3100 BCE. Go to the Near East and click twice on Sumer. Explain that this is the time period and location in which the first writing systems developed. Click on the city of Erech (also known as Uruk) and read the text. Tell students that they will read a famous ancient text about a king from this city in a future class. If there are multiple computers, have students explore the other ancient Sumerian cities (Ur, Lagash, Nippur, Kish, Sippar, Shuruppak, and Eridu) on their own. If not, you may click on them and read the accompanying texts as a class. (Note: If students will be doing this activity independently or in small groups, distribute the handout
Atlas, 3100 BCE (PDF), which includes these instructions.)
Questions for discussion:
- What do we know about ancient Sumerian civilization?
- What do you think was important to their society?
- Tell students that they will now find out how writing came to be. Distribute the handout Writing (PDF) to the class. Show the video segment Writing (be sure to stop when "Gods and Kings" begins). Once it ends, click on "Explore Topic" and show the multimedia presentation.
Ask students to consider and jot down notes on the following questions from the handout as they watch the video and multimedia presentation:
- What aspect of society did the earliest writing focus on?
- Explain how cuneiform signs eventually took on additional meanings as well as sounds and syllables within the Sumerian language.
- At the end of the multimedia presentation, explore the four sub-topics:
Signs, Scribes, Envelopes, and International Writing. Students may do this independently, in small groups, or it may be a class activity. The following can also be found on the Writing (PDF) handout:
SIGNS: Have students view the cuneiform signs and their early pictographic ancestors. Questions for students:
- Would you be able to tell what these pictographs (top line) symbolize if the English translation wasn't given?
- Why do you think the pictographs gradually changed to become more abstract symbols?
SCRIBES, ENVELOPES, INTERNATIONAL WRITING: If possible, have students explore these sub-sections individually or in small groups. After all students have finished viewing the segments, pose the following question to the class:
- How does the ability to preserve and transmit information impact on a society's scientific, artistic, political, and economic spheres?
- What purpose did scribes serve in Sumerian society?
- Show students how to access the historical document A Sumerian School.
Distribute the Sumerian School (PDF) handout, which asks students to consider:
- How does this document demonstrate the value that the ancient Sumerians placed on the knowledge of written language? Why was this knowledge so important?
- Show students the multimedia presentation Canaanite Civilization. Pause the segment just after the narrator says "Asia Minor." Point out the locations of Ur (Sumer), Canaan, and Egypt. Ask students if they can see how the geographical location of Canaan may have caused it to become the location where various Mesopotamian cultures blended.
- Continue the Canaanite Civilization presentation, and view the sub-topic
The Alphabet after the presentation. After reading the text, point out how, much like in the development of cuneiform, pictographs gradually changed to become more abstract symbols. Also note the similarity of the letters of the modern English alphabet to Canaanite, early Greek, and early Monumental Latin.
Note to Judaic studies or Hebrew teachers:
You may want to point out the similarities of the early Canaanite letter names and meanings to modern Hebrew letter names and the meanings of words derived from those letters.
Additional Activity: Deciphering Ancient Writing
For additional information regarding the discovery of the Behistun inscription (the inscription in the Zagros mountains that led to the decipherment of cuneiform, mentioned in International Writing) and the decipherment of cuneiform, consult the following websites:
Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson
If you would like to present further on the Rosetta Stone as well, the following may be used:
Probably the most famous of all pictorial writing systems, Egyptian hieroglyphics were a mystery to scholars for hundreds of years. Explain how the Rosetta Stone became the most famous "decoding sheet" by deciphering the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The stone, discovered in 1799 is on display at the British Museum in London. Its message is written in Hieroglyphics, Demotic (the ancient Egyptian written language employed for daily use), and Greek. It is through the Greek and Demotic writing that Jean-François Champollion was able to unlock the mystery of Egyptian Hieroglyphs.
For more information, direct your students to the following internet sites about the Rosetta Stone:
The Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta Stone: Valuable key to the decipherment of hieroglyphs
Students will create their own pictorial writing system in order to further explore how a codified system of symbols can be used as a method of communication. Note: This activity calls for clay and clay tools, but you may opt to use paper and pencil instead.
- 1. Split the students into groups. Give each group a short section of a Mesopotamian text found in HERITAGE (i.e. a few lines from The Ox that Gored or Law and Order Come from the Gods). Give all groups the same selection of text, and do not tell the students that they all have the same text - it will demonstrate even further how symbols can have different meanings for different people. You may also opt to give each group a different selection of text.
- 2. Give each group enough clay to be able to roll out a rectangle of about 8 x
10 x 1. Exact measurements are not important. Gray clay looks more historically authentic, but any kind of modeling compound can be substituted (or you may have students use only pen and paper for this exercise).
- 3. Explain to the class that each group is to create a pictorial writing system on paper, and then use that system to rewrite the text they've been given, either on the clay or with pencil and paper only. The pictographs from which cuneiform is derived can be used as an example, or students may devise symbols of their own (you may want to return to the sub-topic Signs, which occurs after the multimedia presentation Writing). The symbols may represent letters, a combination of letters, or ideas. Students also need to create a decoding key for their writing system.
- 4. Once the groups have completed their task, have them pass their newly written texts to the other groups, and have each group try to decipher the "ancient writing."
- 5. Once students have finished attempting to translate, inform them that they each received the same text, and note how different groups used different symbols to represent the same ideas, words, or letters. This will demonstrate the importance of a codified writing system for a society. If the groups received different selections of text, have them go around the room and share their "translations" and how they came to their conclusions.
- 6. Have each group explain why they chose the symbols they did, and compare the symbols used by the different groups.
- 7. Clay tablets and their decoding keys can also be displayed so other classes and observers can have fun learning and translating the different writing systems.
Note to teachers: If students want more inspiration for the clay activity they should watch the multimedia presentation Voices of Babylon and navigate to four authentic letters found on tablets.
Additional Activity: Reporting Today's News
You can begin a discussion asking how we get our information now that clay tablets are obsolete. You may want to extend your discussion to how electronic media differ from written sources such as daily newspapers, weekly magazines, and monthly journals. Is one medium more reliable, more engaging, more accessible? Ask your students what their criteria are for choosing the manner in which they get their news. How does having an established writing system affect a society's knowledge of current events?
For additional web research:
The History of Writing
A brief look at the beginning of written expression from cave painting to the Phoenician alphabet.