How Ancient Writing Began… and Ended

As early civilizations developed, societies became more complicated. Record keeping and communication demanded something beyond symbols and pictures to represent the spoken word. This gallery explores the early writing systems of four ancient civilizations: Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Mesoamerica. Here you’ll also learn about the Rosetta Stone, the 19th-century discovery that gave scholars the key that unlocked the language of ancient Egypt.


Why were writing systems developed?

  • Communication – Sounds and speech needed to be visually represented.
  • Correspondence – There was a desire to send notes, letters, and instructions.
  • Recording – Bookkeeping tasks became important for counting crops, paying workers’ rations, and collecting taxes.
  • Preservation – Personal stories, rituals, religious texts, hymns, literature, and history all needed to be recorded.


Why did some writing systems disappear?

  • Change – Corresponding cultures died out or were absorbed by others.
  • Innovation – Newer, simpler systems replaced older systems.
  • Conquest – Invaders or new rulers imposed their own writing systems.
  • New Beginnings – New ways of writing developed with new belief systems.

Learn more about Ancient writing systems from different cultures.

  1. How Ancient Writing Began… and Ended
  2. Say What? China
  3. Say What? Egypt
  4. Say What? Mesoamerica
  5. Say What? Mesopotamia
  6. Say What? The Rosetta Stone
  7. Say What? Object Slideshow