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Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity

Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity

Professor Marc Zender
Ph.D., University of Calgary
Course No.  2241
Course No.  2241
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Can you imagine the world—or your life—without writing? From emails to street signs and newspapers to novels, the written word is so ever-present that we rarely stop to consider how it came to be.

Yet at just over 5,000 years old, writing is actually a relatively recent invention. It has become so central to the way we communicate and live, however, that it often seems as if writing has always existed.

Through writing, we gain knowledge about past cultures and languages we couldn’t possibly obtain any other way. Writing creates a continuous historical record—something an oral history could never achieve. And writing systems are integral to many cultural identities and serve as both a tool and a product of many important societal structures, from religion to politics.

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Can you imagine the world—or your life—without writing? From emails to street signs and newspapers to novels, the written word is so ever-present that we rarely stop to consider how it came to be.

Yet at just over 5,000 years old, writing is actually a relatively recent invention. It has become so central to the way we communicate and live, however, that it often seems as if writing has always existed.

Through writing, we gain knowledge about past cultures and languages we couldn’t possibly obtain any other way. Writing creates a continuous historical record—something an oral history could never achieve. And writing systems are integral to many cultural identities and serve as both a tool and a product of many important societal structures, from religion to politics.

The fundamental role and impact of writing in our civilization simply cannot be overstated. But the question remains: Who invented writing, and why?

Like any event from our prehistoric past, the story of writing’s origins is burdened by myths, mysteries, and misinformation. For the past two centuries, however, dedicated scholars have used rigorous methods to uncover a tale of intrigue, fascinating connections, and elegant solutions to the complex problem of turning language into text.

In the 24 visually intensive lectures of Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity, you’ll trace the remarkable saga of the invention and evolution of “visible speech,” from its earliest origins to its future in the digital age. Professor Marc Zender—Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Tulane University and an accomplished epigrapher—whisks you around the globe on a thrilling journey to explore how an array of sophisticated writing systems developed, then were adopted and adapted by surrounding cultures.

This course answers many of the most common questions about the world’s writing systems and the civilizations that created them, plus a number of questions you may never have thought to ask.

  • Do all writing systems descend from a single prototype, or was writing invented independently?
  • What one feature do the world’s writing systems have in common?
  • Which kinds of signs and symbols qualify as writing, and which do not?
  • How is the digital age changing the way we write?

Along the way, you’ll visit the great early civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, Japan, and the Americas, and you’ll see how deciphering ancient scripts is a little like cracking secret codes—only far more difficult.

Witness the Triumphs of Decipherment

Through the process of decipherment, civilizations including Egypt, Mesopotamia, Crete, and Mexico have, as Professor Zender says, “all given up their secrets.” Lost histories, literatures, and religions can now be studied in translation, and the disciplines of ancient history, archaeology, and comparative literature have benefited enormously as a result.

You’ll be spellbound as you hear accounts of the breathtaking moments when the decipherment of ancient scripts broke centuries of silence. And you’ll marvel at fascinating objects once shrouded in mystery, including

  • the iconic Rosetta stone, often credited with being the key to our understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphics;
  • an Egyptian sphinx inscribed with the oldest-known form of our own alphabet;
  • a doorway at Persepolis inscribed in cuneiform;
  • a Maya vase featuring an ancient comic strip; and
  • wooden, rune-inscribed runakéfli sticks featuring carved messages that reflect the social sphere of 12th-century Scandinavia, including one that reads, "I'd like to get to the pub more often."

Crucial to your understanding of how epigraphers decipher scripts—and why they’re sometimes unsuccessful—are five preconditions known as the “pillars of decipherment,” which you’ll study in detail and return to throughout the course.

A Window into the Past

Among the fascinating takeaways from studying lost scripts is a newfound sense of shared humanity with ancient peoples. The cuneiform scripts of ancient Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Persia, in particular, are eerily modern and reveal glimpses of the origins of practices and beliefs that continue to the present.

You’ll also see how writing was used for political purposes by our earliest civilizations, as in the practice known as damnatio memoriae, whereby ousted leaders were quite literally erased from history, either through the recarving of inscriptions or by omission from official records. Ironically, it is Tutankhamen’s own erasure that may have helped obscure his tomb from raiders.

Despite the obvious connection between language and writing, this course draws a clear distinction, explaining how single languages can be written using various writing systems. English, you’ll learn, was once written with runes. In antiquity, Greek was represented by at least three different scripts.

In exploring how writing systems rise and fall, you’ll encounter many scripts that are associated with languages that have surviving descendents, including those of the Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians, which have relatives in Hebrew and Arabic. Others scripts you’ll study—such as those of the Elamites, Hurrians, and Sumerians—record languages that have died out or evolved to the point of being unrecognizable.

Myths Dispelled, Revelations Told

In Writing and Civilization, you’ll encounter a wealth of eye-opening information that sets the record straight on this enigmatic subject. Here are just a few of the misconceptions that you’ll encounter and investigate in greater detail.

  • A civilization cannot exist without writing: While writing and civilization share a strong relationship, they are not inextricably entwined.
  • Writing was invented to serve the administrative needs of early cities: Although writing did serve this purpose, it likely first emerged out of a need to record proper nouns.
  • The Rosetta stone is a one-of-a-kind artifact: This first and most famous example of a bilingual—or “triscript,” as it contains Greek writing, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and demotic script—is not the only Egyptian bilingual in existence, nor was it unique for its era.

You may also be surprised to learn that the Aztecs possessed writing, and that unearthed Aegean writings in Linear B spoke only of mundane accounting matters rather than Theseus and the Minotaur and Icarus, as early scholars predicted.

Hear Messages of the Ancients Revealed

Writing and Civilization offers lifelong learners the chance to not only discover the history of ancient writing systems, but also the rare opportunity to actually hear those scripts read aloud and to learn the meaning of their messages hidden in plain sight.

As an expert on Mesoamerican languages and writing systems and an international lecturer on decipherment, Professor Zender has conducted linguistic, epigraphic, and archaeological fieldwork in much of the Maya area, including Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. His expertise, along with firsthand accounts of his experiences and discoveries, adds an invaluable perspective that truly brings this riveting material to life.

You will also be captivated by the extraordinary visuals accompanying each dynamic lecture, including photographs of ancient sites and artifacts, explanatory animations, and numerous illustrations artfully drawn by the professor—many exclusively for this course. 

From papyrus to personal computer, the story of writing is 5,000 years in the making, and it’s still evolving. Investigate the fascinating relationships between language and writing, and the cultures that gave birth to them, in Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    What Is Writing?
    It has been said that writing exists only in a civilization and a civilization cannot exist without writing, but is that accurate? Consider the validity of this statement and examine several of the critical functions that writing has served during the past 5,000 years. Also, get an introduction to pictography and its limitations. x
  • 2
    The Origins and Development of Writing
    Now that you understand the significance of writing, explore three popular beliefs or myths about where writing comes from and how it developed. Investigate the theories of monogenesis versus polygenesis—whether writing was only invented once or independently in locations around the world—and the reasons writing systems are resistant to change. x
  • 3
    Where Did Our Alphabet Come From?
    Most alphabets in use today are derived from one script developed over 4,000 years ago. What accounts for the vast popularity of the Roman or Latin alphabet? This lecture takes you back to ancient Egypt as you investigate the origin of our alphabet and the contributions made to it by the Canaanites. x
  • 4
    The Fuþark—A Germanic Alphabet
    Runes are often mistakenly thought to be a semimagical system of signs used for divination and ritual, but nothing could be further from the truth. Look at the real history of the Runic alphabet—also known as the Fuþark —as a case study for why writing systems rise and fall. x
  • 5
    Chinese—A Logosyllabic Script
    In continuous use for almost 3,400 years, the Chinese script and its derivatives are used by more than 1.5 billon people around the world. Examine popular myths about Chinese writing as you discover the earliest origins and evolutions of Chinese characters (known as Hanzi), and differentiate between the five sign groups found in Chinese. x
  • 6
    Japanese—The World’s Most Complex Script
    Borrowed and adapted from the Chinese, Japanese writing is the most complicated script ever devised, yet it's used by more than 100 million people daily. Investigate how and why Japanese writing took on the complex form it has today, why attempts to simplify it have had little success, and why it's unlikely the system will ever be abandoned. x
  • 7
    What Is Decipherment?
    The earliest writing systems are known to us only through the efforts of archaeological decipherment. But how can archaeologists be certain that the knowledge is accurate? Learn a bit of history on cryptography and the differences between decipherers and code-breakers as you examine the theory and methodology of decipherment, as well as the evidence it considers. x
  • 8
    The Five Pillars of Decipherment
    First, get an introduction to the five preconditions or “pillars” necessary for decipherment to be possible, paying particular attention to the first pillar, known as script type. Then turn to the typology of the three main categories of signs found across the world—logograms, phonograms, and semantic signs—and consider how these signs are combined in different writing systems. x
  • 9
    Epigraphic Illustration
    As you turn to the second pillar of decipherment—the body of texts available for study—consider how epigraphers find a broad, accurate, and readily accessible corpus to examine. Walk through methods for recording inscriptions, and contrast early and modern illustrations of the Classic Maya site of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico, to see the evolution of epigraphic illustration. x
  • 10
    The History of Language
    Investigate the importance of language, the third pillar of decipherment, by starting with the story of the decipherment of ancient Sumerian, the language of ancient Mesopotamia. Learn how scholars known as philologists or historical linguists use the comparative method of linguistic reconstruction to compare related languages and reconstruct their shared ancestor. x
  • 11
    Proper Nouns and Cultural Context
    As you consider the fourth pillar of decipherment, cultural context, see how most epigraphers’ efforts begin with the recognition of proper nouns. Then meet the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, and learn how he became the source of much of our information for the cultural context of Old World writing systems. x
  • 12
    Bilinguals, Biscripts, and Other Constraints
    Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt is most celebrated for its discovery of the Rosetta stone, which contains ancient Greek writing, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and demotic script. Consider this icon of decipherment as the first and most famous example of a biscript, and discover just how common such artifacts are around the world. x
  • 13
    Egyptian—The First Great Decipherment
    Before Jean-Francois Champollion deciphered hieroglyphic writing in 1822, no one had been able to read a word of Egyptian. Why were Egyptian history and its ancient language and writing system forgotten? How did early attempts at decipherment go astray? Get the answers here as you learn what clues led Champollion to success. x
  • 14
    What Do Egyptian Hieroglyphs Say?
    Join Professor Zender as he reads hieroglyphs that Champollion’s efforts helped to recover from oblivion, and see how you too can learn to decipher this blend of phonetic signs, logograms, and semantic signs. Also, consider the interaction of Egyptian writing and culture, including how the practice of damnatio memoriae was used to strike names from official records. x
  • 15
    Old Persian—Cuneiform Deciphered
    Meet Georg Grotefend, a German high school teacher who made an incomparable contribution to the study of ancient writing and civilization. As you investigate the methods he used to decipher Old Persian cuneiform in the Achaemenid texts of Persepolis, delve into a bit of history on this culture’s language and the foundation that was already established for the decipherment. x
  • 16
    What Does Cuneiform Say?
    See how scholars revealed a lost world of language and literature when they expanded upon Grotefend's breakthroughs by relating Old Persian to the ancient cuneiform scripts that preceded it. Next, trace the development of writing through 3,500 years of Mesopotamian history, and consider what ancient texts such as The Epic of Gilgamesh can teach us about ancient cultures of this region. x
  • 17
    Mycenaean Linear B—An Aegean Syllabary
    How did the decipherment of Linear B change perceptions of ancient Aegean civilization? Why are epigraphers still perplexed by many Linear B spellings? Wade into the discovery, decipherment, and contents of this intriguing ancient writing system—Europe’s earliest attempt at writing—and measure it against what you’ve learned about decipherment of Egyptian and cuneiform scripts. x
  • 18
    Mayan Glyphs—A New World Logosyllabary
    Investigate whether the features of Old World scripts such as Chinese and Japanese, Egyptian hieroglyphs, cuneiform, and Linear B apply to the unrelated scripts of the New World. Focus specifically on Yuri Knorosov’s decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphic writing and how living in Cold War Russia both helped and hindered his work. x
  • 19
    What Do the Mayan Glyphs Say?
    How can the strikingly similar structural features of the Mayan and ancient Egyptian writing systems be explained? Continue your exploration of how Mayan writing works through a comparison with Egyptian hieroglyphs. Then find out what scholars have learned about ancient Maya civilization from decipherment, and examine a series of fascinating—and even humorous—inscriptions. x
  • 20
    Aztec Hieroglyphs—A Recent Decipherment
    Complex views of Aztec civilization are too often replaced with a one-note narrative that focuses only on the practice of human sacrifice. Look more closely at the system Aztecs invented to write their Nahuatl language, which is still spoken by more than one million modern Mexicans in the form of about a dozen regional dialects. x
  • 21
    Etruscan and Meroïtic—Undeciphered Scripts
    Despite decades of effort by many qualified epigraphers, there are still dozens of undeciphered scripts. Turn to the failures of decipherment and the lessons that can be drawn from them by focusing on the attempted decipherment of two scripts—Etruscan and Meroïtic—which recorded languages with no known relatives or descendants. x
  • 22
    Han'gul, Tengwar, and Other Featural Scripts
    Move from writing systems that developed over time to scripts that were deliberately designed by an individual or group, often for use as a universal system. See how these “featural” writing systems betray their intentional design through an examination of examples including Korean Han'gul, Lodwick’s Universall Alphabet, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Tengwar and Certar. x
  • 23
    Medium and Message
    Whether on papyrus, bamboo, clay, stone, or wood, writing shows an important relationship between medium and message. Explore the influence media have had on writing’s shape, direction, and use by delving into the origins of terms used for writing implements, the process for making papyrus, the phasing out of scrolls by codices, and more. x
  • 24
    The Future of Writing
    Will typing replace handwriting? Will e-books make printed books obsolete? Will speech-to-text software replace our need to physically write at all? Join Professor Zender as he speculates about the future of writing based on past developments, from the invention of movable type to new signs and spelling conventions inspired by the QWERTY keyboard. x

Lecture Titles

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Marc Zender
Marc Zender
Ph.D., University of Calgary
Dr. Marc Zender is Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Tulane University and a research associate in Harvard University’s Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Program. He earned his Honors B.A. in Anthropology from The University of British Columbia and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Archaeology from the University of Calgary. Professor Zender has published extensively on Mesoamerican languages and writing systems, especially those of the Maya and Aztecs (Nahuatl). He has done archaeological and epigraphic fieldwork throughout Mexico and Central America and currently works as an epigrapher for both the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project and the Proyecto ArqueolÛgico de Comalcalco in Tabasco, Mexico. Professor Zender is the coauthor of Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture. He is the director of Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, an associate editor of The PARI Journal, and a contributing editor to Mesoweb, a major Internet resource for the study of Classic Maya civilization. His research has been featured in several documentaries on The History Channel and by the BBC. As a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer in anthropology at Harvard from 2004 to 2011, Professor Zender was a seven-time recipient of the Harvard University Certificate of Distinction in Teaching. He also received the distinguished Petra T. Shattuck Excellence in Teaching Award in 2008.
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Reviews

Rated 4.2 out of 5 by 25 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by A truly wonderful course As a published author I have a deep interest in writing so this course really caught my eye the first time I saw it. I was hooked from the first lecture. This man knows way way too much about words, language, and writing and not only did he pronounce all the foreign terms correctly (which not all instructors do), but he even teaches a course on speaking Aztec. His knowledge is encyclopedic, his opinions carefully considered, and he makes sure to distinguish that which we know from that which we surmise or guess. I watched the entire course in 2 days - I could not stop. It was far and away too interesting. If I lived anywhere near Tulane University I would find a way to take a course from this instructor there. October 30, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by So Interesting! I own a lot of excellent Great Courses, but this one is my favorite. It is chock full of information on ancient scripts and their decipherment and the scientific principles used to uncover their structure and meaning. I've always had a keen interest in ancient scripts, but didn't have the thorough background that is necessary to understand how this process of decipherment works. This course gives that to me and Prof. Zender is excellent in conveying it. Hope he'll do another course, this time focusing solely on his specialty--Mayan script, art, history and language. Would really love to see such a course taught by him. I highly recommend this present course for anyone interested in ancient scripts and the systematic approach to their decipherment. October 14, 2013
Rated 3 out of 5 by Good, but incomplete Like several others, I found this course good, but not what I expected. I'm no expert in linguistics, but I've read several books on the subject (Mario Pei, David Crystal, Steven Pinker) and viewed or listened to courses given by John McWhorter, Seth Lehrer, and Anne Curzan. I fail to see how you can subtitle this series "to modernity" when the lecturer discusses Maya, Aztec, Etruscan and Minoan-B in depth and dismisses Hebrew and Arabic with a mere mention-not even a single lecture. You have produced other series with multiple presenters in order to cover a broad field, why limit this one to a professor who's specialty is Central America? I look forward to the 2nd edition of this course in the future. My "recommendation" to others would include a caveat. August 12, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Great Course, Great Professor, But You Knew That Professor Zender's course “Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity” is fun. Least I be accused to trivializing it, let me add that it is informative, well researched and well crafted. I envy him his presentation skills, the trove of facts he brings to the party, and the scholarship behind the course. The course is great. I chose the course because, as an avid reader, I have always wondered at our ability to hear the voices of the dead intellectuals of the past, to get messages by post from around the world, and to enjoy the time machine aspects of the written word. My wife can write a note to leave behind, and when I pick up the note, it's as though I had been present when she decided I needed to pick up the dry cleaning. His skill at blending the technical facts with the historic context is great. One of the strengths of his course was undoing prior misconceptions common among the untutored. I had been told by a source I respected that writing had only been invented once. The concept had then migrated from Mesopotamia to other civilizations. He points out that this ignores the the timing of other writing systems such as the Egyptian, the Han, and the South American written languages. My favorite story of the evolution of the original written scripts from markings on clay envelopes holding tokens representing livestock was also proven untrue. The taxonomy of written language types amazed me. Like most of us, I thought I was familiar with the terms of the field such as alphabets and pictographs, but had never even heard the terms abjad or abugida. And before I viewed the course, I assumed all signs were pictographic representing some concept as an abbreviated drawing. Professor Zender pointed out that the linkage between our scripts and our spoken language is not as carved in stone as I had assumed (no pun intended). He made this point strongly enough that I will be taking him up on his recommendation to get Professor McWorter's “Story of Human Language” in the near future. As a fellow bibliomaniac I hesitate to take issue with his comfort at watching ereaders displace codices (books) and keyboarding displacing cursive in our school systems. Of the latter point, he has convinced me by pointing out the that people watching reed styli and mud sheets be replaced by inks and paper felt a similar discomfort. But I have stacks of vinyl recordings, eight track tapes, 8 inch, 5 ¼ inch and 3 ½ inch disks, ½ inch data tapes and other digital medai with inaccessible content. I must remain a doubter on this point. The cliff at Bisotun will be readable long after the last unicode file has gone into the great bit bucket. Whether you are a student of language, of writing, of history, or even a reader of detective stories, I urge you to consider this course. Not that I'm biased, of course, but get this one. June 17, 2014
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