Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity

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

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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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

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Your professor

Marc Zender

About Your Professor

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...
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Reviews

Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 68.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great Presentations I was not seeking out this topic, but was enthralled from the first lesson.
Date published: 2019-08-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Almost shockingly entertaining and enlightening. I've enjoyed many Great Courses (some more than others), but none has been more entertaining, enlightening, or full of surprising insights than "Writing and Civilization." The subject was largely unexpected. I knew nothing about writing as a field all its own and purchased this course expecting something more about language. Instead, I learned that the field of writing is a distinct, exciting discipline with its own fascinating history, principles, methods, and rules. Most surprisingly, the field of writing has adventures, ranging from the pyramids of Egypt to the pyramids of Mexico, from nineteenth-century France to nineteenth-century Korea, from the Phoenician alphabet to Nordic runes. Learning that language and writing are two different things was interesting in its own right, but the course was tremendously enhanced by one of the best Great Courses lecturers I've had the pleasure of learning from, Dr. Marc Zender of Tulane University. His enthusiasm for his topic was infectious and his deep, intuitive understanding of his field was apparent in every episode. I highly recommend this not just for persons interested in literature, language, history, and civilizations, but for everyone seeking a broader, more fundamental understanding of our world. Highly, highly recommended.
Date published: 2019-05-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting beyond belief The best of the best, how our writing evolved and how many languages are related. Wonderful teacher. He kept the course moving right along.
Date published: 2018-11-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fascinating topic, presentation uninspiring This course sheds light on a specific aspect of linguistic that I have not heard covered in other TGC courses to any great extent: scripts. Professor Brier does discuss the decipherment of Egyptian Hieroglyphics to some extent in his course on Ancient Egypt, and Professor Podani and Castor discuss Cuneiform script in their courses on Mesopotamia. Recently, a course dedicated to Egyptian Hieroglyphics (which I have not yet heard) presented by Professor Brier has been released. No course, however, attacks the subject from an analytical, integrative and comparative perspective as this course does. Professor Zender does a fabulous job in introducing us to writing scripts: most basically - how does this technology actually work (phonetically), and what is the history of scripts (to the limited extent that this is known)? When did people start to think of writing down information and why? Who were the first people to think of this new technology, and were certain scripts affected by already existing scripts? He also answered very comprehensively a very basic, but fascinating question: how did the English alphabet evolve? Professor Zender discusses quite profoundly the art of decipherment and what the five pillars necessary for successful decipherment of scripts are. He then tells the fascinating narratives of how these were employed for the most famous and groundbreaking decipherments over the past two centuries in the decipherment of Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Cuneiform, Linear B script, and Mayan Hieroglyphics. He also discusses quite at length other scripts that have not been deciphered and why. He explains why in some cases, successful decipherment will most probably not occur unless other archaeological or linguistic findings will supplement current sources. One of the most fascinating aspects for me was the non-trivial connection between the script and the underlying language that it is transcribing. The discussion of Japanese in this context was brilliant… Overall the course content was fascinating, well-structured, and put together. It really tied in a lot of loose ends from other history and linguistic courses. The Professor’s delivery was clear and easy to follow but dry and not thrilling at all. Usually I like Professors who present their course without too many bells and whistles, but in this case I found the delivery at times almost boring. Having said that, the course content was so original within the TGC library, important, and fascinating that the course was still easily worth the time and effort.
Date published: 2018-06-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent! Excellent course! I borrowed this from my local library and found it fascinating. The course made me think about things I'd never considered before. The instructor is very knowledgeable and has a pleasant lecture style. He did not seem to be reading from a teleprompter. His enthusiasm for the subject matter came across as genuine to me, not over-the-top. I hope to view more courses by this instructor in the future.
Date published: 2018-05-28
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good course, but not as advertised I enjoyed some of this course, but I (like many others) thought that it would focus more on the link between writing and culture than it does. It is largely a history of decipherment, and while this is an interesting topic, it's not what I bought the course to learn. The professor's delivery is not always very engaging (though this may have been because I was listening to the audio version, rather than seeing him speak--he may be more suited to a video lecture). There are also several instances where there is clearly a visual element being shown for those watching the course, and the professor offers little explanation for those of us listening on audio. Overall, I would not recommend this course if you are interested in the link between writing and civilization, and would instead recommend it if you want to learn about the history of decipherment and the history of how we in western societies have perceived other writing systems. I would also not recommend it in audio as I found the lecturer hard to pay attention to and felt I was missing material.
Date published: 2018-05-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from OUTSTANDING LECTURES the professor is great lecturer who speaks clearly and shows great enthusiasm for the subject matter. There are many illustrations of the alphabets discussed. I recommend this as one the best courses from Great Courses.
Date published: 2018-05-07
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not as expected I agree with another reviewer who said that this course is not as expected. I wanted to hear more about the development of writing as a tool for communication, not so much how we deciphered ancient texts. That said, it's interesting enough to keep me engaged. Two points about the lecturer: 1) in one of the earlier lectures he refers to "modern day Lebanon and Palestine." Um, it's Israel. If you are going to refer to countries, please do so correctly and not politically. 2) In the first decipherment lecture he spends too much time on the work done at Bletchly Park. It could've been summarized more. But, if you're going to go into detail MENTION THE WOMEN WHO WORKED THERE rather than naming three white men who led the project. The decoding rested on the backs of the women who worked tirelessly (and probably for less pay than the men!!). I fear that the lecturer lets too much of his own bias and politics seep into this course.
Date published: 2018-05-07
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