Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity

Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity
Course Trailer
What Is Writing?
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.

31 min
The Origins and Development of Writing
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.

31 min
Where Did Our Alphabet Come From?
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.

29 min
The Fubark-A Germanic Alphabet
4: The Fubark-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.

30 min
Chinese-A Logosyllabic Script
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.

29 min
Japanese-The World's Most Complex Script
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.

30 min
What Is Decipherment?
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.

29 min
The Five Pillars of Decipherment
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.

30 min
Epigraphic Illustration
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.

28 min
The History of Language
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.

30 min
Proper Nouns and Cultural Context
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.

30 min
Bilinguals, Biscripts, and Other Constraints
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.

29 min
Egyptian-The First Great Decipherment
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.

30 min
What Do Egyptian Hieroglyphs Say?
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.

30 min
Old Persian-Cuneiform Deciphered
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.

31 min
What Does Cuneiform Say?
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.

32 min
Mycenaean Linear B-An Aegean Syllabary
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.

32 min
Mayan Glyphs-A New World Logosyllabary
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.

30 min
What Do the Mayan Glyphs Say?
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.

30 min
Aztec Hieroglyphs-A Recent Decipherment
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.

31 min
Etruscan and Meroitic-Undeciphered Scripts
21: Etruscan and Meroitic-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.

31 min
Han'gul, Tengwar, and Other Featural Scripts
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.

31 min
Medium and Message
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.

31 min
The Future of Writing
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.

32 min
Marc Zender

The invention and development of writing is a fascinating subject; it sheds light on human ingenuity, complexity, and even on civilization itself.


University of Calgary


Tulane University

About Marc Zender

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 Arqueologico 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.

Also By This Professor