Pictograms

History begins in Sumer.

The invention of cuneiform script, the oldest known form of writing, is attributed to the Sumerians in the last centuries of the fourth millennium. It is characterized by its nail- and wedge-shaped strokes. The first tablets found at the Sumerian site of Uruk recorded only the basic information needed to understand the message its author wanted to keep.

The Bodmer collection owns several samples of pre-cuneiform pictograms on clay tablets. They are mainly of an economic nature. The tablet in the picture on this page has been dated between 3100 BC and 2850 BC. The inscriptions were drawn by an accountant to record the distribution of cereal, in particular malt.

The need for scribes to work fast soon led to simplified pictograms characterized by wedge-shaped strokes. Writing had become ‘cuneiform’.

At the same time, at the other end of the world, Chinese writing had been invented. Like the Sumerian, Egyptian, Hittite and Cretan forms of writing, the first Chinese script used pictograms.

In the 8th century the matrilineal and matriarchal Naxi society invented a form of script that comprised 1,400 pictograms. It is unique in the world and provides invaluable information on the origins of writing.

>  Egyptian scripts

Tablette en argile, sumérien ancien, Uruk III / Règne de Gemdet-Nasr, env. 3100-2850 av. J.-C.

Ancient Sumerian clay tablet, Reign of Jemdet Nasr, circa 3100-2850 BC

Ecriture dongba, manuscrit  Moso, Chine, XIXe ap. J.-C.

Dongba script, Moso manuscript, China 19th century