Timeline of Major Script Groups

Timeline of Major Script Groups

It's UN International Literacy Day!

This timeline shows a very compressed history of writing, organized into major groups of scripts.

Independent Invention

While many writing systems have been invented over the millennia, very few of them were ever created completely from scratch by people who had never encountered any other writing. There are only two clear examples of such de novo inventions of writing: one in Mesopotamia and/or Egypt and one in Mesoamerica.

Egyptian hieroglyphs are sometimes counted as a separate independent invention of writing, but I think that's not supportable given the proximity in time and space to Mesopotamian cuneiform. There are reasonable discussions to be had about whether that process started in Mesopotamia or Egyptโ€”I say Mesopotamiaโ€”but I don't think there's any question that there was influence.

Chinese characters are also sometimes proposed as an independent invention, but again I don't see how that is possible. The Shang Dynasty shows a very similar process of rapid invention of writing as part of a process of defining a national identity as we see in the lead up to First Dynasty Egypt. It would also require assuming that China remained isolated from the international Mediterranean/Western Asia/India trade network for nearly 2000 years, which is practically impossible (China's national myths notwithstanding).


For each cuneiform, hieroglyphs, and Mesoamerican scripts there was a period when working knowledge of the script was lost before being recovered through decipherment in the 19th-20th centuries.

Embedded examples

Each of the images embedded in the timelines is a representation of a specific, preserved piece writing:

  • Cuneiform
    1. Archaic cuneiform tablet of E.A. Hoffman (Proto-cuneiform tablet, Jemdet Nasr period)
      • Proto-cuneiform, c. 3000 BCE
      • Unicode: ? ๐’Šฉ ?
      • Transliteration: ?.SAL.?
      • Translation: ? "woman" ?
      • Note: I haven't identified the other two archaic signs yet
    2. Seal of Naram-Sin (Akkadian King)
      • Akkadian cuneiform, c. 2250 BCE
      • Unicode: ๐’€ญ๐’ˆพ๐’Š๐’„ ๐’€ญ๐’‚—๐’ช
      • Transliteration: D.na-ra-am.D.EN-ZU
      • Translation: "Naram-Sin" (name)
    3. Amarna Letter EA 161
      • Akkadian cuneiform, c. 1350 BCE
      • Unicode: ๐’€€๐’ฃ๐’Š’
      • Transliteration: a-zi-ru
      • Translation: "Aziru" (name)
    4. Rassam cylinder
      • Assyrian cuneiform, 643 BCE
      • Unicode: ๐’€ญ๐’Šน๐’† 
      • Transliteration: an-ลกarโ‚‚.KI
      • Translation: "Assyria" (place name)
  • Egyptian Hieroglyphs
    1. Stone vase of Seth-Peribsen
      • Egyptian hieroglyphs, c 2800 BCE
      • Unicode: ๐“ƒฉ ๐“‹ด๐“‰๐“„ฃ๐“ˆ–
      • Transliteration: SET pr-jb.sn
      • Translation: "Seth-Peribsen" (name)
    2. Ebers Papyrus
      • Hieratic script, c. 1500 BCE
      • Unicode: ๐“‚ป๐“Šƒ๐“‚ป๐“‚‹๐“†‘๐“ญ ๐“‚ง๐“‚ง๐“ˆ–๐“ˆ–?๐“‚??
      • Transliteration: jw-s-jw-r-fy-dd-nn?-๊œฅ?
      • Translation: ??
      • Note: I can't read hieratic and haven't found a detailed translation of Ebers
    3. Cartouche of Cleopatra
      • Egyptian hieroglyphs, c. 30 BCE
      • Unicode: ๐“ˆŽ๐“ƒญ๐“‡‹๐“ฏ๐“Šช๐“„ฟ๐“‚ง๐“‚‹๐“„ฟ๐“๐“†‡
      • Transliteration: qljw๊œฃp๊œฃdr๊œฃ-FEM / kliwapatra-FEM
      • Translation: "Cleopatra" (name)
  • Semitic Abjads
    1. Wadi el-Hol inscription
      • Proto-Sinaitic script, c. 1800 BCE
      • Unicode: ๐คŒ๐ค”๐ค• ๐ค“ ๐ค„ or ๐“ˆ–๐“‡จ๐“ด ๐“ถ ๐“€ 
      • Transliteration: mลกt r h
      • Translation: "Excellent b(anquet) (of the) c(elebration)?"
    2. Ahiram sarcophagus
      • Phoenician script, c. 850 BCE
      • Unicode: ๐คŒ๐ค‹๐คŠ ๐ค‚๐ค๐ค‹
      • Transliteration: mlk gbl
      • Translation: "King of Gebal (Byblos)"
    3. Sabaean votive stele (Panel Almaqah Louvre DAO18)
      • Ancient South Arabian script, c. 500 BCE
      • Unicode: ๐ฉฒ๐ฉฃ๐ฉฑ๐ฉฃ๐ฉง
      • Transliteration: ส•mส”mr
      • Translation: "Ammรฎ'amar" (name)
    4. Palmyrene Grand Colonnade dedication
      • Palmyrene Aramaic script, c. 250 CE
      • Unicode: ๐กฒ๐กซ๐กฌ๐กถ
      • Transliteration: แนฃlmt
      • Translation: "statue, image"
    5. Aleppo Codex
      • Aramaic Square script (Hebrew script), c. 920 CE
      • Unicode: ื•ึทื™ึฐื”ึดื™
      • Transliteration: vayhรญ
      • Translation: "it happened that, now"
    6. Ottoman Thuluth Basmala
      • Thuluth script (Arabic script), c. 920 CE
      • Unicode: ุจูุณู’ู…ู ูฑู„ู„ูŽู‘ูฐู‡ู ูฑู„ุฑูŽู‘ุญู’ู…ูŽูฐู†ู ูฑู„ุฑูŽู‘ุญููŠู…ู
      • Transliteration: bi-smi llฤhi r-raแธฅmฤni r-raแธฅฤซm
      • Translation: "In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful"
  • Greco-Roman Alphabets
    1. Pithekoussai Nestor Cup
      • Western Archaic Greek script, c. 710 BCE
      • Unicode: ฮฮ•ฮฃฮคฮŸฮกฮŸฮฃ
      • Transliteration: Nestoros
      • Translation: "Nestor" (name)
    2. Duenos inscription
      • Old Italic script, c. 600 BCE
      • Unicode: ๐Œƒ๐Œ–๐Œ„๐Œ๐Œ๐Œ”
      • Transliteration: Duenos
      • Translation: "good"
    3. Vimose comb
      • Germanic runes, c. 160 BCE
      • Unicode: แšบแšจแšฑแ›ƒแšจ
      • Transliteration: harja
      • Translation: "Army" or "Warrior" (possibly a name)
    4. Codex Sinaiticus
      • Byzantine uncial (Greek alphabet), c. 350 CE
      • Unicode: ฮ›ฮŸฮ“ฮŸฯน
      • Transliteration: logos
      • Translation: "word, speech, reason"
    5. Book of Durrow
      • Insular script (Latin alphabet), c. 700 CE
      • Unicode: scriptum
      • Transliteration: scriptum
      • Translation: "text, writing"
    6. engraved type of Nicholas Jenson
      • Humanist typeface (Latin alphabet), 1472 CE
      • Unicode: legibus
      • Transliteration: legibus
      • Translation: "laws"
    7. Gustav Vasa Bible
      • Fraktur blackletter (Latin alphabet), 1541 CE
      • Unicode: Biblia
      • Transliteration: Biblia
      • Translation: "bible, books"
  • Brahmic Abugidas
    1. Pillars of Ashoka
      • Ashokan Brahmi script, c. 230 CE
      • Unicode: ๐‘€ฒ๐‘€บ๐‘€ฎ๐‘€ธ๐‘€ฃ๐‘€ช๐‘‚
      • Transliteration: Silฤ Thabhe
      • Translation: "stone pillars"
    2. Bhitari Pillar inscription
      • Gupta Brahmi script, c. 460 CE
      • Unicode: ๐‘€ฒ๐‘†๐‘€“๐‘€ฆ๐‘†๐‘€ค๐‘€•๐‘€ผ๐‘€ง๐‘†๐‘€ข
      • Transliteration: Skandagupta
      • Translation: "Skanda Gupta" (name)
    3. Tang Dynasty Pratisara mantra
      • Siddham, 927 CE
      • Unicode: ๐‘–ฆ๐‘–๐‘–จ
      • Transliteration: mantra
      • Translation: "mantra, prayer"
    4. High Court of Kerala marqee
      • Malayalam script, c. 2000 CE
      • Unicode: เด•เต‡เดฐเดณ
      • Transliteration: kฤ“raแธทa
      • Translation: "Kerala" (place name)
  • Chinese Characters
    1. Shang oracle bone fragment
      • Oracle bone script, c. 1100 CE
      • Unicode: ๅญๅฅณ
      • Transliteration: Old Chinese *ส”slษฏส” naส” (Pinyin: zวnวš)
      • Translation: "children"
    2. Qin engraved iron weight standard
      • Small Seal script, c. 221 BCE
      • Unicode: ็š‡ๅธ
      • Transliteration: Old Chinese *ษกสทaหล‹ teหษกs (Pinyin: huรกngdรฌ)
      • Translation: "Emperor"
    3. Letter by Cai Xiang
      • Chinese characters, c. 1050 CE
      • Unicode: ๆ›ธ
      • Transliteration: Middle Chinese ษ•ษจสŒ (Pinyin: shลซ)
      • Translation: "letter"
    4. Book of Odes calligraphed by Qianlong Emperor
      • Chinese characters, c. 1750 CE
      • Unicode: ้—œ้›Ž
      • Transliteration: guฤn jลซ
      • Translation: Guan ju (poem title); "guan (cries the) osprey"
  • Mesoamerican Scripts
    1. La Mojarra Inscription
      • Isthmian script (Olmec), 156 CE
      • Unicode: โ€”
      • Transliteration: ?
      • Translation: ?
    2. Madrid Codex
      • Maya script, c. 1300 CE
      • Unicode: โ€”
      • Transliteration:
      • Translation: