(posted May 1, 2011)

True writing as we know it began in Sumer (as did most everything else that we consider to be primary elements of civilization), and then seemed to spread from there to other areas of the world.  However scholars debate whether or not other writing systems such as Egyptian hieroglyphics evolved independently, or was developed after the "idea" of writing was imported from Sumer where it had an earlier start.  What is not debated is the "where" and "when" true writing began.

According to David Diringer (The Alphabet: a Key to the History of Mankind, 1948, p. 58) Cuneiform writing was already well established in Sumer by 3500 B.C., a good 300 years prior to the appearance of hieroglyphics in Egypt.  However, a more recent study by Dominique Charpin (Reading and Writing in Babylon, 2010, p. 17) places the development of "true" Cuneiform at closer to 3200 B.C., about the same time that hieroglyphics appeared in Egypt.  Nonetheless, a pictographic system had long been in use in Sumer for hundreds of years before they developed Cuneiform (Diringir, p. 58).

Other systems such as Cretan Minoan Linear A, Mayan, Chinese, and Indian all appeared over a thousand years after the development of writing in Sumer.  From that standpoint the diffusionists would say that these other writing systems, even including the Egyptian, were developed only after, and because, the "idea" of writing had reached their shores from distant Sumer.  The anti-diffusionists would say that is malarkey and that each of these writing systems developed independently and that they developed later for the simple reason that the other elements of civilization leading to the necessity of a writing system developed in these other areas much later than they did in Sumer.  


Up until the 18th century A.D., the origin of writing was the subject of myths, crediting gods, fabulous creatures, or heroes for its invention (Schmandt-Besserat, Denise, “Before Writing vol. I:  from Counting to Cuneiform,” 1992, p. 1)  The Sumerians and Babylonians, for example, had a whole host of myths attempting to explain the origin of writing.  In some cases it was the god Enki who taught man how to write, in other cases it was the god Nabu, in yet other accounts it was Oannes/Yuhan(is)/Jonah who came from Dilmun who taught man all of the arts of civilization (please refer to the essay on “Jonah” for more information on this figure).  In yet other Mesopotamian accounts it was the god EA who gave mankind the science of writing.  In Greek accounts, particularly the tragedy of Aeschylus, it was Prometheus who invented writing and then gave it to mankind.  The Romans thought it was Mercury who taught writing to mankind.     

All of these myths have two things in common:  one, writing was given to mankind by a god or other mythical creature, and two, writing appeared all of a sudden without any evolutionary stages or any process of development.  One day mankind had no writing, and then boom!  The next day he could write because god so-and-so had just given him that gift.  Jewish, Christian, and Islamic myths also taught that writing appeared suddenly and was given to mankind by God, and in some Jewish, Christian, and Islamic myths writing actually existed intact before the world was created.

Unfortunately the belief in the “sudden” appearance of writing did not come to an end in the 18th century.  Among many “new-agers” today it is trendy to think that writing was handed to mankind on a silver platter by aliens from another planet.  This belief has come about due to certain charlatans resurrecting ancient myths and peddling them as the gospel truth only by changing the “gods” into aliens from another planet.  The fact that all of these ancient myths are self-contradictory is completely ignored.

So, how did mankind learn how to write?


Working backwards in time we find that the Latin alphabet that we use today in the western world was derived from the Greek alphabet which in turn was derived from the Phoenician alphabet around 800 B.C.  All other major alphabets currently in use in the world, including Russian Cyrillic, modern square Hebrew, and cursive Arabic were derived from the Phoenician alphabet (Diringer, throughout).  That’s why we use the terms “phonetics,” “phoneme,” and “phonology” as linguistic terms in our language today.   (This, however, does not contradict the premise that non-alphabetic writing systems such as the Chinese and Mayan may have developed independently from any influence from the Middle East).

While the Phoenicians have generally been given credit for inventing the alphabet, we know now that that their alphabet was only one of several others developed by early West Semites and the early Semites themselves drew upon earlier systems of writing.  By 1500 B.C., in the port city of Ugarit on the north Syrian coast, the NW Semites developed an alphabet composed of thirty letters based on cuneiform signs (more on cuneiform later)(Schneidewind, William M. and Joel H. Hunt, “A Primer on Ugaritic Language, Culture, and Literature,” 2007, pp. 13-35).  

At about the same time a unique alphabet of block-shaped letters came into use in South Arabia.  This alphabet is called ESA, or Epigraphic South Arabian.  The existence of these two alphabets indicate that the idea of an alphabet must have existed somewhere else earlier (Diringer, p. 214).  And, indeed it did.   The earliest known alphabet was one found in the Sinai peninsula and dated to about 1900 B.C.  It was Semitic and contained some 21 known letters (they may have had other phonemes that the letters for which have not yet been discovered).


Of course, every grade school kid knows that the Egyptians used a hieroglyphic system of writing long before the alphabet was invented.  And, even before the Egyptians there were the Sumerians and their cuneiform writing which in turn had been developed from a yet earlier form of pictographic writing.  The problem with trying to find an “origin” for writing is that the further back we look the more we see antecedent forms.  The earliest Sumerian pictographs were modeled after clay “tokens” that were used for counting items sold or bartered in trade (Schmandt-Besserat, pp. 6-7).  

Near Laussel, France there is the famous upper Paleolithic carving of the naked female fertility goddess holding the bison horn/crescent moon with the 13 incised lines carved on it.  These lines are a notation representing half of the moon’s cycle.  So, that indicates that a system for the notation of the passage of time existed as far back as 20,000 B.C.   And then, of course, the art work itself is symbolic, which is akin to the concept of writing (Marshack, Alexander, “The Roots of Civilization,” 1991, pp. 334-335).  The figure of the woman = fertility.  The bison horn/crescent moon = fertility.  

Triangles representing the female crotch, and incised vulvas, both representing fertility, go back at least to 30,000 B.C.  (Gadon, Elinor, W.  “The Once and Future Goddess,” 1989, pp. 14-15).  The famous “earth mother” icon of Willendorf also takes us back to 30,000-25,000 B.C. for representative, symbolic art (Gadon, p. 6-7).


But even these primitive and early examples of symbolic notation have their antecedents.  The wide range of cultural capacities such as time notation, symbolic representation, art, and the making of fine, intricate flint tools that seemed to explode so “suddenly” during the European Ice Age, all of these cultural “firsts” had antecedents.   “Suddenlies” are seldom born out of themselves or out of the void.  All “suddenlies” are in some manner prepared by a long history of evolution—to the chagrin of new-agers who want to believe that the “aliens” taught this or that to us.  For example, the “explosion” of art that occurred during the Ice Ace was prepared by a long tradition of using ocher for coloring that goes back to 300,000 years ago or even earlier (Marshack, 1991, p. 20).


If we may sum up a bit, what we have is early man beginning to use ocher for ornamentation over a quarter of a million years ago.  Then, as mental capacities gradually evolved he began to develop the ability to use “ornamentation” as a symbol for something other than pure ornamentation.  Perhaps in the painting of one’s face certain colors, or designs, may have symbolized a certain animal that the hunters wanted to hunt, thus making it easier to kill.  Then came the making of notches in bone or stone to represent the female vulva and fertility as mentioned above.  The ability to use symbols and art then developed to the point where some enterprising artist spent time to carve an entire “Venus” statue by 25,000 years ago.

Then came time notation and the ability to make notches and lines in bone, or stone, to represent the phases of the moon and/or seasons.  With the coming of the agricultural revolution and increased trade with a wider variety of products, people needed a way to keep track of what was bought and sold so they began to make tokens.  The earliest tokens (that have been discovered so far) appeared in Mesopotamia and southern Iran and date to 10,000 years ago.  

These early tokens were made out of clay and fired in an oven, just like pottery, crude forms of which appeared at about the same time.  The forms of the tokens consisted mostly of geometric shapes such as cones, spheres, flat disks, cylinders, ovids, and rectangles, etc.  Sometimes they altered these basic shapes to represent certain animals by pinching the top into a beak or a muzzle with details such as eyes or ears (Schmant-Besserat, 1992, p. 24).


Over time these tokens, and the markings on them became more and more complex so as to represent an ever wider range of objects.  Then they began to incise markings into the tokens because incised signs had the advantage of being far more legible.  This was an important step because the early Sumerian pictographs were derived from these complex tokens with linear markings (Schmant-Besserat, 1992, p. 142).  This occurred early in the 4th millennium B.C. (i.e., shortly after 4,000 B.C.).  

Of course, the whole purpose of the pictographs, as well as the tokens that preceded them, was not to write great literature, but simply to record economic activities.  And, once the idea of using pictographs to record economic activities emerged in Sumer, it eventually spread to other countries such as Elam in southern Iran and Egypt—then later to the Island of Crete, the Indus Valley and China.

Meanwhile, back in Sumer, some of the scribes recording all of this economic activity found that it was easier to just make a few stylized markings on the wet clay, rather than drawing an entire ox, for example.  To do this they used the end of a reed stylus and the marks they made were either triangles, or a straight line ending in a triangle.  Thus was born the “cuneiform” (meaning wedge-shaped, in Latin) form of writing.  The earliest examples of clay tablets with cuneiform symbols featured a mixture of both pictographs and the stylized cuneiform symbols (C. F. Walker, “Reading the Past: Cuneiform,” 1988, p. 7).  This process occurred towards the end of the 4th millennium B.C. (i.e. around 3200 B.C. as stated above).


At this stage in the process they were still unable to write literature.  All they could do was record an object, whether ox, goat, or sack of grain, and the number of that item sold.  They could not record in the transaction whether this item was bought or sold or donated to a temple as a sacrifice.  In other words they could depict objects and numbers but had no way to depict verbs, or actions.
Over time, however, as the stylized cuneiform symbols became standardized and most of the scribes became familiar with them, the pictographs were discarded all together.  At first these cuneiform symbols were, like the pictographs they were modeled after, logographic, meaning that one sign, or group of signs, stood for a particular object or number.  The next step in the evolution of writing was for scribes to begin to use some of the cuneiform signs to represent syllables, or portions of words, rather than an object per se.  

For example, the word for fish in Sumerian was KU, therefore the sign for fish could be used to spell longer words that had the sound “ku” in them.  Once that process had develop the scribes were able to “spell” out verbs and other elements of grammar by combining the various signs in different combinations, and even inventing new ones as needed.  This stage in the evolution of writing took place around 2800 B.C., and the earliest clay tablets with this form of syllabic writing on it were discovered at Ur.


Now the Sumerians finally had the ability to write verbs and thus they were able to begin writing down their legends and their myths of the gods and to create literature.  They must have already had a full-blown mythology and an oral historical literature that had been handed down from generation to generation, but until they had developed a syllabic system of writing (with its technique for creating verbs) they were not able to record these myths.  

In time, however, they were even able to invent myths about writing.  But of course, by that time they had no knowledge of the enormously long and painful process the evolution of writing went through over hundreds of thousands of years.  They had no knowledge of early man’s etchings on bone and drawings on cave walls.  They had even forgotten that their more immediate ancestors had used tokens.  And, so they invented myths that writing was given to them by this god or that god.  And, of course, each city in Sumer had a different idea as to which god it was that had taught them how to write.


Meanwhile the same process had been taking place in Egypt.  The Egyptians never developed cuneiform writing because they did not have the plentiful supply of the right type of clay that the Sumerians had, so they stayed with their pictographic system (which the Greeks called “Heiroglyphus,” or “sacred writing” because it was found mostly in temples and on the walls of palaces).  However, they did learn to use some of these pictographs as syllabic signs, and in time, some of them even represented individual phonemes.  And, thus, Egyptian hieroglyphics was born using a combination of alphabetic signs, syllabic signs, and a pictograph to represent an object or an action all together to “spell” one word.  They continued to use this system for over three thousand years—long after Egypt ceased to exist as an independent country.


By 2,200 B.C. the idea of using pictographs for syllabic signs had spread to the Island of Crete and to the Levant, and it was from these pictographic syllabic systems that early Semites developed the first true alphabets.  As mentioned above the first true alphabet (that has been discovered so far) is the one used by West Semites in the Sinai, but other similar experiments with alphabetic writing must have also been taking place all up and down the Levant particularly in the commercial sea ports in Phoenicia and southern Canaan.   The earliest example of the classical Phoenician alphabet has been found at Byblos and dated to the 15th century B.C., or at about the same time that their northern neighbors in Ugarit had developed their own unique alphabet using cuneiform symbols.


The Phoenicians took certain pictographic symbols and used each symbol to represent only the initial phoneme, or consonant, of the word represented by the pictograph.  For example the word for “ox” in Phoenician was ‘ALEPH, so they used the stylized head of the ox (an ovid with two horns sticking out the top of it.  Turn this “A” upside down and you will have an approximation of the ox head) to represent the initial sound of the word ‘ALEPH, which is a glottal stop followed by a vowel which was not written.  

The Phoenician word for house was “Bayt” and so a stylized symbol of a house (which was a square with a roof on it, then later, a square with a tail on it.  Turn this “b” upside down and you will have an approximation of the square with a tail).  This symbol came to stand for the phoneme “B,” and so on.  And, thus, the Phoenician words ‘ALEPH BAYT, or “ox house,” came to be called in the languages of the western world “alphabet.”  So, next time you recite your alphabet, remember that you are really saying your “ox house.”   

Now, put the ‘ALEPH (ox) and the BAYT (house) right next to each other and you spell the word ‘AB which in Phoenician meant “father,” and would be read as “father” rather than as “ox house” as it would have been in the old pictographic system.  Of course, the Phoenicians actually wrote from right to left rather than left to right as we do, but the principle is the same.


The Phoenicians developed an alphabet of 22 letters to represent most of the phonemes in their language (some of these letters did double duty to represent two or more phonemes that were related in sound).  Each of these symbols had originally been a pictograph of a syllabic, or even hieroglyphic system.  The important thing, however, is that this wonderful invention really simplified writing.  

Now instead of the science of writing being limited only to highly trained scribes who spent years, or even decades learning complex hieroglyphic and cuneiform systems involving thousands of different symbols, just about anybody could learn the simple 22 alphabetic signs and write out their own language, and their own thoughts with it.  Even people of another language culture such as the Greeks could easily adapt this alphabet with which to write their own language.

Needless to say, this development facilitated trade and helped to make the Phoenician traders and seafarers wealthy, who in turn spread the alphabet further and wider, but it also paved the way for the wonderful literature of Greece and Rome, and the mass education that modern societies have today.

So, the next time you sit down at the computer, give thanks unto the Phoenicians—because without them we might have to use a three-foot by three-foot keyboard with thousands of cuneiform symbols on it.  The Phoenician contribution to writing is still recognized today in our modern languages by the terms “Phoneme,” “Phoentics,” “Phonology,” "Phonograph," and "Telephone." 
For more on the civilization of Phoenicia and the Ancient Near East, please read the trilogy "The Last King of Babylon" www.lastkingofbabylon.com


Now available at www.amazon.com in both the trade paper back form and in Kindle.  The Nook version is also available at www.barnesandnoble.com

What are the long-term, overarching historical laws and trends that tell us the West is doomed?

Why is "Climate Change" not a national security issue, but the hysteria over it is?

What intelligence failures, if any, led to 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, San Bernadino, and other terrorist acts on our soil?

Why did we turn Iraq over to the Iranians?

Why did we go into Iraq in the first place?

Did we create ISIS?  If so, Why?

Why do virtually all Middle Easterners across the board think that the U.S. is a major  sponsor of terrorism?

Is Islam truly a "religion of peace?"

Why does Washington exert such Herculean bipartisan efforts to misunderstand these issues?

What are the Islamic prophecies driving recruitment for groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda?

Why driving ISIS from the battlefields of the Middle East will not be the end of the war on terror, no matter what our government says.  

All of these issues and much more are discussed in this, the only counter-terrorism book on the planet that pulls it all together and connects all the dots. 




Faced with cratering poll numbers, a U.S. president agrees to a plot having Islamic radicals kidnap an ambassador so he can "negotiate" his release in turn for the "Blind Shaykh," currently in prison for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.  The president  hopes that the Blind Shaykh's return to Egypt will strengthen the hand of the Muslim Brotherhood to corral Islam's more radical terrorist groups and unite all Sunni Muslims with Turkey in a resurrected Ottoman Empire aimed at keeping the Russian bear caged.  But when the kidnap operation falls apart and four Americans are killed at the U.S. consulate in Aleppo, the administration goes into full cover-up mode.  Only undercover agent Matt Nolan knows the full truth of what happened in Aleppo--placing him number one on the Administration's enemies list.  As Russia threatens war over the Ottoman Empire plot, Matt has to dodge numerous assassination attempts in his desperate effort to return to the U.S. to testify before Congress, put a stop to the Ottoman Empire plot, and defuse WWIII.

For more information please visit the book's website at: www.thealeppofile.com

The Glossy trade paperback version is available at: www.amazon.com

Kindle and nook versions are also available.


What if an ancient table was discovered that undermined the foundations of both Christianity and Islam while giving instructions for re-awakening an older god, a god who exacts frightful revenge while promising a utopia of eternal life, peace, and vast knowledge—in return for absolute devotion and loss of free will?

What if that “god” was an artifact buried just under the surface of the moon supposedly by an ancient space-faring race?  What if the president of the United States had a Messiah complex and staged his own “assassination” and “resurrection” three days later in order to become the “son” of that new/old “god” on the moon?

Matt Nolan and his colleagues in the U.S. Intelligence Services have only a limited amount of time to uncover the secrets of the resurrected artifact and find a means for destroying it and corralling the president—before they themselves are destroyed.

Is it the rapture that Evangelicals have been praying for?

Is it the new heaven and the new earth prophesied in both the Bible and the Qur’an?

Or, is it the anti-Christ?  The Beast of Revelations?  The great blaspheme?  The abomination that maketh desolate?

Or, is it something else even more sinister?

THE JERICHO TABLET serves up a captivating mixture of ancient Near Eastern history, religion, and linguistics to go along with its modern day spy craft, political intrigue and corruption, media collusion, and science—while entertaining the reader with a fast-paced plot.

For more information, please visit the book's website at:  www.thejerichotablet.com  

To purchase, please click on: www.amazon.com

What reviewers are saying:


 Highly original thriller by author with richly relevant background 

This thriller has movie written all over it. An ancient tablet is discovered that undercuts the foundations of both Christianity and Islam. That in itself is a gripping and original idea: imagine such a discovery in today's world, which in fact is the story's setting. But there's more. The tablet gives instructions for reawakening an older, vengeful god, who offers all humanity a kind of Faustian bargain: live forever, in peace, enjoying vast knowledge--but only in return for unquestioning devotion and surrender of free will.  This "god" is an artifact buried on the moon by ancient space travelers.

The Jericho Tablet does what a thriller is supposed to do, which in my view is: (1) keep you up all night reading, and then (2) keep you trying to mind-cast the movie.
Janis Weisbrot, copy editor for Seven Stories Press


A Great Read 

The Jericho Tablet is a fast-paced novel that is a genuine page-turner. The author uses his extensive background in archaeology, languages, Middle East cultures, and the NSA to tell a contemporary (although set in 2020) and original story that both entertains and educates. The Jericho Tablet is filled with believable characters and incidents in the USA, Russia, and the Middle East. The ending both surprised and worked for me. The author also deftly interweaves simultaneous events taking place in different locales. The Jericho Tablet has all the ingredients to make a great film.

Donald Michael Platt, former script writer and author of the award-winning novel Rocamora




Government conspiracies, religious fanatics, ancient myths, global intrigue and science fiction spice this thriller. Barry Webb has used his knowledge of ancient history, near eastern culture and US government agencies to write a fast-moving story that is peopled with believable characters. I was caught up immediately and stayed captive until the end. Recommended reading!

Fran Marian, author of Carved in Stone and The Rug Broker

“This is one Exciting Read.  The Jericho Tablet is a thriller that has many parallels and similarities between our present world and what could very well happen in the future. Rich in history and understanding of the Middle Eastern mind renders this work extremely educational as well.  I learned a lot. The tempo never slackens and the author’s masterful ability to switch scenes on a global stage while retaining plot continuity at a heated pace keeps the reader wanting more.  Like a proverbial “literary box of chocolates,” after one or two chapters of this page-turner, I can assure you that you’ll be hooked!”   

Col. Richard F. "Dick" Brauer Jr. USAF (Ret.) Co-Founder of Special Operations Speaks.