Oct. 11, 2011
CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine
History display showcases ancient texts
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. – Talk about good penmanship. A new history display at Slippery Rock University offers a glimpse at intricate, handwritten documents from ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and Rome and conveys the sophistication of ancient writing as “technology.”
“Writing as an Ancient Technology” in Bailey Library showcases 20 cuneiform scripts and hieroglyphic documents inked on papyrus or etched in clay, stone or wood. The display, by Carlis White, professor of history, continues through Dec. 16.
White, an expert in ancient history, said the writings date to as early as 3,000 B.C. and shed light on early culture and civilization. SRU students will be able to see documents that they read about in textbooks and hopefully make connections with their heritage and their common humanity with ancient people, White said.
“There a major disconnect with regards to history and then more personally with one’s own heritage,” he said. “This is intended to allow students to actually see the things they’ve read about but still think of in abstract terms. I am hoping to convey that writing really developed as technology in and of itself. Even now, we don’t think of the process of writing as anything technological, but in the case of the development of writing from its earliest days it was very much so connected with what would be considered technology.”
In the ancient world, less than 5 percent of people could write their name. The average person regarded writing as mysterious and impossibly complex, like a computer illiterate person trying to decipher the Java programming language today, White said.
“For somebody to actually learn to write in ancient times meant that they spent years learning the rudiments of the lexicon lists and all the different variations of pictographs,” he said. “Each one of the writing systems incorporated hundreds of single symbols that were then used in thousands of different combinations.”
White said the artifacts come from his personal collection and Westminster College. The display is in the special collections room on the second floor of Bailey.
Writing, Write said, initially was used to keep track of commodities for stock and trade and developed further to record legal and government records as well as literature. Cuneiform documents were written on clay using a reed for a stylus. Egyptian scribes inscribed in clay and stone but also created papyrus. Ancient Romans used wooden tablets for their earliest records and school children practiced writing on wooden tablets with wax panels.
Two SRU students, Allan Daum, a secondary education history major from Slippery Rock, and Matt Howryla, a history major from Butler, helped White set up the display. Daum said he became interested in ancient writing when he started White’s “Egyptology” class this semester.
“Just knowing that human hands made them thousands of years ago, and we are looking at them today is interesting,” he said. “Each piece tells a story of a different time and place, and seeing them we get a chance to see part of that story.”
Daum said he especially likes a fragment from a wall from Seti I’s temple in Egypt that has writing on it. “The way I see history is in a ladder. You can’t have things and events today without climbing up and over yesterday,” he said. “Every piece of writing that is seen in the exhibit from cuneiform to hieroglyphics were the building blocks to English and the forms of writing that we use today.”
Daum said collaborating with White was an incredible experience. “As an education major in the field of history, I know the value and appreciation of all the pieces, but getting the chance to hold them in my hands is absolutely incredible,” he said. “I have learned a lot from Dr. White, and he has treated all of us like professionals and I will never forget the experience.”
Howryla said he became eager to help once he heard about the artifacts. He had also taken White’s “Egyptology” class.
“The exhibit is absolutely fascinating because of the period of history these artifacts come from,” he said. “Each piece represents a landmark in the development of writing as we know it today, and without the basis provided by our ancient ancestors we may never have developed a means of communication that we take for granted today.”
Howryla, who plans to earn a doctorate in Near Eastern studies, said he regards the pieces as art. He tries to imagine the skills and time that would have been needed to create each piece.
“Who wrote this? What does it say? What is it about? I can only hope other students pass through the exhibit experience the same sense of wonder and awe over these artifacts,” he said. “They can transfer us back to a time when something that is such a fundamental piece of our society today was one that would have taken many, many years to master.”