The world of symbols - Pictures, numerals, scripts

Part of the exhibition
Part of the exhibition

Writing is one of the most civilizing achievements of mankind. For thousands of years, writing words and numbers was the way of recording, saving and transmitting information.

Over 5,000 years ago, the Sumerians created the oldest script that we are aware of. Clay tablets recorded inventories, deliveries and other transactions. Here, the script was used to handle administrative tasks.

Syllabic and phonographic scripts

But writing is not an isolated invention! Many advanced civilizations developed writing systems independently of each other. In Egypt, China and India, for example, early writings primarily served religious or cultic purposes. Almost all forms of writing shared two characteristics. On the one hand, the oldest written characters often retained their pictorial nature. With use over time, they became more abstract and more stylized. On the other hand, most scripts changed from their original logographic form to a syllabic form, and then to a phonographic form. Only the Chinese script (with approx. 40,000 characters) has remained a logographic script until today.

Numbers are older than writings

Whereas some scripts only existed for a short time – the Indus script disappeared along with its culture, the scripts of the Mayas and Aztecs were destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors – others, such as the Egyptian and Chinese scripts, persisted and developed. The spreading of a script did not depend so much on its ease and practicality but rather on the cultural, economic and military power of the people that used it. The great religions of the world ensured that certain scripts came into worldwide use and continued to exist.

Number systems are older than writing systems. Primitive numbers simply recorded numeric values as tallies (lines, notches, knots etc.). Special characters were assigned to certain units: 5, 10, 100... . In other civilizations, such as in Babylonia, these key units were 6, 60, 360... . The worldwide spread of Arabic numerals or, more correctly, Hindu-Arabic numerals as they originated in India lies in the superiority of their arithmetic system (place value system).