The history of notation is one of the most fascinating chapters of our cultural heritage. If we look back to the origins of writing in the Middle East and the Mediterranean we will discover that pictographics and later syllabary and phonograms were used as a notated form of communication before writing as we know it evolved. Thousands of years in the history of mankind elapsed before these early forms of script, these ideograms (rock paintings, numerical and graphic symbols) metamorphosed into alphabets of letters.
The oldest form of notation known to us is a pictographic writing system developed around 5,000 years ago in Biblical Erech, whose pictures gradually took on an abstract form to produce cuneiform.The surfaces written on and the writing implements used were major factors in determining the characteristics and development of notational systems; cuneiform gained its specific structure from the use of a stylus scratched and pressed into soft clay which was then left to harden. Cuneiform was used in Sumer, Assyria and Babylon for hundreds of years. It was at around this period (c. 3200 – c. 700 B.C.) that ancient Egypt developed hieroglyphics.
The pictographic system of hieroglyphics was not the only form of notation to arise from ancient Egypt. Syllabary was another product of the region which was used in conjunction with hieroglyphics and phonetic symbols (phonograms).
The First Alphabet
An important step was taken in the 2nd millennium B.C. which was to be of great significance for the development of
notational systems in the Mediterranean, later in Europe and finally all over the world. The Phoenicians invented an alphabetic script which was easy to learn and thus particularly beneficial to trade between the Mediterranean countries. In a much altered guise, this alphabet was eventually to form the basis of the Greek and Roman alphabets. Latin script – with a few minor alterations – is still in use today. Among the many exhibits on display in this section of the museum is a full-size replica of a sarcophagus from Byblos from c. 1000 B.C. which bears the oldest text in semitic alphabet script we are able to understand. This early Semitic alphabet can be described as Proto-(pre)Phoenician.
The evolution of Ancient Hebraic script and the Arabic alphabet can also be attributed to the Phoenician system of notation.
The square script of Hebrew, still used today, dates back to approximately the 5th/4th century B.C., yet is not related to Early Hebraic script. It developed from Aramaic, which from the 9th to the 7th century B.C. was a widespread means of communication used throughout the entire Near East and in parts of Egypt, Asia Minor and India.
The Calligraphy of the Islamic World
Arabic script is the most recent of the Semitic alphabet systems. The oldest inscriptions are from the 6th century A.D. Two very different styles of writing, the rather angular Kufic and the more fluid Naskhi, gave rise to Arabic letters of great contrast. Arabic introduced the notation of vowels to its language fairly early on, probably under the influence of Syrian, marking the relevant symbols with dots and lines. The main purpose of written Arabic was to notate the sacred scripture of Islam, the Koran; this applied to nearly all disciplines of the arts and crafts where script was used decoratively. The Islamic section of the museum, for example, has ceramics and textiles adorned with Arabic calligraphy. The ornamental pages of the Koran, painstakingly notated, boast an array of subtly coloured designs and are of extreme beauty. This deep reverence towards the written word, which came from its religious use, also meant that the printing of text came late to the countries of Islam (17th/18th century).
From Books of Palm Leaves to Tibetan Prayer Wheels
Books and texts from the various corners of the globe are as diverse as the cultures and walks of life which produce them, as the museum’s section on mediums of notation outside Europe impressively illustrates. Here we can see books from India made of palm leaves, common since about the 7th century B.C., whose pages are striped like the material they are made from; there are Batak books of spells imprinted on birch bark (Sumatra, c. 1800), a Siamese manuscript with beautiful miniatures pleated like a concertina, which folded out have a length of 15 metres (49 feet), and Tibetan prayer wheels, which relieved the person turning the wheel of actually having to utter the prayer.
The Gutenberg Museum has recently acquired a number of rare manuscripts from India, Burma and Sri Lanka, whose systems of writing and meaning have not yet been thoroughly researched. There is thus hardly a region in the world whose ideas on how to notate the spoken word – either as an original or a facsimile – are not included at the museum.
The History of Writing in Europe
The history of writing in Europe ranges from the medieval manuscript, an inheritance from the Romans, to modern calligraphy and advertising type. As the printed book slowly took the place of work executed by professional copyists, beautiful manuscripts became the cultural and educational heritage of the rich and respected figures of society.
Writing masters earned a living by teaching people how to write and by preparing copybooks, which the museum owns many of. In the 19th century the fashion for elegant forms of notation was revived by arts-and-crafts reformer William Morris, with lettering introduced as a course of study at various technical colleges and schools of arts and crafts. Examples of work by outstanding artists, such as Anna Simons, F. H. Ehmcke, Rudolf Koch, Eric Gill, Jan Tschichold and many others, document the written forms and trends of the modern age.