From stone slabs to pages,what you might not know about old written works

Writing is considered as one of the pillars of humanity as this communication system separates us from other forms of life here on earth. From the caveman ways to the industrial revolution where postal services transformed from foot delivery to freights to digitalized communications through social media, writing is indeed a perennial and fundamental part of human civilization.

In this article, let us head back to how the forerunners of humanity paved the way to progress and identify the oldest writing marvels of literature, from the oldest writing system to the first author in the world.

Oldest Writing System

This may be old news *ahem* but did you know that the ABCs we know today is not the writing system that started it all? The first-ever known recording of a writing system was from the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia in the Middle East and its origins can be tracked dating way back millennia ago, around the end of 4000 BC: the Cuneiform

The name is derived from Latin and French words meaning “wedge-shaped,” probably because of how the etches on stones and tablets looked like what seemed to be wedges and triangles.

As civilizations grew and empires expanded, the cuneiform mutated in the process depending on what region it was used, giving birth to other forms of writing systems until developing into the Alphabet that we know today.

Among many other existing writing systems are the Chinese characters (hanzi), Arabic script, Japanese syllabic kana and logographic kanji, and many others.


Oldest Poem

Probably the most famous poem of the early ages is Homer’s The Iliad. Set during the Trojan War and chronicles the ten-year siege of the city of Troy, this poem made its way into films and other popular contemporary mediums over time.

However, the epic’s narrative is not the first of its kind. An earlier written piece was discovered to be 1500 years earlier than Homer’s—The Epic of Gilgamesh. Also a product of ancient Mesopotamia, it was written around 2150 - 1400 BCE and is, therefore, the oldest epic in human history!

The epic follows the life and adventures of the demi-god and heir to the throne Gilgamesh, who left their kingdom in a quest for immortal life after the death of his best friend. During those times, Gilgamesh was believed to have ruled the empire for 126 years, and the tales of his adventures were passed down orally until it was finally written into what we know now as the Epic of Gilgamesh

Because of the myths of his divine reputation and his profound influence on the prevailing culture, kings of those times often associate their bloodline with that of Gilgamesh, believing themselves to be his descendants.


Oldest Written Set of Laws

Here you see the most intricate proof of human advancement—the formation and writing of laws and the reverence for justice prove that our species are becoming logical creatures and are highly civilized. Code of Hammurabi believed to be the earliest and most complete written legal code pronounced by King Hammurabi of Babylon who reigned from 1792 to 1750 BC.

The code embodies 282 rules that standardized trade with corresponding fines and punishments for the breakers of the laws.


Oldest Surviving Letter

Perhaps the oldest surviving letter to this day is a papyrus letter, and it’s not for the reasons we think it had been. Prof. Sabine Huebner of the University of Basel, Switzerland researched and dated the world’s oldest surviving letter written in 230 AD by a Christian requesting fish sauce.

Written in Ancient Greek, the letter comes from Theadelphia, a village in central Egypt, written by a man named Arrianus who was asking for some provisions, including fish liver sauce, from his brother Paulus. The closing note of the letter, nomen sacrum, which roughly translates to “in the Lord” signified the religious affiliation of the gentlemen.

The papyrus letter is currently housed in the University of Basel, which had been there for already more than a century as part of their papyrus collection.






Oldest Recorded Prescriptions

One of the oldest recorded medical prescriptions discovered is an ancient Mesopotamian medical text written in Sumerian. It contains a collection of 15 prescriptions on a clay tablet. This tablet is dated around 2500 to 2340 BCE and was unearthed at the site of the ancient city of Nippur, found in modern Iraq.

The tablet is currently being preserved in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.






Oldest Surviving Love Poem

Istanbul #2461. Yes, you read that right. It is the oldest surviving love poem in the world, and it was recited by a bride for King Shu-Sin of Sumeria, who reigned between 2037 to 2029 BC. Written in a clay tablet, the poem bears no title, leaving archaeologists insipidly call it Istanbul #2461.

As uninspiring as the title can be, the content of the poem is actually one that will make the butterflies in your stomach flutter as you look back to ancient times. Prepare your twinkletoes, as below is an excerpt of the poem, as posted by Shane Croucher in 2017:

You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you. Bridegroom, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber, You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you. Lion, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber. Bridegroom, let me caress you, My precious caress is more savoury than honey In the bedchamber, honey-filled, Let me enjoy your goodly beauty, Lion, let me caress you, My precious caress is more savoury than honey.


Oldest Breakup Letter

We have laid down facts about written laws and epics, and even have a glimpse of the hopeless romantics of the past, but the ancient people are also, well, humans themselves. They also experience trouble, misadventures, and of course heartbreaks.

Tackling about matters of the heart is not exclusive only for the victorious but for the disheartened as well.

The letter of King Nabonidus of Babylon in the 6th Century BCE to his concubine would later become the world’s oldest breakup letter. Discovered by archaeologists in Southern Iraq in 2018, here is a translation of this breakup letter:

News has reached me via the Upper Euphrates that you were visiting with my childhood friend Nisaba. I am devastated by this betrayal, as you are one of my favorite concubines. You have until the end of the month to pick up your flax shawls and sandals or else I will donate them to the temple of the moon god.

Who breaks up nicely with someone cheating on them and gives a time window to pack up things or they will donate them for goodwill nowadays?





Oldest Surviving Printed Book

The oldest surviving book, The Diamond Sutra, is a Buddhist religious text written in 868 AD and discovered in 1907 by British archaeologist and explorer Sir Aurel Stein in a secret library located at the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas in Dunhuang, China. It contains teachings central to Indian Buddhism and was translated from Sanskrit to Chinese.


First Novel

The world witnessed its first novel come into existence just a thousand years ago, and not only was it originated in Asia, but it was also penned by a woman.

Murasaki Shikibu, born in Japan during the Heian period in 794 AD, was a well-educated woman of the Fujiwara family. During this period, women are educated and respected, making them more advanced than the rest of the world. However, communication between women and men has limited to writing poems to each other, as the men are not allowed to see the women face-to-face and must stay behind screens.

Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji following this custom of correspondence. It is a story of a man who both possesses brain and beauty but cannot become emperor because his mother does not belong to the higher class. The masterpiece became popular as the emperor himself also read the book. Its importance resonates even today as its contribution greatly influences writing, painting, drama, and history studies.


First Author

We’ve read about the world’s first novel that’s coincidentally written by a woman, but did you know the world’s first author was also another woman? And no, she is not the author of the Epic of Gilgamesh—her works predate even this oldest epic.

Enheduanna lived during the 23rd Century BCE in ancient Mesopotamia as a poet, a writer, a princess, and the High Priestess of the goddess Inanna and the moon deity Nanna-Suen at the temple of Ur.

Writing the myth of Inanna and Ebih composed of 42 temple hymns and her written devotion to the celestial beings influenced the field of astronomy that her works are considered to be one of the earliest scientific observations of the sky. A crater on Mercury is named in her honor.

Now that we had laid our 10 takes on the earliest written pieces and literary milestones in the history of humanity, what is your most interesting takeaway of this article? Don’t forget to register here on our website to get the latest blogs and updates, and follow all our socials!


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