What If… Listicles Are Actually an Ancient Form of Writing and Narrative?
James Vincent on One of Humanity’s Oldest Writing Systems
Measurement was a crucial organizing principle in ancient Egypt, but metrology itself does not begin with nilometers. To understand its place in human culture, we have to trace its roots back further, to the invention of writing itself. For without writing, no measures can be recorded. The best evidence suggests that the written word was created independently thousands of years ago by a number of different cultures scattered around the world: in Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica, China, and Egypt. But it’s in Mesopotamia—present-day Iraq—where the practice is thought to have been invented first.
A brief sketch of the origin of writing goes like this: in the beginning there was the Thing, and the Thing needed counting. What the Thing was doesn’t matter much. A flock of sheep, perhaps, or sheaves of barley: profits of the new system of settled agriculture, which had allowed cities with tens of thousands of occupants to appear for the first time in history. The women and men who dwelt in these cities wanted to keep track of their new wealth and decided to use clay tokens for the job.
These tiny objects, the size of game pieces, were shaped as cones, discs, triangles, and cylinders and can be found scattered throughout the archaeological record like errant dice. The earliest date back to 7500 BC, in what would become the Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer, home of the Sumerians. The tokens seem to have been useful, as they multiply in form and number over the centuries. As city life became more varied in Mesopotamia, with inhabitants trading not only raw materials like wool and metal, but also processed goods like oil, beer, and honey, more tokens were created to represent these resources.
Their appearance became more complex, with scratches added to their surface, adding a graphic element to their meaning. Fast forward a few millennia, and, like a shopper burdened with too much pocket change, the Mesopotamians were fed up with their clutter of tokens. To better organize them, they began making clay containers known as bullae to enclose them into groups. These bullae started appearing around 3500 BC, as bumpy spheres the size of tennis balls, filled with clay tokens and sealed like a baby’s rattle. One bulla could then be used to track multiple items.
This technology had its advantages and disadvantages. If you are, for example, a Sumerian priest recording tributes from farmers, you’d be happy that your clay spheres couldn’t be tampered with, but annoyed that you couldn’t check their contents without breaking them. So, one day, while making your latest bulla, before you put the tokens inside, you press them firmly on to the clay’s wet exterior as a reminder of the contents.
It was the work of a moment but a crucial step, says archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat, who first recognized the importance of these clay tokens as the precursors of modern writing. It was here, she says, that “three-dimensional tokens were reduced to two-dimensional markings” constituting “the first signs of writing.” And it was a profound cognitive leap. “It is the beginning of a new communication system, and certainly had to have reflected something enormous in the brain,” she says. “It was liberating.”
Over the centuries, this system evolved. First, instead of impressing tokens on to clay, scribes began tracing their outlines, creating pictographs, or pictures of words. Second, realizing that all the information they wanted was now stored on the exterior of the bullae and their contents were redundant, the scribes squashed these clay balls into thick tablets, removing the need for tokens altogether. Third, they began using different signs to signify the item being counted and its quantity. Instead of tracing a pictograph of a jar of oil to represent each jar of oil, they began using separate symbols for “what the thing is” and “how much of it there is.” With this change, you have not only the beginning of formal number systems and writing, but also the beginning of measurement.
Throughout the course of the third millennium BC, the pictographs on the bullae would morph into increasingly abstract signs: series of wedges pressed into clay using cut reeds that represented syllables and consonants, not just objects. This is the script we know as cuneiform, meaning “wedge-shaped,” which was used by all the major Mesopotamian civilizations, including the Sumerians and their successors, the Babylonians and Assyrians.
By 2500 BC, this writing system had become “sufficiently plastic and flexible to express without difficulty the most complicated historical and literary compositions,” but from this very early period we’ve recovered only a handful of literary texts. Instead, the overwhelming majority of unearthed writing tablets—some tens of thousands—are administrative in purpose.
These were composed by a class of professional scribes, who were “the cohesive force that helped preserve and enrich” ancient Mesopotamia, fulfilling duties including “temple functionary, court secretary, royal counselor, civil bureaucrat, [and] commercial correspondent.” The library they created is one of receipts, contracts, shopping lists, tax returns, deeds of sale, inventories, wage slips, and wills. Over time, narrative writing like royal announcements and records of wars were added to the mix, but even these retain something of the catalogue format, listing provinces conquered, offspring born, and temples consecrated and desecrated.
There’s some debate over whether this invention of writing enabled the first states to emerge, giving their rulers the ability to oversee and allocate resources, or whether it was the demands of the early states that in turn led to the invention of writing. Either way, the scribal arts offered dramatic new ways to process knowledge, allowing for not only superior organization, but also superior thinking. Some scholars argue that the splitting of noun and number on clay tablets didn’t just allow kings to better track their taxes but was tantamount to a cognitive revolution: a leap forward that allowed humans to abstract and categorize the world around them like never before.
Lists may not seem like cognitive dynamite, but their proliferation appears to have helped develop new modes of thought in early societies, encouraging us to think analytically about the world. “The list relies on discontinuity rather than continuity,” writes anthropologist Jack Goody. “[I]t encourages the ordering of the items, by number, by initial sound, by category, etc. And the existence of boundaries, external and internal, brings greater visibility to categories, at the same time as making them more abstract.”
Think about how spoken language tends to place information in a definite context. When recalling your day, you might say: “I went to the shops and bought eggs, flour, and milk to make pancakes.” The list, by comparison, abandons continuity for atomization, removing individual items from a wider narrative (to buy: eggs, flour, milk). It fosters what psychologists call “chunking”—the process of breaking down large quantities of data into manageable subdivisions and measuring out the world in discrete packages. Most of us are aware instinctively of the benefits of this approach. When we’re wracked by vague terror about tasks yet to be tackled, we often resort to list-making, paring down the madness of the world into something that can be managed one job at a time.The scribal arts offered dramatic new ways to process knowledge, allowing for not only superior organization, but also superior thinking.
This categorization of knowledge in early Mesopotamian society is evidenced by what archaeologists call “lexical lists:” tablets that simply list different classes of objects like the index of an encyclopedia. The exact function of these lists, which cover everything from types of trees to body parts and names of gods, isn’t entirely clear. They might have been used to teach vocabulary or as practice for scribes, but what they show is ancient humans grappling with the problem of classification.
As Goody argues, the process of constructing a thematic list “leads to increments of knowledge, to the organization of experience.” It is a precursor to organized philosophical systems, and, eventually, to science. Centuries later, in the fourth century BC, Aristotle would turn the list format into the bedrock of his thinking by divvying up all of reality in his great work, the Categories. This grand taxonomy draws many arcane distinctions: between the Eternal Mobile Substances (the heavens) and the Destructible Mobile Substances (the sublunary bodies); between the Unensouled Destructible Mobile Substances (elements) and the Ensouled Destructible Mobile Substances (living beings); and so on. None of the examples of this form prior to the ancient Greeks are anywhere near as philosophically complex, but they are elaborate and beautiful just the same.
One particularly famous example of the form comes from ancient Egypt and is dated to around 1000 BC: a product of the state’s bureaucratic culture known as the Onomasticon of Amenopĕ. In its simplest form, the onomasticon is simply a list of some 610 entries: items that collectively span the known world. An introduction to the text states that it is to be used “for instruction of the ignorant and for learning all things that exist: what Ptah created, what Thoth copied down.”
It begins with the natural world: the first entry is “sky,” followed by “sun,” “moon,” and “star,” before proceeding through “darkness” and “light,” “shade” and “sunset,” and tackling various earthly categories like “river-bank,” “island,” “sand,” and “mud.” After describing the Earth, it moves on to its occupants, beginning with the supernatural—“god,” “goddess,” and “spirit”—before progressing to the most important humans, starting with the royal court (“king” to “queen” to “king’s mother”), then through high-ranking civil and military roles (“general” and “deputy of the fortress”), and then on to the wider world of work. This is the most granular section, with several hundred entries offering a detailed picture of Egyptian society. It starts with the professional artisans (“sculptor,” “hour-keeper,” and “astronomer”) before moving on to the lower orders (“steersman,” “herdsman,” “gardener,” and “dancer”).
After the people have been dealt with, there’s a section on the towns of Egypt, followed by types of building and terrain. After reaching the ground, we move on to survey its bounty: crops, vegetables, and other foodstuffs for over a hundred entries. The list ends when even these items have been broken down into their constituent parts, with the final three entries of raw meat, cooked meat, and spiced meat. As the list’s author has promised, we’ve been shown “all things upon which Re [the sun god] has shone;” taken on a journey from the cosmic pantheon to the butcher’s table in 610 easy steps.
The Egyptologist Alan Gardiner, who collated the various manuscripts that make up the text, was unimpressed. “Certainly there was never written a book more tedious and less inspired than the Onomasticon of Amenopĕ,” he commented in 1947. But three decades later, Goody finds much more value in the list, noting how the onomasticon demonstrates “the dialectical effect of writing upon classification” to an unparalleled degree. The entire text is a lesson in the power of hierarchy, as it blends together the spiritual and terrestrial realms into one great spectrum. Binaries like “light” and “darkness” appear in pairs in the list, accentuating their similarities and differences, while transitions between categories are observed with sensitivity.
When “dew” is listed in the onomasticon, for example, its placement mirrors the phenomenon itself: it appears on the border between earth and sky, a delicate imprint from one world to the next like the moisture that gathers on grass with the rising sun. Can a list be poetic? Can taxonomies do more than set their subjects in stone, but also enliven our awareness of them? I certainly believe so.
Thousands of years later, in an essay published in 1942, the writer Jorge Luis Borges captured the absurdity and scope of list-making with his own fictional taxonomy, supposedly found in an ancient Chinese encyclopedia titled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. In it, an unknown scribe orders all the animals of the world into fourteen categories. These include “those that belong to the emperor;” “trained ones;” “suckling pigs;” “mermaids;” “those included in this classification;” and, my personal favorite, “those that tremble as if they were mad.” The divisions are precise, elegant, and incongruous.
As the French philosopher Michel Foucault noted, the celestial emporium shows that lists require subtle thought; the ability to segment, categorize, and compare. These characteristics are a little hidden in ancient texts like the Onomasticon of Amenopĕ, but Borges hauls them to their feet and sets them dancing. As Foucault says: “there is nothing more tentative, nothing more empirical (superficially, at least) than the process of establishing an order among things; nothing that demands a sharper eye or a surer, better-articulated language.”
Excerpted from Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement from Cubits to Quantum Constants by James Vincent. Copyright © 2022. Available from W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.