Tomb of Horemheb, mural painting
Tomb of Horemheb © Print Collector/Getty Images

Lydia Wilson is a most unlikely TV historian. She hasn’t based her look on one of Charles II’s mistresses, all tumbling curls and provocative glances. She doesn’t dress in vibrant shades of lime and scarlet, the better to stand out against rocky outcrops and crumbling pyramids. Never for one moment does she give the impression that she is more fascinating than the subject under discussion. She doesn’t even dress up as any historical characters!

The various Egyptologists, Assyriologists, calligraphers and philologists she encounters on her trawl aren’t particularly colourful either. Wilson’s quest to uncover the earliest examples of writing — this “technology that teleports the contents of our minds across time and space directly into someone else’s brain” — is the sort of scratchy, hempen, high-fibre educational programme one assumed the BBC didn’t bother with much these days. And it’s great. 

First there’s a somewhat wasteful jaunt to a culture that never felt the need to make the jump from pictures to the written word. In the Northern Territory of Australia, Wilson visits some Aboriginal rock art. An image of an ancestor or animal, she learns, is not representational, but the thing itself, magically transferred to stone. The pictures are not viewed abstractly enough to become signs. In addition, to have a written record, you apparently need accountants. 

Enter Assyriologist Irving Finkel of the British Museum, who seems to have based his beard on one of the famous winged bulls. He shows how a few quick marks on a clay tablet can look like an ear of barley. The “giant leap” came when the sign became the sound: the monosyllable that signified barley. Put it with another, and the result is a word meaning something quite different to the individual signs: the so-called “rebus principle”. Egyptologist Orly Goldwasser, who speaks to Wilson as though she’s a dim undergraduate, explains that in hieroglyphics too, sometimes a duck actually is a duck, and sometimes it just quacks like one. In the same way a sign meaning “wall” and a sign meaning “tar” could be put together to read “Walter”. The rebus principle therefore gave pharaohs the means to immortalise their names in stone. 

From here another mighty conceptual leap gave rise to the alphabet. Amazingly, scripts as varied as Arabic, Latin and Hebrew have a common source. As Goldwasser puts it, an ancient representation of a bull “sleeps forever in the letter A”. After the accountants and despots, it’s nice to learn that illiterate migrant workers seemingly forged this crucial link. 

★★★★☆

On BBC4 from September 21 at 9pm

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