When Writing Met Art: From Symbol to Story
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Denise Schmandt-Besserat opened a major new chapter in the history of literacy when she demonstrated that the cuneiform script invented in the ancient Near East in the late fourth millennium BC—the world's oldest known system of writing—derived from an archaic counting device. Her discovery, which she published in Before Writing: From Counting to Cuneiform and How Writing Came About, was widely reported in professional journals and the popular press. In 1999, American Scientist chose How Writing Came About as one of the "100 or so Books that shaped a Century of Science."
In When Writing Met Art, Schmandt-Besserat expands her history of writing into the visual realm of communication. Using examples of ancient Near Eastern writing and masterpieces of art, she shows that between 3500 and 3000 BC the conventions of writing—everything from its linear organization to its semantic use of the form, size, order, and placement of signs—spread to the making of art, resulting in artworks that presented complex visual narratives in place of the repetitive motifs found on preliterate art objects. Schmandt-Besserat then demonstrates art's reciprocal impact on the development of writing. She shows how, beginning in 2700-2600 BC, the inclusion of inscriptions on funerary and votive art objects emancipated writing from its original accounting function. To fulfill its new role, writing evolved to replicate speech; this in turn made it possible to compile, organize, and synthesize unlimited amounts of information; and to preserve and disseminate information across time and space.
Schmandt-Besserat's pioneering investigation of the interface between writing and art documents a key turning point in human history, when two of our most fundamental information media reciprocally multiplied their capacities to communicate. When writing met art, literate civilization was born.
together medleys of humans and animals. wall and floor painting 51 figure 4.4. Vultures and human ﬁgure, Çatal Hüyük, Turkey. After James Mellaart, Çatal Hüyük, A Neolithic Town in Anatolia, p. 83, ﬁg. 15. Drawing by Muwafaq Bataineh. For example, a section of a wall in room FV,1 displays ﬁve large animals and 15 very small, sticklike human ﬁgures (ﬁg. 4.6). The beasts can be identiﬁed as a bovid, deer, wild boar, and two does by the shapes of their bodies and heads and the presence or lack
the temple. Enmetena who built the Eadda—may his personal god, Shulutul, forever pray Enlil for the life of Enmetena. Eanatum had ceded 25 bur from Surnanshe. 11 bur of . . . rushes?, land in the marshes of Nina, adjacent to the Holy Canal and 60 bur (already belonging to?) Enlil, land in the Gu’edena, Enmetena, ruler of Lagash, . . . to Enlil of Eadda.’’ 55 It should be well understood that inscriptions similar to those of Groups I and II also occur on other contemporaneous votive objects. For
also be described with almost opposite terms. The text was read analytically, one character at a time, but the relief was apprehended globally. Reading the text required knowledge, but the images relied on imagination. The images touched the audience directly, but the inscription required mediation. The most signiﬁcant disparity lies in the fact that each character of the text was meant to be read in a deﬁnite way, but there was no one single correct interpretation for the pictures. No two people
based on hand and eye coordination. In the period of the ﬁrst interface, both media were based on one-to-one correspondence. The most signiﬁcant outcome of their interface was that each of the two visual languages was brought to a higher level of abstraction. The narrative visual paradigms abstracted time, action, motion, depth, volume, context, sound, speech, facial expression, and body language. Writing eliminated the sound of speech, abstracting from discourse sentences, clauses, words,
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