When Writing Met Art: From Symbol to Story

When Writing Met Art: From Symbol to Story

When Writing Met Art: From Symbol to Story

When Writing Met Art: From Symbol to Story


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 Cuneiformand How Writing Came About, was widely reported in professional journals and the popular press. In 1999,American Scientistchose How Writing Came Aboutas 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.


Writing is a mechanism that permits us to change the format of our creative endeavors, the
shape of our knowledge, our understanding of the world, and our activities within it.

— jack goody

In this volume I examine the interface between writing and art during the early urban period in the ancient Near East. I propose that an exchange between the two media took place in two installments: in the late fourth millennium B.C., writing had an impact of great consequence on art, and, reciprocally, in the third millennium B.C., art had an impact of no less significance on writing. I will show that through this mutual exchange both writing and art multiplied their capacity to communicate information. Art became narrative and writing went beyond accounting to become a comprehensive medium of communication.

Part One is devoted to the impact of writing on art. I hold writing responsible for the fundamental changes that took place ca. 3500 B.C. in Near Eastern art composition—the way designs were organized. To make this case I will compare and contrast compositions of preliterate vs. literate pottery paintings, wall paintings, seals, and stone reliefs. I will argue that before the invention of writing, compositions typically consisted of geometric or animal motifs that were juxtaposed, dovetailed together, or placed in rotating arrangements that symbolized an idea or evoked a story. But after writing, as the process of copying the dispositions of signs on a tablet was introduced, Near Eastern art became linear and thus could tell a story. Parallel lines, used as an organizing principle in a scene, caused the figures within that scene to be arranged in the same upright position upon a ground line. the ground line meant that the individuals pictured shared the same space at the same time. Accordingly, their relative size, location, position, order, and direction could be used to signify hierarchy, rank . . .

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