When Writing Met Art: From Symbol to Story

By Denise Schmandt-Besserat | Go to book overview

TWO
Glyptic

Narrative is a deep structure independent of its medium. In other words, narrative is basically
a kind of text organization and that organization, that schema, needs to be actualized: in writ-
ing words, as in stories and novels, in spoken words combined with the movement of actors
imitating characters against sets which imitate places as plays and films; in drawings; in comic
strips; in dance movements, as in narrative ballet and in mime; and even in music, at least in
program music of the order of Peter and the Wolf.

— SEYMOUR CHATMAN1

IN THIS CHAPTER I turn to glyptic, the art of carving seals, which like ceramic painting has its roots deep in prehistory.2 I will propose that, as with pottery painting, glyptic compositions changed with the advent of writing. After analyzing the evolution of a single seal assemblage, that of Tepe Gawra in northern Mesopotamia, I will compare and contrast seal compositions—how designs were organized on the face of seals—before, at the time of, and after the invention of writing. I will show that at the first stage, preliterate circular compositions merely evoked ideas. At stage two, protoliterate seals told simple stories by adopting the linear mode of writing and creating a “syntax”—an established order to connect figures. And at stage three, after literacy had become well established, glyptic art was able to tell complex stories by pushing the ground line convention to new subtleties and developing a repertory of status markers imitating the determinative signs of cuneiform writing. First, I briefly introduce the art of seal carving in the ancient Near East and the Tepe Gawra glyptic assemblage.


Glyptic: The Seal Carver’s Art

Seals were used to identify individuals or offices responsible for shipping, registering, and storing merchandise.3 Goods transported in jars, baskets, sacks, or bundles were secured with strings, and a patch of clay was affixed on the terminal knot bearing the seal of the sender or recipient. Seals were also applied to envelopes holding tokens or

-27-

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When Writing Met Art: From Symbol to Story
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction- Writing and Art 1
  • I - How Writing Shaped Art 13
  • One - Pottery Painting 15
  • Two - Glyptic 27
  • Three - The Uruk Vase- Sequential Narrative 41
  • Four - Wall and Floor Painting 47
  • II - How Art Shaped Writing 61
  • Five - Funerary Inscriptions 63
  • Six - Votive and Dedicatory Inscriptions 71
  • Seven - The Stele of Hammurabi 87
  • Conclusion- The Interface between Writing and Art 101
  • Notes 107
  • Bibliography 117
  • Index 129
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