There seems little doubt that writing and reading played a critical role in producing the shift
from thinking about things to thinking about representations of those things, that is, thinking
— DAVID R. OLSON1
THE INTERFACE BETWEEN writing and art in the ancient Near East is singular because the exchange was fully reciprocal. In the late fourth millennium B.C. writing bestowed to art a paradigm for building complex visual narratives and supplied conventions for loading pictures with information. In the early third millennium B.C., in turn, writing separated itself from accounting by piggybacking onto lavish art objects and assuming a funerary function. In this second episode of interface, the yearning to communicate with the gods compelled writing to develop in two ways. First, the repertory of phonetic signs was expanded, paving the way toward a syllabary, and second, the script endeavored to express full sentences of speech.
Art was the beneficiary of the first interface between the two media. Writing provided art with the ability to translate into visual form the age-old myths recited around the fire. Stories are told in all human societies, but converting chains of events into pictures is problematic. The most obvious obstacle is that heroes live their adventures not as tableaux vivants but in a constant flux, and there is no way to stop life like the frame of a film. Therefore, cultures create visual formulae to translate the sequence of a plot atemporally. These structures of meaning, which allow a community to share a story by way of pictures, are not spontaneous. They have to be forged. In the Near East, I propose, the formulae to tell complex narratives visually was derived from writ-