Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Ancient Origins of Writing

A little more than a decade ago, scholar Denise Schmandt-Besserat published an intriguing interpretation (Before Writing in two volumes in 1992 and an abridgement of this work as How Writing Came About in 1996) about how trading tokens may have evolved into writing systems in the ancient world. In a new book, When Writing Met Art: From Symbol to Story (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), Schmandt-Besserat considers how in the fourth and third millennia B.C. “writing and art multiplied their capacity to communicate information. Art became narrative and writing went beyond accounting to become a comprehensive medium of communication” (p. 1).

Examining pottery paintings, wall paintings, seals, stone reliefs, and a variety of other evidence, Schmandt-Besserat tracks how art and writing co-existed side by side and influenced each other. Considering glyptic – the art of carving seals, this scholar suggests that “when figures began to be organized according to an established order in linear compositions, like the signs in a text, seals started to depict action and thus tell stories” (p. 35). Schmandt-Besserat sees this as a “new conceptual outlook” (p. 35). She plainly states that she agrees with other scholars such as Ong, McLuhan, and Goody, whose work “regards the cognitive structures created by writing as those that change our thought processes and our relations to the world. I view the transformations in pottery painting, stone relief, and glyptic art as illustrating the profound impact of writing on the ancient Near Eastern cultures” (p. 60).

In her study, Schmandt-Besserat is seeking to reverse the notion that images led the way to writing systems; instead, she argues, “It was by borrowing the linear layout and hallmark strategies of writing to communicate information that art began to tell simple stories in the proto-linear period” (p. 103) Anyone interested in the origins of writing and recordkeeping will want to read this small volume. Likewise, anyone interested in how shifts occur in different forms of textual or visual literacy will also want to examine the study. Schmandt-Besserat, writing in a manner sounding like some of our contemporary pundits discoursing on the sift to a new form of literacy as represented by the Web, states, “Writing and art interfaced because they were naturally compatible. As visual languages, they both depended on the same skills based on hand and eye coordination” (p. 105). The difference may be the rate of change. Schmandt-Besserat is chronicling changes over hundreds of years, while we tend to see change (although usually mistakenly) in terms of years, decades at the most.