Pictographs and Cuneiform Script

We have a “natural” language, which is crying out in pain from an injury or laughing with joy. We might use hand gestures to communicate to one another (everyone’s done it in their lifetime, when trying to quietly “talk” to someone else across a room). Then there is cultural conditioning, where we are taught to speak in a language or to write on paper, simple things we take for granted.

Language has evolved over time throughout generations and lifestyles and other languages have branched out from these and have spread across the world (around 7000 in the world today) but have all come from a common ancestor.

Pictographs (a simple picture to represent a word) are used daily in our lives in public signs, however historically would have been used to be read as a language itself. A great example of homo sapiens cognitive evolution (and possible spoken words) is the Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka(c.100,000BC), where the cave paintings represent possible ordering of imagery, with images of humans riding on animals, rather than what appears to be random drawings of animals.

In the Bhimbetka cave it shows men riding on animals and poultry(early farming) http://mangaldarshan.webs.com/b_bhimbetka_caves.jpg

In our lecture, we began to find out how elaborate cave paintings of animals transformed over time to written language as we know of today.  As people began to travel and mingle with other communities in ancient civilisations, a trading system was founded.

Cuneiform script, which is the earliest writing system, is formed out of basic shapes which would have represented an object or a word. Writing systems were invented to record figures for trading business: “with the growth of centralised economies [in the Near East]the officials of palaces and temples needed to be able to keep track of the amounts of grain and numbers of sheep and cattle which were entering or leaving their stores and farms”(C. B . F. Walker)as a result, society had to create a “language” of semi-symbol signs(c.3000 bc).

Artistic interpretations are too time consuming, so making quick marks into blocks of clay is much faster and therefore beneficial for communication and recording, so society needed to turn towards a more abstract way of recording.  The script would have been carved into blocks of clay, which would have been easy to mould into comfortably portable tablets: “these stylised representations then had to be standardised so that everyone could recognise them” (C. B. F. Walker, p7) Thanks to the hot climate, the clay tablets would have dried at a quick pace and would not be easily broken apart, so could be kept portable. Such script might be dumbed-down animal shapes and are almost pictographic. The inscriptions found on these tablets might represent typical livestock at the time such as an ox’s head; noticeably there was still a need to draw the actual representation. Most Chinese text is still based off of pictographic drawings today.

Example of Cuneiform script being transformed from a basic pictograph to semi-symbolic signs http://www.arch.mcgill.ca/prof/sijpkes/arch374/winter2002/pssolange/images/cuneiform/cuneiform-development%20dwg.gif

Pictographic writing is seen in Ancient Egypt(c.2650BC). It is much more pictorial and possibly a fine example of the start of Illustration, as usually images are used as a visual description of the written language. The language has a rich history: “it was first written down towards the end of the fourth millennium BC”(W. V. Davies, p6). Hieroglyphic scripts (3100-3000BC), is a whole writing practice in itself. Being complex, some of the pictographs represent sounds or meaning. However, because of Ancient Egypt’s vast timeline, new hieroglyphs were made over time (as a response to new innovations, such as transport and weaponry) and older ones got buried in the vast language.

Thanks to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone(July 1799)most of the scripted language of Ancient Egypt can be roughly translated(A single text is carved over the stone in Hieroglyphics, Demotic(a later Egyptian script) and Greek.

“The weighing of the heart before the afterlife”. Example of hieroglyphics and illustrations. http://ashraf62.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/weighing_of_the_heart.jpg



Davies, W. V.  (1987) – Reading the Past: Egyptian Hieroglyphs. British Museum Press

Walker, C. B. F.  (1987)- Cuneiform. University of California Press



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