The Medieval Period

As the Roman Empire collapsed and we were plunged into The Dark Ages, an evolution of the use of images for communication unfolded. The Middle Ages is split into 3 parts:

The Early Middle Ages (estimated around 500-1000), The High Middle Ages (c.1001 – 1300) and the Later Middle Ages (c.1300-1500).

During the Early Middle Ages, Christianity was a leading Religion in Western Europe and imagery and text (or the verbal words) had a strong connection. Religious images were created to tell their stories to those who were illiterate, or for those who wanted to pray upon an image (for example images of the crucifix, or Virgin Mary) during times of worship, such as being in Church, to directly communicate with God.

Particular images created at this time would have set scenes, laid out one after another almost like a comic book, for example what is seen in the scenes from”The Life of St. Jerome”, however different from our idea of a comic today as characters would not have speech bubbles or might appear twice in the same panel, but this would not have been a problem for the viewers in this era. It is most likely that some images required a verbal translation by the artist or the Church, or perhaps Christians at the time were just simply skilled at interpreting the symbolic nature of their religious imagery or expertise in religious ideology. Sadly what ancient images once represented can be clouded by our modern eyes as empathy for cultural differences has been lost.

Many art styles arose during the medieval period. Byzantine(c.500-1453) is the first major style to merge after the fall of the Roman Empire.

The Byzantine empire’s leader and founder, Constantine The Great (306-337 AD) is seen in Byzantine Art. He endorsed Christianity: “By the 4th century, the new religion had made such rapid strides that practically the entire Roman Empire was Christianized” (Byzantine Art, p8) Byzantine art is almost wholly Religious and typically uses rich materials such as gold leaf for the Holy figures in the imagery as well as emphasising the leaders power and wealth. Pagan views were  soon after rendered criminal and were defaced as the Christian Church spread and grew with power, thanks to Constantine.

As the Byzantine Empire reined in the East for the long period of a thousand years (324-1453), the art style is seen throughout Early Medieval artwork. Most critics view the art style as uncreative as it is an exhaustive collection of regurgitated and cliché religious imagery.

Justinian the Great was the Byzantine Emperor (reined 527-565) whom attempted to fix the crumbling state of the Roman Empire(Justinian might be a possible origin of the word “Justice”). However ultimately failed as territory was lost in the fall of the Roman Empire. As his reign ended, so did the Byzantine Empire. In his portrait you can see the use of gold, colourful and large jewellery, and framed with a Halo around his head to highlight his power, wealth and his Holiness.

Romanesque Art (c.1000 to 1150) is from the Western part of the Roman Empire. Romanesque and Gothic Styles  went together back to back for quite a while(Gothic Art: c.1150 to 1400) as they both tied in together during the High middle Ages until the Later Middle Ages.  Romanesque was a common art style throughout Medieval Europe and was popular in Spain.

The piece “Christ as Orpheus” (4th century) was an attempt to warm up the pagan culture that was the public to this new religion, Christianity. The faces of figures they knew and worshiped were vandalised and replaced with Christ. It it amusing in an ironic way, as subjectively Pagan’s had just enough right to do the same thing to Jesus’ face. Romanesque art also features animals from myths and legends which does not break away from the classic Roman style.

Insular (or Hiberno-Saxon) Art was around in the British Isles by the Celtic cultures that lived there during the Early Middle Ages (c.500-1170). They had Anglo-northern roots and had nothing to do with the Roman Empire, so that art style was noticeably different and refreshingly unique. Insular artwork typically gives off a natural, organic feel with pagan animals intertwined.

A great example of the Insular art style is The Book of Kells. The Book of Kells is a religious manuscript of gospels that  is filled with beautiful imagery, delicate detail and powerful symbolism that is unique to the book. Of course the imagery would have made sense to viewers of the time, but The Book of Kells remains a beautiful and important medieval manuscript to this day with a thick history.

Gothic Art (c.1150 to 1400) emerged at the end of the Middle Ages, and is mainly seen in cathedral architecture, but it spurted a reaction and was seen as ugly (Gothic translates as barbaric). It was a rebuilding of the choir of Benedictine church of St. Denis, and the style we recognise as Gothic began to spread, as Romanesque art was beginning to fade: “It was a period of intense experiment, unevenly and untidily distributed” (Gothic Art, p7) immense detail and pattern was applied in an attempt to create a sense of importance to buildings. the insides of  Gothic buildings is smothered with over-the-top detail with barely any surface untouched, giving a rough appearance.

Jesse tree window” is a stain-glass window seen in Chatres Cathedral, an example of the Gothic style in churches. The image features Christ and was designed to be read by the illiterate, so needed multiple images. The window is far too complex with unnessessary thick black outlines against opposing bright coloured glass and is just an eyesore,  especially since the window is huge and would have been seen at a distance.

The tree of Jesse is seen throughout cathedrals in France and England and is supposed to represent the family tree of Jesus Christ.


Life in the Middle Ages would have been rough and with a limited access to knowledge to lay people, diseases spread quickly and many people suffered and died from them, such as the Black Death. So death was common in everyday life and a big deal, as it is a painful subject matter. The Holy Bible was a guidance point on how to live your life, so many people believed sin was the cause of disease.

Damned are swallowed by a Hell mouth” (c.1200’s) was an image that would have been sold as the absolute truth of your fate, and sinners would have been sent to Hell. Used as a horrifying deterrent, as it shows a large monstrous mouth being opened to reveal a pile of green, rotting corpses of those who have sinned. This demonic mouth represents the entrance to Hell. What is interesting is how it features a Holy figure(a priest) painted in gold leaf that holds the key for opening this portal. This expresses the immense power that the Church had over the masses.



Diebold,William J.  (2000) Word and Image: An Introduction to Early Medieval. Westview Press

Durand, Jannic  (1999) Byzantine Art. Paris : Editions Pierre Terrail

Lowden, John  (1997) Early Christian & Byzantine Art. Phaidon Press

Martindale, Andrew  (1967) Gothic Art. London : Thames and Hudson

Petzold, Andreas  (1995) Romanesque Art


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The Origins of Typography

Manuscripts were important. They were rich with information about the culture, religion, medicine and the sciences. However, they were expensive, time-consuming to create (As the only way of creating copies of writing was by scribes writing and re-writing texts by hand) and only the literate, rich, religious and important members of society could have access to the knowledge they possess.

The  “Magna charta cum statutis angliae” is a fourteenth century manuscript, written on pigskin in Carolingian minuscule script, is a treaty about the English common law at the time and it kept even the king under the Law, which shows the power that manuscripts had on people.Written language, such as words, can be powerful and important documents are created and used everyday.

A page from the Magna charta cum statutis angliae manuscript

Of course the process of writing books by hand is slow and tedious, and society would never advance fast enough. After the late medieval period “movable type” had an explosive impact.

Johannes Gutenberg (1394-1468) invented the printing press in 1436 (finished 1440). This was the revolution of book production as it kept quality and removed human writing errors in books. The printing press was made up of wooden or metal separate blocks with reversed slightly raised letters that could be individually moved around to create words, and a thin layer of ink would have been applied over all the letters making up a page and used to produce several copies when pressed onto paper. Gutenberg’s printing press was used up until the 20th century.

As there was an explosion of knowledge available to lay people, as books became more easily accessible and therefore cheaper, authority figures felt threatened by competition: “the printed book also led to more stringent attempts at censorship. This was a sign that it was felt by those in authority to be dangerous and challenging to their position.” ( knowledge was power, and people with a higher level of knowledge can make others inferior.

Before the revolution that was the printing press, most books would have been small in size and bigger books could not be made in mass production.

The Gutenberg Bible is the first printed Bible and was successful as it popularised reading and keeping a personal copy of the Bible as it was more legible having printed lettering instead of struggling to read small handwriting. However, the Bible is a huge book and therefore took longer to make and remained expensive to obtain: “It took the skin from about 170 calves to print a single Bible on calf’s skin” (, only about 48 copies of The Gutenberg Bible (c.1455) exist today. The books themselves have been preserved nicely and look ordered and clean. Once translations of the Bible were made into local dialects, it could be spread across communities so that learning the word of the Bible began to no longer be something left up to the church. This had massive repercussions and helped in the success of the Protestant Reformation across Europe.

Even though the ability of writing is an amazing communication tool humans have learnt and created, the Greek Philosopher Socrates (469 B.C- 399 B.C) argued that writing is not natural: “pretending to establish outside the mind what in reality can only be in the mind” (Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word ), Socrates stressed that we learn from others. Books are impersonal and can only be a one-way dialogue. You can only receive information directly unlike first-hand information from another where you can debate and ask questions. But of course books preserve the said words and thoughts of others and be preserved for generations.

Unfortunately today books are so normalised, this is how we now react to computers and the internet and how an easy access to information numbs our minds. Back when books were becoming a thing, people might have had the same problem, of just going to books for guidance instead of learning first-hand.  We hold onto calculators to solve maths problems and auto-correct features for spelling mistakes. Auto-correct features affect people’s ability to write properly. Even with smartphones, people can access information straight from their pockets(however “useful” this information may be, it will most likely be social networks). Hanging out with others can feel distant with people who are using their phones instead of conversing. This brings up the idea I spoke about previously about people hiding behind a screen.

Even though typing is revolutionary, cursive writing is beneficial for learning: “Studies have also highlighted how writing can help boost cognitive ability, memory and improve spelling.” (Daily Mail), handwriting is directly from your mind, and it jogs your thinking process as you regurgitate information onto paper.

However, typing on a computer is much faster than by hand and more uniform. The information can be copied at the click of a button and it can be read by anyone without the stress of struggling to read someone else’s messy handwriting(the same effect printing presses first gave): “The national Common Core Standards, adopted by 45 U.S. states, does not include handwriting as part of the curriculum” (Daily Mail) Shockingly, most schools no longer feel the need to teach handwriting, as they feel teaching basic writing skills, a skill we have used since early humans, is just not essential to learn in the Digital Age.

So is cursive language dying?

Personally, I prefer writing by hand. Ideas flow easier, I can take my pen or pencil all over the page in taking notes , with doodles that may follow in coming up with ideas. Handwriting is personal, comes naturally and it’s fast. I can take down quick notes in a notebook (or the back of my hand). Typing at a computer is merely for creating a final piece of written work, for other people to read. It’s too restricted and I feel the need to think carefully about what I need to type before saying anything. I make mistakes easier by typing the wrong keys and documents I create can be lost or corrupted. When you study for an exam, you write and re-write extracts from a book and quotations. In fact, most exams are written by hand as computers have access to material for cheating. So handwriting needs to be fast and still legible.

We live in a world where there are parts of the world that still have no access to electricity. Being able to read and write is valuable.

If children today do not learn to write cursively, paper may merely be seen as the physical document of something they have seen on a computer screen. Maybe even paper might die out in this un-creative and bleak future, as the screen is all the future might need.



Walter J. Ong (1991) Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. Routledge  (p79,80)


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Cursive Language and Medieval Manuscripts

Cuneform script (from the Latin word cuneus meaning ‘wedge’), is where writing as we know it today evolved from pictographs carved into clay tablets, or ‘wedged’ in using mediocre tools, as civilisations swiftly grew and spread.  As pictographs were largely detailed they therefore took a while to draw, which is not very practical. With an ever-growing population and the mingling of cultures, new knowledge emerged and so other than basic script for trading systems more advanced words for communication needed a symbol to be purposefully designed.

So by 3000 B.C, script (handwriting) became easier to understand and faster to write. As a true alphabet began to be taught along with phonics, which was typically used (also today) to help teach people how to read by using sounds that relate to their related symbol.

People no longer needed to learn the definition of a pictograph now with the ability to write a rebus (text alongside an image) to read more coherently. As spoken language changed and adapted to an ever changing culture, so did written (this has been the case throughout written history).

Cursive Language is handwritten, joined up letters that we are taught to use from an early age. Handwriting comes naturally as we write everyday (unless you’ve forgotten how to write a word then you’ll probably write letter by letter). Everyone has that “unique” writing style, some arguably more legit able than others. Hieroglyphics (especially hieratic) is the origins of all western written language (like the Latin alphabet we see in our language).  Greek and Roman letters are the foundations of the alphabet and modern languages. Accents and ligatures (Two characters joined together) were designed (and still used today in some modern languages) to express the sound of the word to help with reading.

A great example of Ancient Egyptian cursive script is the Edwin Smith Papyrus (1600 B.C). Discovered by Edwin Smith (1862), the papyrus is written in hieratic script (cursive Egyptian hieroglyphics) and is the oldest known surviving script of medical practices from that era.

The Edwin Smith Papyrus shows the earliest record of medical techniques

This particular piece of script gives us an insight to how we historically applied medicine and what treatments were available. As disease would have been common, ancient civilisations needed to conjure up cures from what they understood about the human anatomy, magic and worship. Ancient Egypt was a land with a plentiful supply of resources from agriculture to precious metals so language had evolved to adapt to the changing culture. Archaeologists find hieroglyphics important as they tell how this once powerful civilisation ran and about its people, and fortunately Ancient Egypt documented quite a lot of their findings and stories(thanks to the discovery of the Rosetta stone, some translations of this now dead-language can be estimated).

Paper was needed for cursive language as carving into clay would not be so beneficial for a faster way of writing. Papyrus is reeds from the river Nile which is harvested and pressed together to create an early form of paper: “Papyrus was the most widely used writing support in the ancient world […] until 1057, papyrus was replaced by locally produced parchment in most of Western Europe when the Roman Empire collapsed and papyrus became impossible to import”(p3, “Introduction to Manuscript Studies”) as language spread across different societies writing tools and languages changed over hundreds of years. Even though papyrus was no longer an option for Western Europe, this was not a problem: “every conceivable surface has been used to record the written word, including clay, slate, pottery shards, linen cloth, bark, palm leaves, wood, metal, stone, animal skins, wax and paper”(Introduction to Manuscript, p3), early manuscript parchments were made from specially prepared animal skins of livestock. The process was slow and care was taken to make sure no discolouration or tears occurred, whereas papyrus was a more straight-forward process.

As the Roman empire collapsed around 476 A.D, Europe plunged into ‘The Dark Ages’: “The Roman Empire was of enormous dimensions extending from the Atlantic to the River Euphrates, and from Britain to the Sahara Desert”(The Fall of the Roman Empire) Roman territory was far too large and the army was unsuccessful and collapsed. As law and order crumbled, disease and conflict would have been a large problem and typical lifespans shortened. Sources of text were far more scarce, as written language was already restricted to important members of society: “advanced literacy was confined to churchmen for 500 years”( this continued over the Middle Ages as Monks created scripts. With writing tools evolving into feathered ink and quills, writing was easier however, every book created was hand written. This lead to a large variety in medieval manuscripts, as changes would have been made, as well as several mistakes: “every manuscript is unique”(Introduction to Manuscript Studies, p129) because each Monk’s handwriting would differ caused by the script’s ductus (the speed and quality of the execution of the way the letters were formed) some manuscripts may have been difficult to read.

Scripts come in several different styles, to keep cursive language easy to read and different styles were also fashionable at different periods.  Many medieval books have been preserved however many were also destroyed: “Developments in handwriting, for example, could lead to the destruction of entire manuscripts” (Introduction to Manuscript Studies, p67) scribes kept books up-to-date by burning old editions, or removing their pages(even though books suffered from natural attacks from animals and decay, religious groups would have also torn opposing or aged books apart).Thankfully many medieval books have survived and this helps give historians an insight to the medieval culture.

Carolingian miniscule(8th century), a script in which letters were different sizes to each other (Ascenders and Descenders) introduced spaces between words and was designed to make reading easier and faster to comprehend(Roman alphabet was all capitals). Most scripts are the result of the Carolingian miniscule and are still used today, including the Gothic script (12th Century) which is seen today in certificates , diplomas and the New York Times newspaper. Gothic Script does not have conjoined letters and some of the text looks similar(a and d, a and v and u and v) and so reading Gothic script can sometimes be difficult to read.

Bâtarde script (15th Century)  was much more commonly seen in manuscripts during the later medieval period as it had a formal appearance, but was more legible.

Example of Gothic Script, seen in the New York Times logo

Of course, the process of books created by hand would have slow and ultimately made the access to knowledge precious and not available to everyone.



Charlesworth (1968) Roman Empire. Oxford University Press(p7)

Clemens, Raymond  and  Graham, Timothy (2007) Introduction to Manuscript Studies. Cornell University Press (p3, 67, 129)

Grant, Michael  (1976) “The Fall of the Roman Empire” A Reappraisal by (p23)


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Exploring Cognition

As cave paintings evolved into more abstract images then onto pictorial written language, we can see how early language stayed linked to pictures.

Like in texting, we might use emoticons to express our facial expressions, even though it could just be a simple image consisting of two dots and a line, instead of a person’s actual physical face.

Some people can see a face on the moon “The man on the moon”.

It’s possibly a survival technique in early humans to spot “faces” in random or unsuspecting places, such as how we can spot a “face” in the front of a car or the moon. New-borns are able to differentiate a parent’s face to that of a unfamiliar face (Matlin and Foley). So is face recognition important? Evidence seems to suggest so, with the idea that the brain has a separate area devoted to the task.

Patients have suffered with a condition called prosopagnosia where human faces were impossible to identify, including their own. Face perception loss, such as this condition, has been shown to have physical routes in damage usually involving the right temporal lobe of the brain (Wacholtz, 1996). Psychologists Damasio and Tranel(1990) also found that this condition only affects the identity of the face. Other aspects such as gender or age are unaffected. As sections of the brain are so devoted to the task of face recognition, humans can identify a “face” even if it’s not a true organic face.

Face perception is possibly innate, as psychologists Morton and Johnson’s study(1991), showed how new-born infants were drawn towards images of faces, rather than images of mixed up faces or blank images.

Humans can naturally identify abstract images. We can see a realistic image of an object (like a photograph)and also as an abstract image (like a crude drawing by a child), and still recognise what it is, even if it isn’t real or physical.

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols, basically where we perceive the image of a sign which can evoke a feeling or a memory that conveys its meaning, almost nostalgic. People create images as a means to communicate and this can be useful socially. We use icons and symbols in everyday life such as road and warning signs, as a means to communicate an idea quickly and simply while on the move or in an emergency (also useful universally for people who speak a foreign language or are illiterate) or in instruction booklets as a visual representation.  So semiotics can be a visual representation, but this study also includes spoken words, audio, body language and gestures, to express a message: “Semiotics involves the study not only of what we refer to as ‘signs’ in every-day speech, but of anything which ‘stands for ’something else” (Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics). For example, you might hear birds singing outside and you automatically connect that sound to birds, without actually seeing them, or an alarm ringing throughout a building that will mean there is a fire and for you to escape outside to safety.



Chandler, Daniel . Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd Ed(p1-2)

Coren, Stanley., Ward, Laurence M. , Enns, James T.  (1998) Sensation and Perception. 5th Ed. Harcourt College Publishing(p540)

Matlin, Margaret W.  and Foley, Hugh J.  (1997) Sensation and Perception. 4th Ed(p448)



American Express advert (2009)- shows how we can recognise “faces” in random places.

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A universal language: From Isotypes to the Internet

Pictographs were invented as a basic writing and reading tools that anyone could understand and use as a replacement to memory. The images were based off of everyday objects and animals. Of course, over time languages and writing has developed and evolved over time and across communities.

Being that there are roughly 7000 languages out there, we would need to be multilingual to understand other people or get translators, but how about a universal language?

In the 1960’s a universal language was attempted. Isotypes(International System Of TYpographic Picture Education) are made up of pictographs of everyday objects, to create a language that everyone worldwide could read: “Another outspoken goal of this method of visual statistics was to overcome barriers of language and culture, and to be universally understood.”(, of course, most objects and animals that are common in one lifestyle might not be recognisable in another part of the world and vice versa.  Thus the “language” would still need to have to be described and taught. Over 4000 images were designed by Gerd Arntz (1900-1988).

The Isotypes would therefore have to be used as a visual guidance alongside written words: “Due to this visual summary, less text is needed” (, but the fact that text is still required made the use of a fully universal pictographic language void. However, I discovered in the book “The Transformer” (by Marie Neurath and Robin Kinross), Isotype charts  created for pictorial statistics, were useful for creating charts, graphs and visuals to compare or go alongside information: “that was an instance of the charts meaning something for everyone, that they excluded nobody”(“The Transformer”), they discovered children viewed the graphs with some ease, however if people struggled to comprehend they had to start re-thinking the design all over again.

Symbols to represent words are more commonly seen today in maps or road signs, so everyone can easily “read” what they mean.


Photographs I have taken of real life examples in and around Dundee.

Isotype are useful for displaying information visually to keep interest to the viewer.

Thanks to the advancement of technology and the rise of the internet, people have been able to communicate to more and more people with ease than ever before, almost as a universal “language” with others across the globe. It’s a fantastic learning tool, as information can be spread across the world quickly and effectively.

However, this has created a lazy environment where we do not need to use our memories for storing information and to create strong inter-personal relationships with those we come in contact with. Contacting strangers is easier online than out in the street in public, as we are safe knowing we cannot be seen or heard. Do you feel like you’re a different person online? Like you put on a mask to hide behind your true “self”?  What about a fear of revealing too much about your true self?

‘Cyber balkanization’ is the term used to describe groups of people on the internet who just stick to others with the same interests, creating a narrow-minded approach to other people with different views, no longer a worry with having actual discussion with others with conflicting views, unlike face-to-face contact in the real world.


A quick sketch I made of people “hiding behind a mask” when dealing with online conversations.

Personally, I find texting friends (whether it be online or by phone)to be a hassle as my recipient may not always reply straight away, especially if I need to contact them. Phoning is much more reliable for a quick response, but then that costs more money, so I must settle with texting. For long-distance (especially over the summer when everyone was away from university), speaking over Skype was a great way to keep in touch (despite the flaws of disconnecting and the microphone not always working), but most people are quite content with simply texting. I suppose texting other people could be seen as just more socially acceptable now and also most expensive smartphones are under contract, so you’re forced to text others as so then you’re not wasting any money.

Technology has made it convenient to keep in touch with people and information out of your reach, but the role of the voice is useful for communicating moods, emotions and our attitudes whether we speak in a whisper or a tense voice, also facial and hand gestures. These are the tools, as it were, that we have used to communicate to one another for millions of years, before writing was even invented.

Even books describe emotion (sarcasm for example) and in text most people will use “emoticons”, which is used as a substitute to an absent physical body/face, made up of icons.  : – )

Texting ’emoticons’ can help express facial expressions from an otherwise absent face

But has a world driven by technology, made people drift apart?  More likely than ever before, people find standing to an audience very daunting and much prefer to stay alone: “we may be free to work from everywhere, but we are also prone to being lonely everywhere”(Alone Together). The electronic age has led to an anxiety to communicate properly to others: “you don’t see their reaction or anything, and it’s like you’re talking to a computer screen so you don’t see how you’re hurting them”(Alone Together) people have a bigger sense of freedom over the internet in speech and creating a fake persona. Social networking has desensitised the word “friend” because instead of building on inter-personal relationships, we’re more focused on just ourselves(using facebook or twitter status updates) instead of actual conversing.

Ultimately, people today shy away from the hassle of having conversation and hide behind a screen, alone.



Neurath, Marie  and Kinross, Robin  (2009)- The Transformer. Princeton Architectural Press (p26)

Turkle, Sherry  (2011)- Alone Together. Basic Books (front flap and p241)



(“The science of the friendzone” – talks about how people in the last century have fewer friends, and mentions the book “Bowling Alone” by Robert D. Putnam, where technology has contributed to a decline in social behaviour)

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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)

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

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.



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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The Birth of Symbolic Language

Humans have been around for millions and millions of years, but it’s only been a small slice of our history were we’ve actually been able to communicate with one another.

Early humans  lacked natural physical features for protection (such as sharp teeth and claws) and became “able to use their hands to hold and shape objects, being able to use their voices to communicate with each other … all this required the growth of large brain cells and the ability and desire to socialise”(Chris Harman- A people’s history of the world). It’s the development of the vocal track, and cognitive reasoning that allowed any kind of meaningful sounds to be made, so early language would have been basic hand gestures and sounds.

I found our lecture on the birth of language very interesting, as without language humans as a species will never have progressed evolutionary to where we are today. Human nature is only a narrow slice in society. Traditionally, societies were of a few hundred to a few thousand people, and humans lived like this for about 6 million years. It’s only in the last 10,000 years for the first time ever we encountered strangers in our midst, developed tools and farming, a trading system then soon language. Tools for writing (pressing objects and carving abstract shapes into clay blocks) had to be created for easy memory and sooner or later humans developed thanks to an exchange of knowledge to life as we know it today.

Prehistoric drawings only give an insight of the lives of our ancestors and even then they’re being debated under several different specialisms about what they mean. As we have no way to travel back in time, we can only guess their meaning as the original information is long gone. Unfortunately many fake prehistoric artwork have been made: “our knowledge of true Ice Age art has become distorted”(Paul G. Bahn – Chauvet Cave), many artworks discovered in  the past may have been accidentally accepted as real, while at the same time many more are undiscovered.

A prime example of possibly the world’s oldest cave paintings is the Chauvet cave (dates back 30,000 years), located in the gorges  of the Ardèche in south-east France. Not only is the artwork painted across the cave walls impressive and have a large collection of animal drawings, the cave floor is also littered with the fossils of ancient animals:”From the archaeological record, it is clear that these animals were rarely hunted; the images are thus not simple depictions of daily life at the time they were made” (Jean Clottes- Independent Scholar. Met as there are no paintings of human figures, it is unclear if the animals in question were hunted. As for the skeletons, the cave is thousands of years old, as many are the skeletons of bears that simply hibernated.

However, there is a bear skull finely placed on the edge of a stone block- this unusual set up brings up theories between the relationship between human and bears in this cave. Scientists are unsure of any possible stories/rituals that could have taken place here and what paintings could have been centered around this. Other than paintings, engravings are also seen carved into the stone walls, which includes claw marks made by animals. The huge cave was split into categories, or “panels”, by the explorers where specific drawings have been found bunched together(examples are the lion panel and hand stencil panel).

3 beautiful horse heads drawn facing each other in the Chauvet cave.

An example of Paleolithic art featuring lions hunting bison in the Chauvet Cave

Hand stencils can be found. Possibly used as a “signature”.

The paintings are an example of what early language would have stemmed from – from observational drawings of animals, which is then abstracted overtime into pictographs until eventually “written” language(that we take for granted today).



Chauvet, Jean-Marie (1996)– Chauvet Cave. The discovery of the world’s oldest paintings. Thames and Hudson

Diamond, Jared  (2012)- The World Until Yesterday. The New York Times Company.

Harman, Chris (1999)- A People’s History of the World. London: Bookmarks Publications  (p4)



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