The cave paintings previously discussed may have been the first artwork produced by humans as well as an early form of communication, yet as our ancestors began to spread out across the world, a more developed form of written communication was required. This is not to say that the method of cave painting died out with the Lascaux caves 17,000 years ago, as cave art remained a popular form of art and communication for many hundreds of years, as seen at Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico featuring cave paintings dating back to 500BC. There is an estimated 24,000 images carved into the rock, likely by Ancestral Pueblo peoples and early Spanish settlers. Rock art typically consists of two major categories, pictographs and petroglyphs. The former is achieved through the application of pigments onto rock, as seen in Lascaux. Petroglyphs are created by removing the surface of a rock, revealing the lighter coloured rock beneath. Methods of rock removal include “scratching, abrading, pecking, carving, drilling, incising, and sculpting”.
Grand Galleries of the Ancients describes the process of creating rock art in further detail, as well as giving examples of cave art found in America.
Petroglyph panel at Tablet Rock, New Mexico
The cave art in New Mexico is made up of petroglyphs and while some of the images are recognizable as human and animal figures, many are abstract symbols that have lost their meaning over the years since their creation.
One of the symbols scored into the rock is less abstract to modern eyes than the others and is recognizable as a four-limbed star, yet what is most interesting is the apparent face in the centre and the stick-like (chicken) legs protruding from the star shape. This could be interpreted as a deity the people worshipped, or perhaps some symbol that could be understood within the community.
Rinconada Star Being, from the Rinconada section of the Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, New Mexico
The fact that this “Rinconada Star Being” is quite clearly meant to represent someone or something more specifically than the abstract markings, yet it is a depiction of a non-existent being within the world makes it a petroglyph of great interest. Is it meant to represent a deity? And if so, why is it the only form with recognizable, real-world features? Did this culture only have one deity? Or is it some kind of spirit? Evidence of extra-terrestrial life? The fun, yet frustrating thing about these early artworks is that we know little about them and are thus open to interpretation. The “star” has a definite presence to it, especially when surrounded by the abstract lines and circles.
As humans developed and began to spread over the world, trade became an ever more important factor. As a result, our ancestors needed a faster way to communicate without speech, and as a means of keeping records. Thus the figures and symbols found on cave walls began translating to stone tablets and written language began to develop.
However, reproducing these representative drawings of animals and goods as pictographs was a lengthy process and one that required a level of skill not all possessed. Sumeria, between 3000-1000 BC, found the answer in the form of the cuneiform script in which the pictures moved away from resemblance to the subject to highly abstracted forms and symbols, often far removed from the subject. (see diagram from Reading the Past)
Cuneiform diagram, Reading the Past, C. B. F. Walker, p.20 : ‘Table of cuneiform signs showing for each sign the pictograph form (c.3000BC), an early cuneiform representation (c.2400BC), and the Late Assyrian form (c.650BC), now turned through 90 degrees, with the Sumerian phonetic equivalent and meaning’
As Walker’s diagram shows, written language developed in a process from pictographs that clearly resembled the subject (c.3000 BC) into stylised representations known as cuneiforms (c.2400 BC) which, although significantly abstracted, sometimes echoed the subject. At some point the characters were turned through 90 degrees and became more abstracted and thus further removed from the original naturalistic pictures. This last stage of cuneiform script became standardised so that everyone could recognise them. This idea of a symbol representing a word or subject may seem quite simple to us now, but it is thoroughly sophisticated and was a huge breakthrough in the development of written language and in basic communication. It was efficient, able to represent something with minimal detail or effort, and, once standardised, easy to understand.
Cuneiform tablet, showing grid
Cuneiform tablets also displayed another innovation in written language: the grid. Although it may be in an early form, it is significantly more orderly and structured than if they had carved the symbols in all directions, all over the writing surface. It is possible that the Sumerians may have observed the hieroglyphs of the Ancient Egyptians, developed at the same time as cuneiform script, and took point from such elements as the grid system.
The semi-symbolic language of cuneiform script was a form of intentional communication; they were purposefully trying to communicate in an orderly manner, not just represent the real or spiritual world. It was the earliest instance of a functional written language and was developed out of necessity for efficient communication. Cuneiform is more perfunctory than cave art as agriculture and trade was the main focus; the Sumerians didn’t spend much time on developing drawings for art’s sake.
“Many millennia passed between the first appearance of wall paintings (c.30,000 BC) and the first known instances of writing (c. 3,300 BC in the southern Mesopotamian civilization of Sumeria). Both express a similar need for communication, but the nature of the methods are fundamentally different. Drawings and signs describe objects, states of mind, and events; writing expresses the words and defines the spoken language. It was certainly a long and laborious process to reach the extreme form of abstraction in which the object or the action was no longer represented by a sign but instead was evoked by pure sound. The first Sumerian written evidence was still fundamentally pictographic. Only around 3,000 BC does the passage to phonetics become complete.”
Hieroglyphics: The Writings of Ancient Egypt, Maria Carmela Betro, Abbeville Press Publishers, 1996, p.11
As the Sumerians were developing cuneiform script in Mesopotamia, the Ancient Egyptians were developing their distinctive art and writing. Although the two cultures my have observed the developments of the other, cuneiform and hieroglyphic were developed independently, without influence from other cultures.
“A hieroglyphic inscription appears chaotic; things opposed in nature are in immediate contact and produce monstrous alliances: nevertheless changeable rules, mediated combinations, a calculated and systematic method have undoubtedly guided the hand that drew this picture which seems so disorderly. These characters, so very diversified in their forms are, however, signs that record a regular series of ideas, express a fixed and continuous sense, and thus constitute real writing.”
J. F. Champollion, Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens Egyptiens, II ed. 1828
Narmer Palette, depicting examples of early hieroglyphics
Writing in Ancient Egypt appeared c.3150 BC and one of the earliest examples of hieroglyphs is the King Narmer palette from Hierakonpolis, Kom el-Ahmar, ca. 3150 – 3100 BC.
Egyptian hieroglyphic was far more pictographic in nature than cuneiform and, in its most formal incarnation, was often found within great tombs and temples, seamlessly integrated into artworks.
The Weighing of the Heart, Book of the Dead (c. 130 BC). (Left) Ani and his wife Tutu enter the assemblage of gods. (Centre) Anubis weighs Ani’s heart against the feather of Maat, observed by the goddesses Renenutet and Meshkenet, the god Shay, and Ani’s own ba. (Right) The monster Ammut, who will devour Ani’s soul if he is unworthy, awaits the verdict, while the god Thoth prepares to record it. (Top) Gods acting as judges: Hu and Sia, Hathor, Horus, Isis and Nephthys, Nut, Geb, Tefnut, Shu, Atum, and Ra-Horakhty
Three types of Egyptian writing developed, almost simultaneously: the formal and beautiful, yet laborious hieroglyphics; hieratic, a cursive script used mostly by scribes and priests, but still quite formal; demotic, another cursive script, but quick and elegant and, most importantly, used by all. Hieroglyphics and the scribal hieratic tradition was in use until it gave way to the more popular cursive tradition of demotic, which itself gave way to modern Greek writing in the 2nd to 3rd centuries AD (the last found demotic script is from the 5th century AD).
More than twenty-four hundred hieroglyphs have been identified in Egyptian texts dating to the Graeco-Roman era, with the count rising to seven thousand if the many variants are included, such as those from the prolific Ptolemaic era. The Gardiner List is a comprehensive list of approx. seven hundred hieroglyphic signs that recur in the texts, language and literature of Middle Egypt, complied by English Egyptologist Sir Alan Gardiner.
A reproduction of the hieroglyphs from the Gardiner List in Hieroglyphics: The Writings of Ancient Egypt, Betro, 1996, p.24-25
“Hieroglyphic was, however, not just a code, made up of abstract signs arbitrarily associated with linguistic meanings. Unlike Sumerian or Chinese signs, hieroglyphic writing conserved its pictorial nature for the whole of its long history. This conditioned the structure of Egyptian thought and culture in a manner different from that of writing systems more distant from their pictographic origins. If it is true that writing restructures thought, it must also be true that writing systems that remain closely tied to the image will have restructured it in a different way than those that are alphabetic or syllabic. The strongly symbolic nature of Egyptian thought must certainly be considered in this light. In a certain sense, the immediate expressivity of the hieroglyphic image, unlike the discrete neutrality of an abstract alphabetic code, frequently superimposed itself on the hieroglyph’s own significance. Sometimes the image interacted with the meaning, sometimes obscuring it or providing a departure point for elaborate philosophical speculation.”
Hieroglyphics: The Writings of Ancient Egypt, Maria Carmela Betro, Abbeville Press Publishers, 1996, p.15
Reproductions of a selection of hieroglyphics from Maria Carmella Betro’s book Hieroglyphics (1996), drawn by me.
Although Egyptian hieroglyphics appear throughout the remnants of Ancient Egypt, they did fall out of use as other writing types became more popular and phonetic methods of language and the alphabet developed. Written language took a huge leap forward with the introduction of symbols that represented sounds rather than images and it has shaped most, if not all, modern language since. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs became lost for a long time, their translations unknown until the Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799. Thankfully, the Rosetta Stone has enabled Egyptologists to not only read a forgotten written language, but uncover much of the history of this ancient culture.
The art and stories of Ancient Egypt have influenced art and culture since their creation and still do today, as seen in the Dreamworks Animation film The Prince of Egypt (1998).