Precursors to Animation

Recalling the previously discussed cave paintings, certain arrangements of animal figures carved or painted on the cave walls were composed in a sequence, creating a very basic illusion of movement; an ancient precursor to animation. The most common examples were animals in various stages of motion, or of human hunters taking on their prey.

Earthenware bowl / goblet from the Burnt City, Iran

Earthenware bowl / goblet from the Burnt City, Iran

Discovered in the 1970s, it has only recently been realised that a 5,200 year old earthenware bowl from the Burnt City, Iran could be the earliest surviving example of animation. The artefact features five sequential images of a goat jumping up to eat the leaves on a tree. (CAIS News article, March 2008)

It is believed that the bowl may have been spun to create the impression of the goat moving, thus making it a precursor to animation and such devices as the zoetrope.

Unrolled goat sequence from the Iranian bowl, showing the progression of the positions that would make primitive animation.

Unrolled goat sequence from the Iranian bowl, showing the progression of the positions that would make primitive animation.

Panathenic amphora, depicting sequential images of a man running.The use of sequential images on pottery was popular in Ancient Greece, as seen in the example of a Panathenaic amphora (a vase containing oil awarded to the victors of the Panathenaic Games), displaying the movement of a male figure running, however it is uncertain if the Greeks spun such vases to create basic moving images. Many of the beautifully designed vases still conveyed complex narratives, often relating to mythologies, and suggested movement with great skill, even if they were not spun around. A popular theme explored in numerous found vases from Ancient Greece, is that of the legendary Hercules and his Twelve Labours.

Attic black figure amphora, c.510-500 BC, Hercules battling the Amazons for the ninth labour

Attic black figure amphora, c.510-500 BC, Hercules battling the Amazons for the ninth labour

The “Zero to Hero” sequence from Disney’s Hercules, featuring some lovely Greek pottery. Indeed, the overall style of the film was inspired by the stylistic designs of Ancient Greek pottery.

Another example of the ancients’ attempts at capturing motion was in an Egyptian temple from 1600 BC. Commissioned by Pharaoh Rameses II, the Temple of Isis was constructed with 110 columns, each displaying a figure of the goddess Isis, her pose gradually changing from one column to the next. To horse riders and charioteers going past, it would have appeared as though the images were moving, a primitive but effective illusion, by far predating the theory of the persistence of vision.

(Murphy, Jo, History of Basic Animation Precursors, Suite101, 2010)

(Williams, Richard, The Animator’s Survival Kit, London: Faber & Faber, 2009)

Temple of Isis, Richard Williams, The Animator’s Survival Kit

Temple of Isis, Richard Williams, The Animator’s Survival Kit

These early precursors to animation show how our ancestors were interested in movement and portraying figures in motion. They were not satisfied with merely suggesting motion through still sequential drawings, but wanted to make the images actually move, or at least, create the illusion of movement.

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Text: Roman Inscriptions

Written language began as a means of efficient communication, yet it has developed greatly since its advent, becoming ever more complex as aesthetics and presentation have taken a role of greater importance. Written language moved from pictorial images, through abstract symbols such as cuneiform script and hieroglyphics, into the alphabet, based, not on any visual link to the object, but phonetics. It became purely abstracted, far from its roots in representation, and thus had to be learned. Written language, in the form we know it today, is often referred to as text, however for many this has connotations to type and the act of texting, yet it is the term used to describe written communication that represents language through abstracted signs and symbols.

Graffiti on the walls in Pompeii. Graffiti was a far more interactive and socially accepted form of communication in Roman times, with contributions made on any and every wall, from all members of society.

Graffiti on the walls in Pompeii. Graffiti was a far more interactive and socially accepted form of communication in Roman times, with contributions made on any and every wall, from all members of society.

Text often falls into formal and informal, with examples of both found in Roman inscriptions. Most surviving examples of Roman inscriptions are from the Imperial period (27 BC – 3rd century AD), and although there may be less from the Roman Republic and late Roman period (4th – 6th century AD), there are still more surviving inscriptions from these periods than from the Dark Ages. Various materials were used for inscriptions, including stone, metal, wood, mosaic, pottery, fresco, glass and papyrus. This diverse range of materials was matched by the many uses of inscriptions from the formal, often dedications to gods and emperors or official documents, to more casual inscriptions including the graffiti found on the street walls of Pompeii and private correspondence (Reading the Writing on Pompeii’s Walls, Kirsten Ohlson, The Smithsonian, July 2010).

Ancient shopping list, 3rd century AD

Ancient shopping list, 3rd century AD

An example of this last type is a letter in Greek from 3rd century AD from a man to his brother. It contains a list of foodstuffs (poultry, bread, lupines, kidney beans, chick peas and fenugreek), making it one of the earliest surviving shopping lists in the world. This may be an extremely mundane use of writing, but the way it gives insight into the ordinary lives of the Roman people and enables us to relate to them is quite extraordinary.

The inscription from the base of Trajan's Column, Rome, Italy

The inscription from the base of Trajan’s Column, Rome, Italy

Trajan's Column base, Rome, Italy, 133 AD (my photo)

Trajan’s Column base, Rome, Italy, 133 AD (my photo)

A more formal example of Roman inscriptions can be seen on the base of Trajan’s Column in Rome, Italy, most famous for its continuous frieze that spirals up the exterior of the column. The inscription is a dedication from the Senate and people of Rome to the emperor Caesar. A more personal use of formal inscriptions was in funerary monuments that conveyed very precise details in beautiful Latin calligraphy, such as age, occupation and life history. These inscriptions have helped historians to learn more of the Roman’s lives, their society as well as familial and professional ties.

“In addition, the language of Roman funerary texts demonstrates the human, compassionate side of the Roman psyche, for they frequently contain words of endearment and expressions of personal loss and grief.” (Lightfoot, Christopher. “Roman Inscriptions”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Feb 2009)

Lightfoot states that the “enduring legacy” of Roman inscriptions lies not in their content, although this has given much insight into the history and lives of the Roman people, but rather in the lettering that evolved in their carved formal inscriptions, such as the one on Trajan’s Column. This medium perfected the shape, composition and symmetry of the Latin alphabet, which would come to influence the writing in much of the modern world, as the Latin alphabet was adapted to Romance languages (the direct descendants of Latin), Celtic, Germanic, Baltic, American, African, Australian, Austronesian, Austroasiatic and some Slavic languages.

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As written language developed and became increasingly abstract and formulaic, and numerous, varied spoken languages appeared throughout the world, it is no surprise that it got to a point in history when we needed to start studying what it all meant. Language is full of nuances, subtleties and a plethora of things that require interpreting, a key example being signs. A sign is something that communicates something other than itself and out of the desire to understand the complexities of signs came semiotics.

In simple terms semiotics is the study of signs and was originally linked to linguistics and to understanding languages, although it has since branched out from these.  Umberto Eco described semiotics as “concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign”. (Eco, A Theory of Semiotics, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press / London: Macmillan, 1976, p.7) This makes it a very large, open field of study as signs, as studied in semiotics, can take the form of words, images, sounds, gestures and objects. Signs are essentially anything that we take meaning from, yet meaning is rarely naturally occurring in the sign, but is invested by the one who interprets it, whether based on their own assumptions or through learned conventions, such as traffic signs.

“Signs take on the form of words, images, sounds, odours, flavours, acts or objects, but such things have no intrinsic meaning and become signs only when we invest them with meaning.”

(Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: the Basics, Abington: Routledge, 2nd ed., 2007, p.13)

Nothing is a sign unless we invest it with meaning; we make the sign signify something else through our individual associations and experiences. Thus signs can be interpreted in drastically different ways by different people. Cognition is a process that happens in our brains to help us make sense of the world around us and everything within it, yet semiotics demonstrates how complex this process is as we can take one thing and our brains, through making connections and associations based on our personal knowledge and experience, leads us to think of something else that may be entirely different from the original object that has now become a sign. Most impressive is that rarely are we aware of this process going on, so brief is the time between acknowledging the sign, interpreting it and relaying the meaning. Chandler discusses the importance of signs that are present in our everyday lives and the merit of being able to understand and decode them:

“Exploring semiotic perspectives, we may come to realise that information is not ‘contained’ in the world or in books, computers or audio-visual media. Meaning is not ‘transmitted’ to us – we actively create it according to a complex interplay of codes or conventions of which we are normally unaware. Becoming aware of such codes is both inherently fascinating and intellectually empowering. We learn from semiotics that we live in a world of signs and we have no way of understanding anything except through signs and the the codes into which they are organized. Through the study of semiotics, we become aware that these signs and codes are normally transparent and disguise our task in reading them. Living in a world of increasingly visual signs, we need to learn that even the most realistic signs are not what they appear to be.”

(Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: the Basics, 2007, p.11)

Two individuals that contributed greatly to semiotics in its early days are the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). Both attempted to define signs and the ways in which our brains translate signs to convey meaning. The Saussurean Model consists of two parts; the ‘signifier’ and the ‘signified’. The signifier tends to be the form that the sign takes, often a physical, perceptible form. The signified is the concept to which the sign refers; its meaning. The signified may be a mental contruct, but still refers “indirectly to things in the world” (Chandler, 2007, p.16). A simple example is when you see the word “open” in a shop doorway. This is a sign consisting of a signifier: the word “open”, and a signified concept: that the shop is open for business. This is also an example of a sign that the meaning of which is interpreted based on not only individual associations and experience, but also convention; it is logical that the shop will be open for business rather than closed due to the meaning of the word “open” and previous experience of shops will prompt quick associations. This is of course just one example of a sign pair as a signifier can have multiple signified concepts depending on the situation.

“The arbitrary aspect of signs does help to account for the scope for their interpretation (and the importance of context). There is no one-to-one link between signifier and signified, signs have multiple rather than single meanings.”

(Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: the Basics, 2007, p.25)

Peirce’s model is triadic in nature, as opposed to Saussure’s two-part one and consists of (as taken from Chandler, 2007, p.29):

  1. The representamen: the form which the sign takes (not necessarily material, though usually interpreted as such) – called by some sign theorists the ‘sign vehicle’.
  2. An interpretant: not an interpreter but rather the sense made of the sign.
  3. An object: something beyond the sign to which it refers (a referent).

To illustrate the Peircean Model I’ll use the example of a traffic sign.

Traffic sign for bridge

Traffic sign for bridge

The sign represents that a bridge is coming up (the object). It is represented by this icon that somewhat resembles a bridge in a red triangle (the representamen). Red is typically interpreted as meaning danger or warning, thus it draws attention to the sign. The success of the traffic sign depends on how well it is interpreted; as part of their theory test, drivers must learn the meanings of the many traffic signs (many of which are far more abstract and symbolic than this example), learning that this sign corresponds to the concept that a bridge is approaching (the interpretant).

Peirce describes the interaction between the representamen, the object and the interpretant as semiosis. For him, a sign is a unity of these three parts. Peirce went a step further in the study of semiosis and formed a classification of distinct types of signs. He divided them based on the differing relationships between the sign vehicles and what is signified. The three types of signs are as follows:

  1. Symbol/Symbolic: the signifier has no resemblance to the signified and is often culturally contextualised and thus must be agreed upon and learnt (forming a convention). Examples include languages and how they are constructed (alphabetical letters, punctuation marks, phrases, words etc.), numbers, morse code, traffic lights and signs, national flags, musical scores.
  2. Icon/Iconic: the signifier is perceived as resembling or imitating the signified in some way (through looking, sounding, feeling, tasting or smelling like it to a recognizable degree). The signifier can even posses some of the qualities of the signified. Examples: portraits, cartoons, caricatures, scale models, onomatopoeia, gestures, metaphors.
  3. Index/Indexical: The signifier is not arbitrary (like the symbol) but is directly
    The sign for disabled parking is an icon, as although the figure is simplified to the point of abstraction, it still somewhat resembles the signified.

    The sign for disabled parking is an icon, as although the figure is simplified to the point of abstraction, it still somewhat resembles the signified.

    connected in some way (physically or casually) to the signified. This link can be observed or implied e.g ‘natural signs’ including smoke, thunder, footprints. Other examples of indexical signs are medical symptoms, measuring instruments, recordings (photographs, films etc), ‘signals’ (knock at the door, phone ringing – even when set on silent, an iPhone still makes a specific vibration that relates to whether there is an incoming call, text or email and iPhone users are able to identify which through cognitive processes). An indexical sign can be compared to an index in a book or an ‘index’ finger pointing directly to what is being referred to.

Example of a symbolic sign. Exclamation marks are symbols with meanings that need to be learnt. The purpose of the sign itself is to draw your attention to the warning and does so through the use of the exclamation mark, the bright yellow colour and the word 'caution'. It serves its purpose of warning you about the hot water without depicting anything that resembles water or hot temperatures.

Example of a symbolic sign. Exclamation marks are symbols with meanings that need to be learnt. The purpose of the sign itself is to draw your attention to the warning and does so through the use of the exclamation mark, the bright yellow colour and the word ‘caution’. It serves its purpose of warning you about the hot water without depicting anything that resembles water or hot temperatures.

(Reference: Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers, Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, 1931-58)

However, these three types of signs cannot be called ‘mutually exclusive’ as a sign can easily be any combination of icon, symbol and index due to the open and individual nature of interpretation. How each person reads and interprets signs is entirely unique as we all have different associations and personal experiences that shape how we read the world around us. Difficulties arise with signs that need to have a particular context, previous knowledge or cultural understanding. This is why signs that one person sees as being definitively representative of one thing can mean something completely different to a person with a different background or culture.

How quickly we interpret signs can be visualised as on a continuum or spectrum. At one end are received signs that are quickly and easily interpreted by our brains; they are clearer, often resembling the signified and thus require less cognitive processes to interpret. The continuum moves across to perceived signs. These are often the abstract symbols that must first be translated by the brain before being linked to their meaning.

Here I have tried to illustrate the continuum by using different representations of a moose. It moves from those that can immediately be recognized to the forms that require greater levels of cognition.

Here I have tried to illustrate the continuum by using different representations of a moose. It moves from those that can immediately be recognized to the forms that require greater levels of cognition.

Pablo Picasso produced a series of drawings, Le Taureau (lithograph, 1945-46), in which he took an image of a bull from representation to increasingly abstract and stylised incarnations.

Pablo Picasso produced a series of drawings, Le Taureau (lithograph, 1945-46), in which he took an image of a bull from representation to increasingly abstract and stylised incarnations.

“Look after the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, chapter 9

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The Intrusion of Voice

Communication is a vital part of human behaviour and, indeed, our experience of life. We need to communicate with other human beings to feel complete and to help us understand ourselves. It is all too easy to feel lost within this world, but often this can be resolved by confirming your place in it through interaction with another person. We developed the capacity to speak, most likely for the purpose of understanding each other more thoroughly and with more efficiency. Comfort and security can be felt in the presence of another and discussing our experiences with others help us to develop a greater understanding of the world. However, in today’s hectic modern world we have, in an attempt to become more connected, lost that vital connection with each other. Technology is ever advancing and it seems as though we contain a world in our pocket in the form of a smart phone. Such useful little devices, we are constantly connected, merely a click away from unlimited information and total connectivity. 

Texting, email, instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter. These have become commonplace in many of our lives to the point where few of us can go a day without checking our email or posting a new status. Online communications developed with the promise of better connecting with each other, regardless of where we were in the world.

“Networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we feel utterly alone. And there is the risk that we come to see others as objects to be assessed – and only for the parts we find useful, comforting or amusing.”

Turkle, S (2011). Alone Together. New York: Basic Books. p.154

Orange Emoticons

Orange Emoticons

In her book, Sherry Turkle explores how technological developments have enabled us constant connectivity, yet we have become more withdrawn, turning to a virtual, online-world as a means of communication, moving further away from our ancestors’ desire to understand each other better through voice, body language and expression. Have emoticons made these redundant?

“I once described the computer as a second self, a mirror of mind. Now the metaphor no longer goes far enough. Our new devices provide space for the emergence of a new state of self, itself, split between the screen and the physical real, wired into existence through technology.

Teenagers tell me they sleep with their cell phone, and even when it isn’t on their person, when it has been banished to the school locker, for instance, they know when their phone is vibrating. The technology has become like a phantom limb, it is so much a part of them.”

Turkle, S (2011). Alone Together. New York: Basic Books. pp. 16-17  

The extreme need to always be connected, to have an online presence. This “phantom limb” idea is very interesting; mobile phones have become like an extension to your person, something always in hand. Like a parasite that has attached itself to your hand, yet you constantly feed it, forever checking for the next Facebook update, the newest email, even when it hasn’t buzzed in alert. We need the next fix of online activity like a drug.

Roboticists are hoping that one day robots will care for our children and elderly – what does that make us? Will we be too wrapped up in our virtual lives online that we have no time to care for our own family members? Will we shirk this responsibility onto robots? In Alone Together Turkle recounts her experiences of studying sociable robots placed in care homes for the elderly and it is clear that she is distressed with what she sees. Despite the fact that people can care for the elderly, so many of us are open to the idea of using robots as substitutes or even as main care providers. We acknowledge that we are able to provide care but that we would rather be saved the bother, and if robots are a way to do that then why shouldn’t we use them? It is a complicated debate, one that Turkle looks into in depth and I found myself conflicted. Yes it would be beneficial to have sociable robots that could effectively give care to the elderly and provide companionship, but they will always just be robots. They can give care without caring. They lack emotions and the ability to understand human emotion and experience. They may create the illusion of companionship, but really the old man or woman, seeking to alleviate their loneliness in any way possible, would be just as alone. Being alone is not altogether a bad thing, but loneliness is, and we all crave the company of another person. Don’t we all deserve to interact with another, real, human? Wouldn’t using robots deny us this? Isn’t it just the same as saying you aren’t worthy of the attention of another human being, but you can have this machine?

Roujin Z (1991), an anime directed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo and written by Akira’s Katsuhiro Otomo paints a grim picture of the not-too-distant future in which we entrust the care of the elderly completely to machines. The film spirals into chaos as the machine runs amok, but it does raise issues that relate to Turkle’s ideas on robot care-givers, and how we could end up dehumanising the elderly in the process. Too focused on giving the ‘best’ care, we lose our connection with the person.

Summer Wars, 2009, dir. Mamoru Hosoda

Our online avatars represent all parts of our lives, business operate online, banks, healthcare, fire service. Everything has an online presence and everyone is connected through OZ (the online massive computer-simulated virtual reality world). The concept of the film can seem a bit far-fetched, but the concept of OZ and of this level of online investment within our lives, to the point that all aspects of our lives have a place on this online world, is perhaps an accurate vision of the near future. The film itself doesn’t speak out against having an intense online presence, but does raise issues and ideas that make the audience think for themselves about what if our lives will soon be similar to those of the characters in Summer Wars.

I walked into my kitchen one evening and three of my flatmates were sitting side-by-side on the chairs, in silence, completely focused on their mobile phones. I jokingly asked if they were texting each other, to which they smiled and then continued to text away. In silence.

So many times you see groups of people, whom you would naturally associate as a group of friends, yet their interaction seems to rely entirely on being in close proximation to each other as they are all engrossed in their individual device, attending to their online life while their real world one passes them by.

“When part of your life is lived in virtual places – it can be SecondLife, a computer game, a social networking site – a vexed relationship develops between what is true and what is “true here,” true in simulation. In games where we expect to play an avatar, we end up being ourselves in the most revealing ways; on social-networking sites such as Facebook, we think we will be presenting ourselves, but our profile ends up as somebody else – often the fantasy of who we want to be. Distinctions blur. Virtual places offer connection with uncertain claims to commitment. We don’t count on cyberfriends to come by if we are ill, to celebrate our children’s successes, or help us mourn the death of our parents. People know this, and yet the emotional charge on cyberspace is high. People talk about digital life as a “place for hope,” the place where something new will come to them. In the past, one waited for the sound of the post – by carriage, by foot, by truck. Now, when there is a lull, we check our e-mails, texts, and messages.”

Turkle, S (2011). Alone Together. p.153

Myself, I try to keep a distance from Facebook, often finding it dull; a status stating some mediocre update on their daily routine, too often ending with a “#yolo” which never fails to make me cringe. (Indeed I am yet to understand using hashtags on Facebook as, unlike Twitter or Tumblr, the social networking site does not support tagging, so it is merely pointless “text-speak” with little meaning, other than, it often seems, to make an uninteresting status sound more exciting – a “how to” on making your life sound more exciting than it really is). More often than not, my reasons for checking Facebook is related to university; announcements, news etc. Rarely do I go on to be social, unless, for example, an event is being organised with friends and it is easier to plan online. It has got to the point that, at the times when I am on “for business”, it can be an inconvenience for someone to strike up an instant message chat.

“7 Ways to be Insufferable on Facebook”, The Huffington Post, October 2013

Some people avoid Facebook due to concerns of safety, I believe myself intelligent enough to recognize danger online and do something about it, so my reasons for limiting my online activity is more due to privacy: why would I want 800 people reading about my life on Facebook? The term “friends” has become devalued since its usage in social-networking sites. Friends are not people who care about your life, although they may now all that happens in it, or indeed, what you let them know. They read about your achievements and failures with the same passive indifference. Information about our daily lives has become mere data for our cyberfriends to consume, without emotion or empathy. It used to be that knowledge was priceless, something learned, handed down with great care, something to value above all else. Now all we need do to find answers is type it into google or ask Siri. Immediate access to knowledge has devalued it, has made intelligence lack importance. If you impart some knowledge onto another they receive it all too often with derision and the accusation “you Googled that.” And so what if I did? Does the source of information make it any less interesting. Is the importance of knowledge lost when anyone can access it at any time through their mobile phone? Today it seems like the access to knowledge is more important than knowledge itself. “Why should I learn this? I can just look it up if I need to know it.” We need to rediscover the value of knowledge for ourselves, before it loses all power.

“Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other.”

Turkle, S (2011). Alone Together. New York: Basic Books. p.1

Two videos related to Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together:

An informative and powerful short film regarding human interaction, loneliness and social networking, The Innovation of Loneliness 

“What is the connection between Social Networks and Being Lonely?
Inspired and Based on the wonderful book by Sherry Turkle – Alone Together.
Also Based on Dr. Yair Amichai-Hamburgers hebrew article -The Invention of Being Lonely. Script, Design & Animation: Shimi Cohen. Final Project at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design.”

TED Talk Sherry Turkle: Connected, but alone?

“I’m still excited by technology but I believe… that we’re letting it take us places that we don’t want to go.” (Turkle)

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Developments in Written Language

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

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

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 9c.650BC), now turned through 90 degrees, with the Sumerian phonetic equivalent and meaning’

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 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

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 from the Book of the Dead of Ani. At left, Ani and his wife Tutu enter the assemblage of gods. At center, 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. At 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. At top are gods acting as judges: Hu and Sia, Hathor, Horus, Isis and Nephthys, Nut, Geb, Tefnut, Shu, Atum, and Ra-Horakhty

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, Carmela, 1996, p.24-25

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, drawn by me.

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).

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Cave Paintings: Most Early Artists Were Female

A new analysis of the handprints found in prehistoric cave art in France and Spain has challenged the long held belief that cave art was produced by males. Archaeologist Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University has published his research on prehistoric art and found that three quarters of the handprints were female. Until now it has been impossible to identify the owner of the handprint’s gender, but Snow has developed a method by which he compares the size of  the handprints and the relative lengths of certain fingers. Snow puts the measurements from the hand stencils through an algorithm he created based on a set of modern male and female human hands. His findings not only identify the gender of the artists, but also show that the hands in the cave demonstrate a greater level of sexual dimorphism than handprints of humans living today. This suggests that the physical differences between men and women were more extreme in our ancestors than today and offers an interesting insight into how our bodies have changed over the ages.

Prehistoric stencils of human handprints, the earliest form of the signature, now giving us insight into the gender roles of early human beings.

Prehistoric stencils of human handprints, the earliest form of the signature, now giving us insight into the gender roles of early human beings. El Castillo cave, Cantabria, Spain.

It has long been assumed that the men in these early hunter-gatherer societies produced the artwork that may have been a type of “hunting magic” or to chronicle their kills. However, new archaeological findings, of both Snow and others, have produced evidence that the women had a greater role than previously thought and were far more involved in the hunt.

“In most hunter-gatherer societies, it’s men that do the killing. But it’s often the women who haul the meat back to camp, and women are as concerned with the productivity of the hunt as the men are,” Snow said. “It wasn’t just a bunch of guys out there chasing bison around.” – Virginia Hughes, National Geographic, 8 October 2013

If the cave paintings were indeed predominately created by women, then this changes many long standing views on art; mainly, who were the first artists. If Snow’s findings are true, then the answer could very well be women. It is interesting to think that while the men were out on the hunt, the women were inside the caves, performing the “magic” behind the hunt, to encourage success. If the women hauled the meat back to the camp, as Snow says, then this implies they had more contact with the animals and could easily have studied them up close, perhaps alluding to the accuracy of the painted animals’ anatomy. Yet these findings, as exciting as they are, raise even more questions: Were the paintings only created by women? When did they create the artworks in relation to the hunt; before or during? Could some of the women have been even more involved with the hunt, even going out on the physical hunt with the men? Does the shaman theory still hold true? In many cultures throughout history, the role of shaman has often been held by females or even transgendered individuals so there could very well have been a female shaman that entered the caves  to encourage a trancelike state through sensory deprivation. Were the early human societies organised as a matriarchy, patriarchy or neither? Were there strict gender defined roles within this early society or was there a greater level of what we now know as sexual equality? New discoveries in the subject of history often raise more questions than they answer, however, this is one of the main reasons why history is so fascinating; our knowledge and understanding is forever changing with each new discovery.


NBC News Article, Prehistoric cave prints show most early artists were women, Ndihi Subbaraman, October 15, 2013

National Geographic article, Were the First Artists Mostly Women?, Virginia Hughes, 8 October 2013

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Cave Paintings – Lascaux, France

Oral communication was a huge evolutionary leap forward for humanity and one that enables us to connect with each other with far greater understanding than if we were silent. However, this does not mean that before we had mastered speech that we did not attempt to communicate in other ways. Our ancestors’ inability to speak encouraged imagination and visual representation. Miraculously, examples of this earliest artwork has survived until today in cave paintings found in various sites including France’s Chauvet Cave and the Lascaux Cave, the latter housing paintings that date back 17,300 years.

The Hall of the Bulls within Lascaux is a great example of cave paintings, with iconography that extends uninterrupted for 30m along both sides of the 20m long hall. It depicts an impressive 130 figures, including representations of animals alongside geometric signs, the latter of which are difficult to interpret due to their abstract nature. That we were already combining representation with abstraction at such an early stage is impressive and implies that a deeper meaning lies behind the markings. There is an extensive frieze featuring three key animal themes, themes that recur consistently throughout other chambers and halls in the cave, including cattle, horses and deer. There are 17 figures recognisable as horses. Drawn from memory, the anatomy can be shockingly accurate, at least to the point that it is unquestionably a horse and not, for example, a cow. Sometimes there is a systematic nature to the composition of the horse figures, like a sequence or pattern, perhaps in an attempt to depict the creatures moving together in a group.

The horse figures are systematically lined up, overlapping each other, yet they demonstrate variation, indicating a more sophisticated observation of the animals in nature.

The horse figures are systematically lined up, overlapping each other, yet they demonstrate variation, indicating a more sophisticated observation of the animals in nature.

Interestingly, one of the horse figures in the Hall of Bulls has a hornlike protrusion from its head. Could this be the earliest example of a unicorn? Or is there some symbolism attached to it, for example, the horn could indicate that this horse is a stallion, while the others are mares. Perhaps it is merely an early example of using imagination to create, or enhance, a drawing.

A single figure of a black bear has been identified amongst a herd of cattle. The bear is of great interest as it is superimposed within the belly of a bull. Not only is the layering of pictures rare in the Lascaux Caves, but it could hold some symbolism. Could it imply that a bull fought off a bear? That it is within the bull’s belly suggests that it has been consumed. Had it been the other way around, with a bull within a bear’s belly, it may have been slightly more believable that one has been eaten by the other, but as it stands I have never heard of a bull eating a bear.

The section of wall the depicts the Bulls and the dark shape that has been identified as a bear.

The section of wall the depicts the Bulls and the dark shape that has been identified as a bear.

The bear is also unusual as it only appears in this one instance in the Lascaux Cave, whereas the other animals recur consistently in various parts of the cave. This suggests that the creators of these cave paintings were perhaps unused to seeing bears.

There is a distinct lack of human figures in early cave paintings and this is rather odd, given that the creators of the paintings seemed determined to represent as many aspects of their world as they could on the cave walls. Was there a reason for not depicting human figures? Perhaps there was some sort of superstition about depicting humans on the walls, like a taboo in their primitive society. Did they perhaps hold humans in higher regard than animals and thus, should not be depicted? As with all prehistoric things, our knowledge is extremely limited and can only be described in assumptions and theories. There is always the chance that they didn’t see the relevance of representing human figures on the walls of the cave; they knew what each other looked like. Could it be as simple as this?

The area within the caves known as the Shaft portrays a limited number of figures; only 8, a very low number in comparison to the other chambers and halls. Within the composition, many of the markings are abstract geometric shapes, such as dots and hooks. In the centre of the composition known as The Shaft Scene is the only example of a human figure within the cave, a rarity in cave paintings from this time period (the Chauvet cave is devoid of any human representation). The arrangement of figures in this scene suggests a narrative potential, singling it out as a specific episode in which subjects and themes are linked in a clear attempt to convey a message. Unfortunately the passing of time has left us unable to translate the meaning of the scene. The human figure can be described best as a stick figure, yet small details are included such as it having four fingers on each hand, splayed out in fan shapes. The body of this human figure is tilted at a 45° angle, likely a reaction to the nearby bison’s abrupt about-face.

The solitary human figure in the Lascaux cave. Easily identifiable as human, yet possessing a bird-like head, suggesting a level of symbolism.

The solitary human figure in the Lascaux cave. Easily identifiable as human, yet possessing a bird-like head, suggesting a level of symbolism.

Below the figure is a bird perched on a stick. The bird contrasts with the large hulking shapes of the bison and bulls throughout the caves with its small size and lack of colour, yet it is the simplicity of line art that draws the eye to both the bird and human figure. Strangely, the human and bird share certain physical characteristics, as seen in their heads, drawn in a similar manner. This hybridisation could be a form of symbolism and may relate to the figure’s connection with nature. In certain primitive societies, birds are often assigned the role of psychopomp, or conductor of souls.

Could the human figure represented be a type of shaman? Is he performing a ritual of sorts within the drawing? A shaman could have had a higher standing within the community, thus explaining why he is the only human figure to appear on the cave walls. Could there be symbolic or ritualistic purposes to the paintings? What if the placement of the human figure at the centre of the composition implies the view of man at the time; as the centre of the world? Did early man view himself as more important than animals or the other way around? The large size of some of the animals could suggest a level of deification. Were some animals more important than others (different scales, frequency of appearance throughout caves) or did they just represent what they observed most often in their everyday lives?

There have been numerous interpretations of the possible functions of the cave paintings and the reasons why they were created. Some have suggested that it is merely art for art’s sake. However, it is unlikely that anyone, even a primitive society, would create something so extensive as the cave paintings without purpose. Were they depicting the world around them? Trying to make sense of it, understand how all the components that make up the world work. The paintings and sketches remind me of animators who study animals in movement to further their understanding of how the creature works. They could perhaps be a record of the things they have seen, a catalogue of the animals they had encountered. This would be the earliest form of documentation and implies a desire for order and structure within the early society. Perhaps the drawings were used as tools of communication. It is unclear if the people who created the cave paintings were capable of oral communication, so they may have been used as a visual tool to interact with each other. This could have been the only way to convey how one viewed the world. Think of it as Person A drew a picture of a horse and showed it to Person B. Person B recognised the animal as what he knew a horse to be and proceeded to draw an aurochs to which Person A responded and so on so forth and thus they were able to share their experiences of the world without speech or written language. A visual language that outdates any spoken one. In this manner, the paintings could also have been used as a visual tool when developing language. Just as you would teach a child what, for example, a donkey is by showing it a picture and saying the word “donkey”, early humans may have developed language by pointing to these images on the cave walls and making the corresponding sound. Once better communication was established, they may have used the images as a tool for teaching younger generations about the world, such as what is dangerous, what is prey.

The intentional aspect of the combinations of animals suggest mythical and religious themes, or at least some level of symbolism. If the paintings have a symbolic or ritualistic purpose, rather than being purely representational and observed from life, then this indicates a more sophisticated nature to the early human beings who produced them. They were able to use imagination and creativity to produce something with a deeper meaning or even purpose than a mere representation of the world around them. Theories relating to a ritual purpose include promoting a successful hunt or fecundity.

Research has found that the animal figures were drawn in a specific order, with the horses drawn first, the aurochs second and stags third. It has been proposed that this relates to the different biological cycles of the different animals, for example mating rituals, which could then be interpreted as a means of representing the different times of the year as the animals would correspond to spring, summer and autumn respectively.

What was the purpose of the cave paintings? Just what was it they were trying to communicate? I wonder if there were certain people within the community who painted on the caves or if it was an activity that anyone could do. Were there individuals – artists – whose role it was to add to the images in the caves? Perhaps it was more of a rite of passage in which, when a child reached a certain age, or accomplished, say, their first hunt, would they then be invited to add to the wall, as a symbol of becoming part of the community.

The caves may not have been used as a place of residence for the community as some of the cave sites lack evidence of long habitation. There is the possibility that these were sacred places, reserved for rituals. Not necessarily a religious place of worship, but a spiritual place; somewhere that the people could connect with the world, with the spirits of their ancestors and the animals they shared their world with. (I realise this sounds a bit like Avatar but that is unintentional, I’m not suggesting they actually could “connect” with spirits, but that they believed they could, and performed rituals symbolic of this connection). It could have been a place of inspiration and creativity; if you feel inspired, paint it on the wall. There is also the theory of shamanism, that there was an individual within the tribe that would act as a spiritual leader and could “converse” with the spirits of ancestors and animals. This individual may have performed rituals in which he fell into a trance-like state to receive visions, which were then reproduced as paintings on the cave walls. There very well may have been plants that could induce a hallucinatory state when consumed.

Werner Herzog’s film Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) provides an intimate look at the dark caves using 3D filming equipment. This is the first time Lascaux has been extensively filmed and is thus not only an important documentation, but a rare look into past.

An article from SEED Magazine  discusses the meanings behind the cave paintings and the theory of archaeoastronomer Michael A. Rappenglück who has translated the figures and symbols as representations of constellations. He and others have theorised that the hunters of the Magdalenian period may have adopted lunar and stellar calendars, timing their hunts and rituals with purpose relating to the time of year. If true, this presents a far more sophisticated and cultured image of early man than the stereotype of “the caveman”. If the figures were indeed taken from viewed constellations, then this perhaps explains the unusual appearance of the bear in the Hall of Bulls, as it could be related to the star grouping we know as Ursa Major, or “The Great Bear”. This prehistoric star map demonstrates not only our ancestors intent in creating the pairings, but their scientific knowledge and the ways in which they tried to understand the world.

“The caves could be a prehistoric planetarium in which humanity first charted the stars.” – Dr David Whitehouse BBC News, Ice Age star map discovered, August 2000

Cave paintings are fascinating works to study, for the artistic skill demonstrated, the symbolism behind the images and the endless possibilities for interpretation. That they give us insight into how our ancestors viewed the world and the cosmos is remarkable, especially given the age of the paintings. I have only briefly discussed a small part of one cave, yet in this alone there is much to discover and think about. The caves present a completely different picture of early man than the one we grow up with, of grunting savages bashing rocks together. Yet Rappenglück’s identification of the star map immediately places them on a level of sophistication that is unexpected. Cave paintings may have been the earliest example of visual communication, but it is difficult to call them primitive when faced with the level of consideration taken in producing the extensive work within Lascaux.

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