I’m back from visiting the other side of the Atlantic! The festival was fantastic, the weather actually was gorgeous, sunny and blue skies, and to cap off the trip, I spent the entire last day at the British Museum! I know that there is so much in the British Museum that even in several hours you can barely scratch the surface, but I was lost in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, so I didn’t even notice anything else. In these halls are some of the most important artifacts from the history of writing, and I was completely enthralled.
I got the feeling that these ancient scribes were just as worshipful as I was. One Assyrian statue, an “attendant” in the temple of the god of writing, tells readers “Do not trust in another god.”
The Assyrian artifacts don’t inspire awe through artistry alone; their works are covered in cuneiform inscriptions.
Cuneiform was originally developed by the Sumerians; the characters get their shape from a reed stylus pressed into soft clay. My husband pointed out that it must have been much more difficult to carve this shape into stone, and indeed if you look closely you can imagine the extraordinary care it must have taken to create the shape with a chisel on a hard surface.
And then there are the Egyptians.
I’m reading a book right now called Writing: Theory and History of the Technology of Civilization. In a section titled “Writing and Beauty,” the author says:
Writing has a reader (information is communicated) while art has an observer (form is enjoyed), so they are different things, but art and writing are close nonetheless. You observe the form of writing too, and art can tell you something. In Egypt, where one of the earliest writings flourished, one can scarcely separate the illustrator from the scribe.
I could see how that would be true, but I had never really appreciated that until I looked closely at the inscriptions. Look at the detail from that piece above:
Those aren’t just written characters. That owl has eyes! On a different piece I noticed the character that looks like a duck, and the duck has fuzzy little feathers on his head and nostrils on his beak. These are very early examples, and as Egyptian writing progressed it became more streamlined and stylized; by the time of the Middle Kingdom it seems all of the characters had been standardized and simplified (up to a point, of course.) But even so, it was clear that art, writing, and worship were interwoven in the scribal culture of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.
I have far too many pictures and far too many things to share for one blog post. If you find this stuff as hypnotic as I do, the British Museum’s website is really fantastic; you can browse their major exhibits without ever leaving your house, and they have themes that you can explore, including this excellent one on the history of writing.