Cuneiform: From Art to Language

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Cuneiform is one of the earliest forms of writing:

Cuneiform is one of the oldest forms of writing known. It means “wedge-shaped,” because people wrote it using a reed stylus cut to make a wedge-shaped mark on a clay tablet.
Letters enclosed in clay envelopes, as well as works of literature, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh have been found. Historical accounts have also come to light, as have huge libraries such as that belonging to the Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal (668-627 B.C.E.).

(Kahn Academy, Cuneiform).

This excellent summary of the process of writing using Cuneiform is provided by British Museum:

(excerpted from the documentary The Cyrus Cylinder).

Man was artistic before he invented written language. The earliest cave paints predate written language by thousands of years. John Noble Wilford writes that:

A team of researchers reported in the journal Nature on Wednesday that paintings of hands and animals in seven limestone caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi may be as old as the earliest European cave art.

The oldest cave painting known until now is a 40,800-year-old red disk from El Castillo, in northern Spain.

Other archaeologists of human origins said the new findings were spectacular and, in at least one sense, unexpected. Sulawesi’s cave art, first described in the 1950s, had previously been dismissed as no more than 10,000 years old.

(John Noble Wilford, Cave Paintings in Indonesia May be Among the Oldest Known, New York Times, October 8, 2014).

The earliest writing dates back to 3,000 BCE (Kahn Academy). Yet, caves paintings and other artistic expressions are thousands, if not tens of thousands of years old. Man was an artist before he was a writer. Cuneiform–as one the earliest forms of writing–was essentially artistic. Marks were made on a clay tablet with a reed. Eventually, these marks became associated with sounds and became the basis of written language (Kahn Academy).Cuneiform represents the first step away from purely artistic expression to symbolic or abstract expression.

Starting with cuneiform, text eventually moves to the purely symbolic or arbitrary nature of the western alphabet. Yet, the artistic urge remains present. As examined in this blog, text is being returned to its artistic origins by being utilized as an artistic element in a variety of mediums including painting, sculpture and video. Or perhaps text never escaped its artistic roots?