It is a mistake to believe that writing was invented to record language. This possibility only gradually presented itself after hundred if not thousands of years of experience with scriptlike recording systems. Sumerian writing goes back to “calculi,” or counting stones. These were small clay models that had numerical or objective meaning and were used to record not linguistic but rather economic communications and transactions and to register ownership and other claims on land, animals and grain. (see Schmandt-Berssat 1982 1982b). Iconicity did not play a particularly great role since the signs were very abstract from the beginning.

In contrast to the Sumerian case, Egyptian hieroglyphic writing had its origins in a recording system in which iconicity was important from the beginning. Its purpose was political rather than economic communication, the recording of acts of special political significance. Two goals were of primary importance. The first was to secure the result of these acts permanently by depicting them in stone and depositing them in a sacred place. This placed the record in a physical situation that was both permanent and open to the divine world. The second was to create a means for chronological orientation by recording the major event of a given year and naming the year after that event. This is the origin of Egyptian chronography and the recording of history. The first goal is also the origin og all monumental architecture and pictorial art. The only meaning of such art was to expose and develop the physical situation as “sacred space of permanence.” And it is also the origin of hieroglyphics that remains a genre of pictorial art. It is reserved for the “writing of divine words,” as it is called in Egyptian, for recordings in the sacred space of permanence.

Protodynastic pictorial narrative uses picture-signs on two distinctly different physical scales. The large pictures portray a “scene,” and the small pictures identify actors and places by including names. The small pictures therefore refer to language (names), the large pictures refer to the world (acts). It would be a mistake, however, to categorize only the small pictures as “writing.”

Jan Assman, Materialities of Communication


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