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Reviewed by:
  • When Writing Met Art: From Symbol to Story
  • Mildred L. Jackson
When Writing Met Art: From Symbol to Story. By Denise Schmandt-Besserat. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007. 134 pp. $45.00. ISBN 978-0-292-71334-5.

Denise Schmandt-Besserat, professor emerita of art and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin, adds to her body of research about writing and art in the Near East with this new volume. In When Writing Met Art: From Symbol to Story Schmandt-Besserat explores the influences of writing on art and of art on writing from the late fourth millennium B.C. through the third millennium B.C. In the section examining the impact of writing on art she "compare[s] and contrast[s] compositions of preliterate vs. literate pottery paintings, wall paintings, seals, and stone reliefs" (1). In part 2 she analyzes funerary inscriptions and the ways in which artifacts became increasingly phonetic. This book examines the progression from repetitive symbols to complex visual narratives and delineates the development of written communication in the Near East.

For Schmandt-Besserat, art includes pottery and wall paintings, seals, stone reliefs, precious metal vessels, and statues in the round. Her book is illustrated with black-and-white photos and drawings of all of these to exemplify her theories about the way art and writing influenced one another. Art predated writing. Writing, according to Schmandt-Besserat, began when accountants began pressing seals on envelopes to tell which tokens were held inside. These "impressed texts" look nothing like modern-day writing but rather demonstrate the first attempts at creating a language, which developed into cuneiform writing in the Near East.

In the first section of the book the author demonstrates how narrative scenes developed on pottery and other art forms in contrast to the repetition of figures we can see on art predating this period. Informative details were included in the drawings on the pieces instead of merely strokes or lines. In this section she demonstrates and describes the differences between the preliterate and postliterate forms through the illustrations included.

The second section highlights three artifacts to demonstrate how art influenced writing: the gold bowl of Meskalamdug, the statute of Nani, and Hammurabi's [End Page 360] stele. Through these artifacts Schmandt-Besserat outlines the ways in which leaders sought eternal life through the juxtaposition of image and script. Her discussion also explains the importance of names in Mesopotamian culture. Names were more than labels for things and people; instead, the culture believed that one did not exist without a name. Additionally, names predicted the destiny of a person. These cultural beliefs provide further support for Schmandt-Besserat's theories regarding the inscription of names on artifacts that were artistic masterpieces rather than just tablets. By decoding the text as well as the art on these objects, we are able to trace the beginning of written communication.

Denise Schmandt-Besserat builds on more than twenty years of research in her current book. It is a concise introduction that accompanies her longer award-winning works on cuneiform script in the ancient Near East. This work should be of interest to scholars not only in anthropology and art history but also in rare books and linguistics. Schmandt-Besserat's coherent explanation of the impact art made on writing and writing on art is an excellent introduction for those interested in the development of literacy.

Mildred L. Jackson
University of Alabama


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pp. 360-361
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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