Ancient Mesopotamia: How Did Art Lead to Writing?

In the archaeology of ancient Mesopotamia, we can see how art was the genesis of written language. Lets take a look at its evolution.

Oct 27, 2021By Isabella Trope, BA Ancient History and Archaeology in-progress
ancient mesopotamia babylonian map cuneiform ulay river battle
Detail of the Ulay River Battle showing Te-Umann and his son slain by the Neo-Assyrians, 660-650 BCE, via the British Museum, London; with ancient Babylonian world map with cuneiform inscription, 6th century BCE, via the British Museum, London


Art was the first medium of human expression. As humans became sedentary agriculturalists, they needed to keep track of more information. Art was already used to express ideas and information, but humans needed something more precise and efficient. Their solution was written language. The development of art into writing can be traced in the archaeological remains of ancient Mesopotamia. As the two forms of communication developed, they began to influence each other.


The Neolithic Revolution in Ancient Mesopotamia

oldest cave painting sulawesi pig
Cave painting featuring a warty pig and two handprints, circa 40,000 BCE, via The Conversation


The oldest known cave painting is around 45,000 years old, meaning humans have made art for at least 45,000 years. This painting was found in Sulawesi, Indonesia, and depicts a wild pig alongside two handprint outlines. Even at this early point in human history, people were seeking ways to express themselves. What were these ancient people trying to say? They could have been drawing a pig to magically manifest it, give thanks for a successful hunt, or any other number of things. Even though art is the oldest form of human expression that we can see today, writing tells us a lot more about the people trying to express themselves.


Writing, unlike art, arose from a very specific context: agriculture. Around 10,000 BCE, the Neolithic Revolution started, and agricultural practice began. It first arose in the fertile crescent, a region in the Middle East that included ancient Mesopotamia. Farming a plot of land throughout the seasons meant staying in one place all year long, instead of following seasonal food sources as foragers. This shift to sedentarism may have been one of the most impactful events in human history.


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Neolithic figurine from ancient Tello, circa 8000 BCE, via The Louvre, Paris


Staying still meant a few very important changes. Firstly, storage. Inhabiting one building meant people could keep agricultural surpluses and other accumulated items, allowing them to build wealth. Before sedentary agriculture, people lived in mobile bands. This had allowed limited possibility of long-term storage, and so people kept their belongings light. Stored surpluses meant that not everyone in the community had to be dedicated to food production. This allowed for the next big change: specialization. People could now build their knowledge and skill in different craft activities.

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Agriculture also meant that more people could stay in one place, leading to increased population density. A person’s world was no longer the same, life-long band. It was a whole village, and eventually a whole city. Agriculture was the genesis of urbanization.


Sedentarism, surplus, storage, and urbanization were the key fans of the trading flame. With the ability to accumulate wealth, intensive long-distance trading took off. This pushed Neolithic people to a very specific problem that some think changed the world: the problem of trust. Before long-distance trading was commonplace, almost all exchanges took place at the level of an individual group. One could safely exchange their pot for their neighbor’s knife knowing that if the knife suddenly broke, they could go back to their neighbor and get their pot.


Seals and Mesopotamian Writing

ubaid period stamp seal sealing
Ubaid period stamp seal and sealing, circa 6th millennium BCE, via the MET, New York


To solve this problem, humans turned to their only known method of visual expression: art. Artistic elements became symbols of identity in the form of stamp seals. The earliest stamp seals in ancient Mesopotamia date to the 6th millennium BCE, during the Ubaid period. Ubaid period stamp seals often featured a geometric pattern or animals seemingly in a meaningless design. In other words, they were purely artistic but symbolically conveyed identity.


Stamp seals were impressed upon clay to verify identity or ascribe ownership. They were often impressed on clay tablet documents, a little like a signature is signed at the bottom of a document today. They were also used to verify the owner of goods. For example, on a jar of oil, string was used to bind a cover over the jar. A piece of clay was put over the string and stamped with the owner’s seal to indicate the jar’s contents were his. Evidence was found that this process was even used on doors.


Seals, in general, were also used extensively in administration and bureaucratic matters. Andrew McCarthy suggests that seals first appear with sedentary societies because they are concerned with the control of resources. The accumulation of stuff and people that occurred with sedentarism meant good resource management of businesses, households, and communities was essential.


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Bullae with the tokens found inside it, circa 3rd millennium BCE, via the Louvre, Paris


During the earliest incarnation of stamps, in the ancient Mesopotamian Ubaid period, bullae were used to keep track of things. Bullae are hollow clay balls filled with tokens and counters. They could be impressed with multiple stamps. Comparative studies of bullae indicate there is some kind of pattern to the use of stamps, but the meanings of these patterns are yet to be uncovered. It is clear, however, that the stamps have to do with identifying commodities and their owners. This innovation represents one of the earliest steps in the journey from art to Mesopotamian writing: artistic symbols being used in a semantic pattern to create meaning.


In business matters, the earliest form of keeping track of wares took the form of small tokens. These tokens came in a variety of shapes, sometimes even miniature jugs. Stamp seals were imprinted onto clay wares not to indicate ownership of a good, but to indicate the producer and perhaps production location via an artistic design, much like a brand’s logo today.


Making the Leap to Written Language

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Abydos inventory tags, late 3rd millennium BCE, via Brown University


As societies became more complex and densely populated, the information administrators had to keep track rose. Seals and tokens quickly became inefficient, and a more effective way of storing detailed information needed to be created.


The Egyptians had an elegant solution for this. Their writing system almost directly evolved from pictographs into a written language. Pictographs are icons that convey meaning through their resemblance to a physical object. The earliest examples of Egyptian hieroglyphics are on label tags from a tomb in Abydos. These pictograms denote physical objects the tags related to. From this point, the jump to writing using glyphs seems natural. The Egyptians accomplished this using a rebus system.


A rebus system involves giving signs a phonetic value based on how the word for the object was pronounced. For example, the hieroglyphic spelling of ‘Ptah’ (an Egyptian god), consists of a reed mat stool, a bread loaf, and a flax wick. The god Ptah does not look like any of these objects, but ‘p’ is the word for reed mat, ‘t’ is the word for bread, and ‘h’ is the Egyptian word for wick. Pictographs became the written language of hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphics could be written on papyrus, alongside a cursive version of the script called hieratic which was based on the same pictographs.


Clay Civilisations

proto cuneiform ancient mesopotamia barley distribution sealing
Proto-cuneiform tablet with sealing documenting barley distribution, circa 3100-2900 BCE, via the MET, New York


The Egyptians’ ability to write in hieroglyphics was based on their access to papyrus paper. Using ink on paper made the process of drawing hieroglyphs efficient enough for everyday use. Ancient Mesopotamians lacked papyrus or a similar abundant material that could be turned into paper. The next best thing was clay.


Drawing pictographs in clay would have been too tedious a process to make it an efficient method of recording data. The ancient Mesopotamian’s initial attempts to move from pictographs to written language involved protocuneiform. This was a writing system largely used for administration and accounting purposes. It used angular, schematic references to actions and objects they represented. For example, the proto-cuneiform character for grain is a line with arrows through it.


Here is where art and writing in ancient Mesopotamia go their separate ways. Scribes leaped from attempts at using pictographs into cuneiform, a type of script made by punching wet clay with a nail-shaped reed. The word cuneiform derives from the Latin word ‘cuneus’, meaning wedge. Cuneiform involved abstracted pictograph shapes into similar shapes made from reed impressions. Different pictographs took on phonetic sounds, which allowed Mesopotamian languages to be written as they were spoken. The earliest examples of cuneiform Mesopotamian writing date to around 3200 BCE and constitute some of the first the world ever saw.


When Art and Writing Met in Ancient Mesopotamia 

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The Adda Seal, circa 2300 BCE, via the British Museum, London


Art and writing developed from the same essence of the human creative spirit. Even though artistic forms were removed from written ones in the development of cuneiform writing, Mesopotamian writing and art eventually came together in the creation of new artistic forms.


Spoken words have always been used to tell stories in sequences of events. Art, however, is frequently individual images. The composition of written words in a linear manner impacted the way people thought about art and compelled them to also see art as capable of linear narrative.


This is clearly seen with the leap from stamp seals to cylinder seals. The small surface of a stamp seal only granted space for a single image. Cylinder seals provided a rectangular interface which allowed for the movement of figures across the surface. The cylinders could also be rolled indefinitely across clay, giving the impression of continuous movement. They also had space for the owner to inscribe their name in Mesopotamian writing. Cylinder seals today form the archaeological category of ‘glyptic’. They are one of the most abundant sources of information for archaeologists of ancient Mesopotamia.


Continuous movement is visible in the Adda Seal, a cylinder seal depicting ancient Mesopotamian deities. Ea, the water god, is shown stepping onto a mountain while water spurts from his shoulders. The sun-god Shamash is shown cutting through a mountain, as per the mythology that he cuts through the earth to appear in the sky each day.


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Detail of the Ulay River Battle showing Te-Umann and his son slain by the Neo-Assyrians, 660-650 BCE, via the British Museum, London


The same principle is also highly evident in the relief of the Ulay River Battle at Tell Tuba. This piece depicts a battle between the Elamite ruler Te-Umann and the invading Neo-Assyrian leader Ashurbanipal. Te-Umann and his son Tammaritu are shown several times throughout the work in different positions, indicating the artwork shows a sequence of events. In the same register, the viewers see the ruler and his son being dislodged from a chariot, fleeing enemies, and then being killed.


One scene features his son pulling a bow on his enemies, with a caption of Tel-Umann speaking, yelling ‘use the bow!’ in Mesopotamian writing, almost like an early version of a comic. Written script inspired art to be used as the visual equivalent of art, while words themselves complemented and added information to art.


Writing is so essential and widespread in the modern world, it is easy to forget it has such an old history, one which took humanity until the last 6,000 years of its existence to invent. Examining the history of Mesopotamian writing reveals just how old human expression is, and the great lengths humanity has reached in order to express itself.

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By Isabella TropeBA Ancient History and Archaeology in-progressIsabella is completing a BA in Ancient History and Archaeology at Macquarie University. Her favorite topics to learn and write about are feminist historiography, numismatics, and ancient Sumer. She hopes to one day work in the museum sector, helping illuminate why history matters to everyone. She can be found polishing her coin collection, reading a fantasy novel, or on a bushwalk in her free time.