When I teach at The Menil Collection art museum, I begin in the Antiquities section. We usually based lessons around individual works of art; one in particular stands out to me for its importance to writing. This is the votive statute of Eannatum, Prince of Lagash, a small alabaster statue of a bald-headed man standing with his hands clasped in front of him.
The feature that makes him most interesting to me, unfortunately, is usually not visible to the children. It is the inscription on his back, where the cuneiform script for ‘Eanneatum, prince of Lagash, son of Akurgal’ have been carefully chipped out of the rock.
The statue is Sumerian, from the area that would correspond to modern-day Iraq. Sumer, by most accounts, is the earliest civilization known to history. It was part of Mesopotamia, the region where agriculture (and cities) first developed. To gaze upon this inscription, then, is to see man’s first attempts at transcribe his speech – that is, to write.
Originally, cuneiform was pictographic; every symbol corresponded to one word, which its depiction resembled. Nearly five thousands years later, the earliest pictogram for ‘fish’ still looks recognizably like a fish. There is a beautifully direct relationship in these early scripts between form and meaning: words look like what they say.
Several millenia later, our Latin Alphabet has became so entrenched as to appear practically invisible to us. Our problem is the opposite of theirs; instead of struggling to draw ideograms in uncooperative clay, it is almost too easy for us to become blase about print. We have to struggle to remind readers of the visceral meaning of our sentences. A trip to The Menil Collection can teach us about the history of writing, and show us the origins of the complex systems we often take for granted.
posted by Julian Martinez, Writers in the Schools