Archaic Scripts

As part of my research into asemic words I have been looking into ancient scripts, symbols and proto-writing (marks carrying meaning but without a phonetic element). Below are some of my copies / reinterpretations of ancient Chinese symbols and characters.  Jiahu symbols (賈湖契刻符號, see fig. 1) were found on Peiliang culture artifacts in Henan Province, China. There are 16 symbols in total and they date from 6600 BCE.  Some appear similar to the later Oracle Bone characters that developed in the Shang Dynasty (circa 1600 BCE – 1050 BCE); but whether the symbols are writing proper, primitive or proto-writing, or merely marks made for purposes such as identification, is open to debate. Other neolithic Chinese symbols were produced by Yangshao (仰韶文化) and Liangzhu (良渚文化) cultures. Fig. 2 shows symbols from the pottery of the Majiayao culture (馬家窰文化) from Northern Sichuan Province. Fig. 3 symbols from Longshan culture (龍山文化) from Shandong Province. Longshan culture is directly ancestral to the Shang Dynasty when the first undisputed writing appears; namely Oracle Bone script around 1200 BCE. Figs. 3-6 are from Oracle Bones (甲骨), fig. 4 is a direct copy, figs. 5-6 could be called “interpretations”. Oracle Bone script was scratched onto tortoise shells or ox shoulder blades which were then heated until they cracked. The future would be divined according to how the cracks disrupted the characters, so called pyromancy. I had trouble capturing the awkward, scratchy quality of Oracle Bone script, I think due to my training in neater more deliberate scripts. To bypass my training I wrote fig. 5-6 with my eyes closed. This allowed an element of randomness to enter the process and I think allowed the spirit of the script, rather than its form, to be more accurately represented. It is also of course symbolic of our understanding of such ancient texts and indeed of a westerners understanding of Chinese texts in general.

Although my research is centered on Chinese calligraphy, it has been interesting to see how other tribes and peoples developed writing too. In Europe, painted Azilian pebbles, generally regarded as decorative, date from 10,000 BCE. Vinca symbols from Central and Southern areas, considered proto-writing, date from 6000 BCE. What exactly the first writing is (the inscription on the Dispilio tablet, Sumerian Cuniform, proto-Elamite etc) is unclear. However it has been very interesting to compare various archaic scripts and symbols to Chinese characters.


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