Art

A History of Writing, from Hieroglyphs to Squiggles

An exhibition at the British Library powerfully delves into the personal and political complexities of writing, driving home that it’s not only one of humanity’s greatest inventions, but born out of the strongest human motivations.

Schoolchild’s homework in Greek on a wax tablet, Egypt, 2nd century AD (copyright the British Library)

LONDON — A 2,000-year-old wax tablet bears inscriptions of the Greek homework of an Egyptian child, fudging his attempts to copy his teacher’s script and running into the margin. A few displays down sits the poet Alfred Tennyson’s bent quill, deformed, perhaps, from the frenzied scribbling of verses in creative passion. Elsewhere, an iridescent illuminated manuscript of Latin psalters sits across a banal display of plastic BIC pens.

Ranging from the lofty to the ordinary, together these objects narrate a history of writing through an ambitious new exhibition at the British Library. Writing: Making Your Mark endeavors to trace the development of what the exhibition’s wall text refers to as “mankind’s greatest invention” through over 100 objects and 40 different writing systems to illuminate our journey from the wax tablet to the iPad.

Ancient Egyptian Stela, 1600 BCE (copyright the British Library Board)

No one can pinpoint exactly when writing was invented, but the earliest evidence of this faculty hails from Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq). On show is a 4,000-year-old Mesopotamian clay tablet impressed with cuneiform script — wedge-shaped markings made with a reed stylus — indicating wages distributed to farm laborers. Next up is picture-writing: Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphics stand preserved in limestone stelae lionizing their respective pantheon of deities and dynasties. Somewhere along the way, at around 1800 BCE, the alphabet is born as migrants in Sinai assign Egyptian hieroglyphs to spoken language. We see the symbol of an ox head morphing across a sandstone Sphinx, an urn, and a slab, eventually becoming a recognizable majuscule “A.” Before we know it we are looking at the hands of some of the greatest minds of the Western world: Mozart’s ornate musical flourishes and James Joyce’s erratic color-coded notes for his magnum opus Ulysses — genius made material.

Large Maya limestone stela with writing from Belize, 647AD (copyright the Trustees of the British Museum)

But as well as dutifully laying down these linear developments, the exhibition powerfully delves into the personal and political complexities of writing, driving home that writing not only is one of humanity’s greatest inventions, but a skill born out of some of the strongest human motivations.

As well as counting, two other impulses allegedly spurred early civilizations to put reed to papyrus: to name and claim things, and to speak beyond the grave. The exploration into the occult properties of writing is one of the most fascinating threads of enquiry in the exhibition which investigates how writing functioned as a kind of dark magic.

The literary theorist Johnathan Goldberg hinted at writing’s potential supernatural abilities when he asserted that “writing makes absence present” in his book Writing Matter. By giving materiality to speech, the words of a man or woman could exist across different planes of time and space, making writing a potent vehicle for mediation between the living and the dead. A small Egyptian funerary effigy asserts the presence of its late original with the inscription “Here I am.” The communication line also works the other way: oracle animal bones from the Shang dynasty used in divination rituals convey messages to deceased ancestors. These necromantic objects incite a strange familiarity since they detail mundanities one might casually drop via text message to one’s mother: the weather, children’s whereabouts, even a niggling toothache.

Sandstone sphinx with early alphabetic inscription, 1800 BCE (copyright the Trustees of the British Museum)

The political nature of writing was such that it also functioned as an important visual tool to represent societal values. In the 1920s, Russian Constructivists used typography for propagandist purposes to forge a new graphic language for their post-revolution world. On display are examples of this totalitarian style pioneered by the artist El Lissitzky whose designs employed rigid right angles to mirror the ordered utopia of the Communist state.

With arcane linguistic and phonological terms floating around, at times the exhibition threatens to become overly academic, but evidence of the whimsical side of writing brings in a welcome sense of playfulness. Wandering minds and states of boredom gives birth to beautiful on-page procrastination. In a mischievous bit of marginalia in the 14th-century Gorleston Psalter, a monk draws an absurd line of marching rabbits touting instruments and crosses, emphasizing a nexus between art and text.

(Detail) The Gorleston Psalter, 1310-1324, F.133r (copyright the British Library)

The exhibition is also certainly not without humor and at times irreverently sheds light on the limits of writing systems to wonderfully comedic effect. In an angry, caustic telegram sent from the English playwright John Osborne to the theatre critic Irving Wardle, punctuation hilariously jars with his apoplectic emotions: “CREATION IS SOMETHING YOU DO NOT RECOGNISE OF COURSE STOP HOW COULD YOU BECAUSE YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND IT STOP. ALRIGHT STOP FROM NOW ON IT’S OPEN WAR ALL THE WAY.”

Oracle bone from the Couling-Chalfant collection, 1300 BC – 1050 BC(copyright British Library)

“Isn’t that amazing?” mused the art historian E. H. Gombrich in his book A Little History of the World, “with twenty-six simple signs, each no more than a couple of squiggles, you can write you like, be it wise or silly, angelic or wicked.” If nothing else, this exhibition fascinatingly details the communicative powers of the “squiggle,” weaving the nuances of human character and emotion through the history of writing in a way that is at once intellectual, fractious, moving, and joyous.

Writing: Making Your Mark continues at the British Library (96 Euston Road, London) through August 27.

comments (0)