Though many millennials may believe that wordless communication originated with them via emojis, gifs and stickers, the art of conveying meaning through pictures is actually an ancient art. In the spirit of #WorldEmojiDay, we thought it would be worthwhile to examine the very old practice of using symbols to represent a word or phrase (AKA logography).
Though sometimes difficult to understand, these pictures have continued to tell stories throughout the ages, proving to be invaluable for artists and researchers alike. Here’s a list of some of the most interesting emoji-esque writings that have stood the test of time and the places where you can check them out.
Cuneiform script was developed by the ancient Sumerians around 3500 BCE. The earliest versions of these tablets used wedge-like symbols and impressions to create pictorial representations. This type of writing was mainly used for noting items and objects or tracking deliveries of cattle. As the writing evolved, it could convey deeper meanings and more complex thoughts. The best place to see preserved Cuneiform tablets is at the British Museum, whose department contains more than 130,000 texts and fragments.
When anyone imagines a prehistoric caveman, they always accompany that thought with an image of cave paintings. These drawings, which typically depicted ancient versions of animals that exist today like mammoths (elephants) and babirusas (deer). Though researchers aren’t exactly sure what purpose these images served, some have theorized that they may have religious connotations or as a means of conveying emotions.
Whatever the reason may be, there’s no denying that the images are beautiful, especially considering their age. Today, some of the best-preserved and most detailed cave paintings exist in in the Lascaux Caves in Southwestern France. Though the real drawings are unavailable to the public because of erosion caused by human interaction, detailed and true-to-original replicas are shown just 200 meters from the originals that are sure to impress.
The most famous of the pictorial languages is likely the Egyptian hieroglyphs. From a very young age, most people are taught the ins and outs of Egyptian culture. This is largely due to the massive amount of literature pertaining to the Egyptians that has survived throughout the ages. The majority of these transcripts were written in hieroglyphics, which date back to as far as 3,300 BCE.
Our ability to so accurately decipher it is largely due to the Rosetta Stone, an ancient granodiorite rock containing decrees written in Ancient Greek, Demotic-an alternative type of Egyptian script-and hieroglyphs. The oldest hieroglyph known to man is called the Battlefield Palette whose fragments are currently being displayed at the British Museum in London and at Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Many know the Aztecs for their love affair with chocolate and gold, but few are aware of their scholarly works. This is largely due to the nature of the ancient works, called codices, which were written on long folded sheets generally made of fig bark. Due to the medium by which these writings and pictorial works were undertaken, their lifespans were shorter as the paper was more delicate than stone workings. Unlike European books of the same era, the Aztec codices were just filled with images that weren’t meant for storytelling. Though few of these beautiful codices exist today, a few remaining examples can be found in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, Mexico.
Linear A and Linear B
Not to be confused with linear algebra, the Linear A and Linear B languages are the languages of the ancient Minoan civilization of Crete. The languages remain largely undecipherable, only adding to their overall mystique and curiosity. The history of the scripts date back to 1450 BCE and remnants can also be found on Knossos, Pylos, and Thebes. For those who want to observe the curiosity of the Linear A and Linear B languages, one of the best preserved examples of the script is on the Phaistos Disc, which has only recently been decoded and is on display at the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.
Have you visited an ancient scripts or languages? Let us know what they were below!