Between 5200–5000 years ago the world’s first writing emerged in three main regions: Proto-Cuneiform in southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), Proto-Elamite in Elam (southwest Iran), and Egyptian hieroglyphic in the lower Nile Valley. Past research on this material and contemporary artistic evidence commonly prioritises institutional-level explanations, and focusses on the economic, political and ideological requirements of an increasingly centralised administration. Philological interpretations are often retrospectively derived and chronological relationships discerned on palaeographical bases, to the neglect of archaeological context, including methods of physical expression and the implications of spatial contexts. Past studies also tend to neglect technological qualities of writing and other forms of image-making, including influences of materials, tools and technology.

These issues thus motivate the particular formulation of the project aim—to complement top-down macro-scale understandings of systems of artistic and linguistic representation, with a bottom-up approach emphasising micro-scale evidence for imagery as material practice. Essential to this re-materialising approach is the detailed documentation and examination of surfaces for evidence of image-making processes and subsequent engagement, such as reading and viewing.

Kathryn Piquette undertook research on a range of inscribed and decorated artefacts in order to characterise these as graphical spaces and investigated the ways in which the materiality of expression informed semiotic meaning and the representation of cultural knowledge.

Though several museum research visits and field work, she documented 100 objects dating to this early period of graphical development (c.3100-c.2500 BCE) in both southern Mesopotamia and the Nile Valley. Her datasets comprise both portable objects (e.g. cylinder seals, impressed sealings, cuneiform tablets, labels) and fixed image-bearing surfaces (e.g. stelae, tomb relief, rock art).

In addition to applying a material practice approach to early writing and art, an innovative aspect of the research was the application of advanced digital technologies. Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) enables the systematic photography of artefact surfaces lit from numerous angles. Multiple captures of an artefact’s surface are amalgamated using a particular mathematical algorithm into a single high-resolution image that can be virtually re-lit from different positions to flesh out details of surface topography. Kathryn Piquette also uses the relational database and workbench for qualitative analysis, ATLAS.ti, to collate and study the artefact image data. She investigated the relationships between material type, methods and techniques of inscription/surface elaboration, possible tool choice, features of image composition and appearance, and also considered their possible impact on subsequent acts of perception and use. Archaeological data associated with these graphical spaces, including broader spatial and temporal information were compared and contrasted to understand how material choice impacted on the form, function and meaning. By charting similarities and differences between the data from early Egypt and southern Mesopotamia, the research aimed to elucidate the relationship between the material visualisation of cultural knowledge at local and regional levels and larger-scale processes of ‘state emergence’.

This project was co-funded by the Marie Curie COFUND program of the European Commission and the the Dahlem Research School (DRS).