mercoledì 26 novembre 2014

The snake as the natural and eternal writing animal

The Early Neolithic Sign System (10th / 9th Millennium calBC) and its Consequences, John Templeton Foundation - Newsletter September 2014, pp. 8-12
(See also an interview with the authorDie steinzeitlichen Wurzeln der Schriftzeichen)

Fig. 1 [..]if we speculate as to what may have actually provoked humans to produce the first Bildzeichenwe might even – in a media-philosophical sense – (re-)mythologise this animal: the snake as the natural and eternal writing animal[..]. (vide infra)

[..]In the early 10th millennium BC, at the close of the last Ice Age, there began a development referred to by the visionary prehistorian Jacques Cauvin (1994) as the symbolic revolution of the Neolithic. [..]An equally important component was the formulation and fixation of symbolic worlds, expressed in material forms such as architecture, images and pictograms. [..] In contrast to simple images, the more specific Bildzeichen (Hans Georg Gadamer 1960, 1990) do not draw the  observer’s attention to their immediate aesthetic presence, they are much more than this; they are hermeneutic agents referring to something “other”;  they clearly surpass a function as mere depictions. The Bildzeichen usually exhibit a rigid and strongly culturally determined readability, especially in the way that specific information is codified. Although the signs used in this more or less new (irrespective of some Palaeolithic precursors), distinctively pictographic Neolithic phenomenon are clearly pictorial, they not only codify the subjects that they portray but they represent in a  very special way that something “other” which cannot be depicted. This is particularly apparent in the systematic small signs such as the bull’s head or the combination of moon disc and crescent.
Fig. 2. Göbekli Tepe, bull's heads on a. "necklace" of the pillar-being nr. 31,enclosure D and b., Enclosure A -Pillar 2 (from: Peters J. & Schmidt K. 2004. – Animals in the symbolic world of Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe, south-eastern Turkey: a preliminary assessment. Anthropozoologica 39 :179-218 ;  c. complex symbols as "necklace" of the pillar-being nr. 18, enclosure D. (H-shaped + lunar or soli-lunar combination)

The concise nature of the signs, the strong standardisation of sign forms, and the systemisation of the sign repertoire are all quite remarkable. Therefore, in the case of Upper Mesopotamia it is perfectly legitimate for us speak of an Early Neolithic sign system in which the small signs (~pictograms) were used in exactly the same way in an extensive geographic area [..]the sites at which this sign system was in use were separated from one another by distances amounting to several days walk, e.g. Göbekli Tepe – Jerf el-Ahmar: approx. 150 km; Göbekli Tepe – Tell Qaramel: approx. 200 km. [..] The uniformity of the early Neolithic sign system is reflected
in the sign for snake (Fig. A)[..]This sign system permits an extraordinarily high level of readability, making for clear and unambiguous messages, albeit that meanings were related in a purely ideographic manner; the phonetic dimension of language only became fixed in later millennia. An incised plaquette from Tell Qaramel dating to the 10th or 9th millennium calBC (Fig. B) carries the depictions of three snakes and several hand signs. The visible structure of the Bildzeichen on this plaquette, achieved through the addition of engraved lines, and the clear tendency towards a basic symmetry are quite remarkable for this early period.The repetition and the impressive sequencing of the Bildzeichen intensify the message. The schematisation of the signs and the well-managed structure of the image field are quite remarkable from a media-historical perspective, the latter – through its standardisation – even showing a family resemblance of this particular sign system with writing [..].

Fig. 3

A third possible reason for the strong presence of the snake as a Bildzeichen in early inscriptions, i.e. in addition to our innate fascination with this animal and the threat it harbours to human life, lies in the nature of writing itself; a wavy (serpentine) line is one of the most obvious and natural graphisms. Having produced a wavy line by incising or drawing, the illustrator, and likely also the
beholder, would want / would have wanted it to have a meaning. Notably, the media-philosophical-speculative origin of this Bildzeichen must be rooted in a time pre-dating Neolithic snake representations[..]Furthermore, if we speculate as to what may have actually provoked humans to produce irst Bildzeichen, we might even – in a media-philosophical sense – (re-)mythologise this animal: the snake as the natural and eternal writing animal. Its repertoire of motion and the tracks it leaves behind in the sand provide an impressive paradigm to writing, even suggesting readability. Indeed, snakes are not only known for their tracks but also for their unexpected appearance, culminating in the human preoccupation with the fundamental dichotomy between the visible and the presently invisible, and the unmistakably present and the latent or completely absent. Therefore, snakes compel people to heed even the smallest signs should something be more than it initially appears at first sight.[..].

The hand itself is a polysemic sign and its interpretation varies in different cultures, e.g. the hand of
God, the praying hand, the hand taking an oath or the severed hand of an enemy as a sign of triumph or victory. In combination with the snake depictions, as for example on the incised plaquette from Tell Qaramel, it might be interpreted as a STOP-hand. This plaquette is an archaeological milestone in our comprehension of text-history long before the appearance of writing in its strictest sense.[...]If the snake (as the personification of the readable image) and the hand (as the personiication of gestural communication in the world of signs) depicted on the Early Neolithic plaquette from Tell Qaramel are among the earliest readable Bildzeichen in the strictest sense, then media-philosophical reflection and archaeological interpretation can be blissfully conjoined[..].

Neolithic Hypertexts?

[..] In a further step, the Early Neolithic sign system permits a more specific identification of the monumental anthropomorphic pillar-beings from Göbekli Tepe. These monumental pillar-beings can be analysed as a complex sign system comprising at least three different levels:
a) the anthropomorphic pillar-beings themselves as large signs;
b) the comparatively naturalistic animal reliefs as medium signs; and
c) small signs which include, for example, the bull’s head or the combination of moon disc + crescent.
At this sanctuary site, this sign system is used to codify cultural text. It follows that Enclosure D (Fig. C) can be read in the following way:

Fig. 4: Enclosure D at Göbekli Tepe, central pillar 18, small signs on the narrow side of this pillar-being (Photos: Bertold Steinhilber)

For this sign system even greater meanings can be drawn from the circles; accordingly, these can be read as hypertext:
– individual enclosures within the entire sanctuary
– sanctuary within the landscape and its relation to other places.

Other elements also feature in this Early Neolithic cosmos of meaning (Sinnkosmos); for example, on pillar-being 18 there is what appears to be a graffito, considerably smaller than the depiction of the fox, which shows a hunting scene with three dogs.
The small sign moon disc + crescent functions as a kind of name tag, assigning an identity to the pillar-being; in more concrete terms we may speak of a moon-deity. Therefore, the sign system allows us to penetrate into the realms of sacral beliefs, and in doing so provides us with conirmation for the existence of personal deities in the Early Neolithic.
This Early Neolithic sign system was not created for administration purposes, its usage lies firmly in the sacral sphere. In the frame of an archaeo-semiotic deep probing, three important stages in the development of notation techniques can be found to correlate exceptionally well with particular archaeological periods.  Based on observations made at the Early Neolithic site of Göbekli Tepe it can be stated that as early as the 10th/9th millennia calBC there prevailed the clear necessity for specific labeling and the unambiguous closure of meaning in the form of “names” (e.g. through the usage of the Bildzeichen MOON DISC + CRESCENT or BULL’S HEAD). Not only this, but at this time a text had already been composed in the frame of the Pillar-being ensemble.

Fig. 5 

Fig. 6: the two "pillar-beings" of enclosure D. The pedestal of pillar nr. 18 is "decorated" with 7 birds, only partially visible in the picture. From: Oliver Dietrich, Göbekli Tepe – A Stone Age ritual center in southeastern TurkeyActual Archaeology Magazine 05/2012; 2:32-51.

See also: 
La terra dei record. Anche nella scrittura?, 11 ottobre 2011,
Olympia der Steinzeit, Entwicklung der Schrift, 24. November 2014, Sü
Siria, segni di un alfabeto del III millennio a.C.?, 1 FEBBRAIO 2013,

The preview of the book: "Medienevolution und die Gewinnung neuer Denkräume: Das frühneolithische Zeichensystem (10./9. Jt. v. Chr.), Ludwig D. Morenz, EB-Verlag, 2014