Visible Language

Visible Language


During our trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, I was able to closely examine many artifacts which I would normally glance over on previous visits to the exhibits. By applying ideas from in-class discussion and recent readings, I was able to gain a new perspective regarding said artifacts and their history, and look at them from a new angle. The two I chose to compare were the Relief of the Royal Cup-Bearer Tjawy and a ceremonial wine vessel from the Zhou dynasty in China. Though separated by an estimated period of approximately 300 years, the two share a number of similarities and possible interpretations.

Relief of the Royal Cup-Bearer Tjawy

This relic, as implied by its title, is a stone relief from Egypt. According to the museum summary, it appears to have been a tomb element of one named Tjawy, made out of limestone during Amenhotep the Magnificent’s rule, approximately 1390-1353 B.C. The text of this artifact is, of course, based in hieroglyphics, the Egyptian alphabet composed of symbols. Of particular interest was how this method of writing, which in itself is inherently pictorial, clearly followed rules of grammar and had a universal structure, as modern civilizations discovered with the Rosetta Stone. This particular artifact, as well as having a great amount of hieroglyphics on it, also displays a number of drawn scenes on the opposite side. Part of the description by the MFA is as follows:

  • “The back contains fifteen lines of a biographical inscription, while the front shows five registers of scenes, each of which was intended to provide the deceased with all the necessities in the next world.”

What intrigued me about this was the implied emphasis placed not on the power of writing and speech, but on the power of images, the latter of which was far more important in the afterlife, according to the museum summary. Despite having a clear, structured system of writing, the Egyptians placed their soul/life after death in imagery, and not through well written prayer or such. In this, I thought of our in-class discussion on Butler’s Speech Sounds, and how in that story, spoken speech had almost completely disappeared and even the ability to understand written words varied from person to person. The class discussion on the power of language and the implications of the world in Butler’s story made me consider the context and society in which Tjawy’s relief may have been created. To this, I cannot say I have truly found an answer, but going over the possibilities and comparing it to Butler’s future dystopian society was an interesting experience.

Ceremonial Wine Vessel

This wine vessel, made of bronze in approximately the late 11th/early 10th century B.C in China, contains an inscription on the inside. According to the MFA’s summary, it reads:

  • “In the beginning when Qin was appointed to be Prime Minister by imperial command to govern the people, the people praised him. He then had this bronze made as an offering to the memory of his deceased father, and ordered that his children and grandchildren treasure it forever.”

It is thus obvious that the artifact in question was not a commoner’s possession, but a high class citizen’s. At this time, of course, literacy and education were not anywhere near widespread in China. Thus, the value of this object, and in turn, the importance placed on the text/inscription within the vessel, can be presumed. From this, we can understand that homage to one’s ancestors, and keeping records of the past, were considered important enough for one to painstakingly inscribe such lines of text in bronze. While examining this object, I thought back to McLuhan’s writings on how the medium is a message in itself. The ceremonial importance of such a vessel, and the fact that the bronze vessel was selected “as an offering to the memory of his deceased father” and written on indicates an interesting view into Zhou Chinese views on certain ceremonies and ancestral recognition, making the medium of the bronze vessel contain a message in itself.

Comparisons and Conclusions

Though the two chosen artifacts were set in entirely different continents, entirely different cultures, and even hundreds of years apart, it is this very fact that allows us to put forth potential interpretations surrounding these artifacts. Regarding similarities, both use a clear, developed system of writing, and both appear to be related to a relatively high class person (a royal cup bearer and the descendants of a prime minister, respectively). However, the importance placed on text in each artifact is what differs. In the Egyptian relief, visual imagery and drawn scenes are clearly far more significant to the society than the hieroglyphic system of writing, as seen by the fact that said images are intended to assist the deceased in the eternal afterlife, which the Egyptians held to the highest degree. In contrast, the Chinese artifact uses their system of writing to allow one to pay homage to their ancestors, working in conjugation with whatever ceremonies they had. The text of the Chinese artifact is part of the wine vessel, and the meaning behind the text is a part of the ancestral reverence/ceremony itself; a message in the medium, in a way. The standards and importance placed on different things in each society, as well as some insight into how each culture thought regarding some of their activities, can be seen in these two artifacts.