Visible Language


Egyptian Funerary Shroud

The cloth is approximately six feet long and three feet wide, divided into three sections of illustration. The top section depicts a man, the subject of the shroud, his name translated as Ta-Sherit-Wedja-Hor on the plaque that accompanies the piece. The second section depicts three human figures in conversation, one bearing a ceremonial headdress. The last depicts the gods Anubis and Ra observing a set of scales. Writing is crammed in around the last two illustrations wherever it will fit, without strict adherence to orientation. According to the plaque, this shroud dates back to the second century C.E.

Babylonian Inscribed Cylinder

A clay cylinder from 600-560 B.C.E., it is divided into two sections of vertically-aligned text carved directly into the material. No illustrations or other forms of representation are present, but the explanatory plaque provides a translated summary. This cylinder was a foundation deposit serving as a record of the restoration of the temple to the god Lugalmarada by the king Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon. It also explains that the restoration uncovered lower courses of the temple’s structure, laid by King Naram-Sin of Akkad more than 1600 years earlier.


The major differences between these objects are largely the result of materiality. One is cloth, the other clay. One large, the other small, one painted, the other carved, one illustrated the other entirely text. It speaks to a disparity of intent, which reflects the differences between these cultures. Though it is perhaps not useful to directly compare these objects of fundamentally different function, there are certain comparisons to be made. The Egyptian shroud bears Roman-style illustration on its topmost section, displaying the empire’s influence on the culture. The use of illustration is an act of accessibility; even one who could not read the text would be able to glean some meaning from the art. By contrast the Babylonian cylinder is devoid of art, implying that it was not intended for interpretation by any who could not read the language. Its use of carved text creates an inherent texture to the object, a visibly tactile quality that may have allowed the blind to “read” this object. There is a physicality to the cylinder not present in the shroud- or that should have been granted by the body the shroud lay upon. All these differences are largely surface-level, and delving deeper reveals similarity at their respective cores.

The most fundamental similarity between these two relics is their function as archival works. The shroud is a document about the person it covers, while the cylinder is a description of the event that lead to its burial. Both of these objects were intended for longevity, reflected in the materials themselves- the fabric of the shroud absorbs the paint that would eventually be scratched off of a harder surface, while the deep carving of the cylinder allows it to remain legible after centuries of wear and tear. Both objects imply cultural ceremony, one of laying the dead to rest and the other of commemorating the construction of a temple, which implies the existence of a society that can support an educated group of priests or scribes to create these objects while also tying both objects to the religions of their respective cultures. This is highlighted by their interpretations in the context of Phaedrus, where Socrates derides writing as a “tool for reminding” rather than knowing. Unlike the pejorative intent that Plato conveys, these objects employ the reminding nature of text to convey reverence for their subject matter.


These two objects, the Egyptian shroud and the Babylonian cylinder, are relics of ancient civilizations that offer direct information about the cultures that created them. The very materials they are constructed from convey much about the manufacturing traditions and cultural paradigms of their respective societies. It prompts us to consider what the media that surrounds us will reveal to cultures of the distant future. What will the people 1600 years from now think of us, if there is anything left to find?