“Things” as Text
For this lab, I’ve chosen to work with symbols and pictures as text, interpreting the ways they function by decoding (the best I can) the messages conveyed. Let it be known – there is a message. Therefore…text. The writer, or artist in this case, has chosen a mode of communication apart from words or letters, but it is still our responsibility as students and readers, to interpret nonetheless. The text is “printed” (in the most loose sense of the word) on different materials, or even better, mediums. The pieces I’ve chosen to focus on date back centuries and come from distinctly different eras and places. Please find short descriptions of each piece below, which accompanied the work in the Museum of Fine Arts.
Winged protective deity
Northern Iraq, Assyrian, 883-599 B.C. – Alabaster
“To protect themselves from unseen terrors, Assyrians surrounded themselves with images of fantastic minor deities. In the palace at Calakh, reliefs like these, which were originally painted, covered the walls from the throne room to the lavatories. Each bears the figure of a winged guardian whose function was to keep the king from harm. One is shown pollinating a sacred tree; the other, holding a scepter, in the act of protecting the king, whose figure would have been carved on an adjacent relief. Across the middle of each is the so-called standard inscription of Assurnasirpal II, which records the king’s conquests and achievements.” - Charles Amos Cummings Fund, 1935
####Sarcophagus of Kheper-Re
Egypt (Giza, tomb) 570-525 B.C. – Basalt
“While most of the tombs at Giza date to the Old Kingdom, the cemetery experienced several periods of reuse and revitalization. One such period was the Saite, at the end of which the general Kheper-Re was buried in the field of tombs east of the Great Pyramid.
The tomb had ten chambers. Five held sarcophagi, probably containing other members of the general’s family. Kheper-Re’s sarcophagus is typical of the period in representing a mummiform figure wearing a tripartite wig with lappets resting on the chest, the beard of Osiris, and a broad collar necklace. Kheper-Re’s name and title appear in the vertical lines of text below the broad collar, along with the names of the Four Sons of Horus, deities who protected the internal organs. The fifteen-line inscription on the sarcophagus lid contains a passage from the Book of the Dead. Passages from the Pyramid Texts, are also inscribes on the sarcophagus” - Museum Expedition, 1930
The time period (era) in which each piece was created, the country of origin, and the material in/on which the piece was created is included in the first line of the description. Here, we’re analyzing an Assyrian relief from Northern Iraq, etched in alabaster, and a sarcophagus from Egypt carved in Basalt. Firstly, I’d like to draw attention to the text within the text of each piece. Both have distinct, individual symbols printed/carved/etched into the medium, within a larger scene or relic: see the second picture of each medium above. A description of what is being conveyed in this writing is explained above.
One of the first noticeable differences between the pieces is that the text (symbols) stand out from the alabaster Assyrian piece, while the symbols on the sarcophagus are carved in to the rock. Therefore, when considering tactile elements of the pieces, one feels as if it pops out of the medium (alabaster), while the other feels as is it sinks into the medium (basalt). Another visual difference - the Assyrian alabaster has a sandy, unpolished finish, while the Egyptian basalt has a polished, very glazed look. Both pieces are various shades of grey stone and both are considerably larger than a full grown man. While both evoke human structure and facial recognition, the Egyptian sarcophagus has been carved into a visibly human form, while the Assyrian relief depicts a human without physically taking the shape of one (there is a human-like figure pictured, but the medium itself is not carved in the shape of a human like the sarcophagus).
The descriptions speak largely to the significance of the artifacts, where each was placed and its role in society, the value within its culture, how it was used, and what it represented. What cannot be inferred without an understanding of the symbols used in ancient Egyptian/Assyrian is the direct meaning of the symbols in each artifact. But that’s less important when tasked to analyze the medium and its effectiveness in delivering text. Both pieces show text carved or sculpted in/onto the medium as opposed to written or painted. In other words, it would take more than an ability to write to create this text - it would take skills with rock and an ability to manipulate it. This is how the text was “written” on both mediums. Language is represented through symbols and pictures in this case.
To tie this all together with a pretty pink bow, I’d like to bring in Liu’s ideas that new mediums are representations of old mediums. Old mediums never die. Alright, stay with me here. Symbols. Red octagon = stop. Cross = religion/Christianity. Crescent shape = moon. As Americans, we all understand these symbols and their meaning. Well, ancient Assyrians and Egyptians understood the meaning of the symbols pictured above. One can also claim that what we call letters (our alphabet) is another understood system of symbols - that ‘a horizontal line with a vertical line coming down from its center’ is the English symbol for a ‘T’. All we have depicted in the pieces above are symbols that would have been understood by its viewers. All we have today…all we have literally on the screen you are reading right now are symbols that YOU, as a viewer understand. Symbols never died. The medium evolved from alabaster and basalt to Markdown and code, but we’re still interpreting symbols. Mediums never die.