Writing is Visible Language

Visible language

As we walk around the Ancient World Collections at the MFA, we were instructed to analyze the textual artifacts in front of us. Specifically, we were to think about the artifact’s purpose and meaning. I began to think about how fascinating history of writing is and how the world evolved from these textual artifacts to the writing systems we have today.

What is writing?

These are some definitions and functions of writing from “Visible Language: The Earliest Writing Systems” by Christopher Woods that really stood out to me and made me reconsider what writing is:

  • writing is a response of the rise of sociopolitical complexities
  • writing represents speech
  • writing is an extension of language used into areas where spoken language cannot do the job
    • ration accounts, records, labels, divination records, commemorative stelae

These all attempt to analyze the purpose and meaning of writing. As I think about the artifacts in front of me, I start by considering how the artifact attempts to define itself as writing.

Foundation deposit in the form of a plano-convex brick

foundation deposit This foundation deposit is from Iraq during the Isin-Larsa Period under the reign of Warad-Sin from about 1834-1823 B.C. It is made of limestone with a flat bottom and a rounded top. When Warad-Sin rebuilt this building and dedicated the building to the goddess Nininsinna. From the translation provided, Warad-Sin hopes his “glory be extended to the distant future.”

Relief of the Royal Cup-Bearer Tjawy

front of the relief back of the relief This relief is from Egypt probably Thebes during the New Kingdom Dynasty 18 under the reign of Amenhotep III from 1390-1353 B.C. It is also made of limestone and is about 3 feet tall. This relief was served most likely as an architectural element in Tjawy’s tomb. The front of the relief shows pictures and Egyptian symbols that were intended to provide the deceased with necessities in the next world. The back of the relief is a biographical inscription.


Both artifacts are made of limestone and both function as tools for remembrance - the foundation deposit will be discovered by later generations and those people will remember Warad-Sin and his “glory”. As I walked through the exhibit at the MFA, I noticed that a majority of ancient textual artifacts were carved on limestone which suggests that limestone was more accessible and durable than other materials. The functions of these artifacts reiterated that writing emerged and survived due to its permanence. Both commissioners of the artifacts, likely Warad-Sin and Tjawy, are leaders of society which leads to the conclusion that writing was a specialized skill and commissioning an artifact with written texts on it was only reserved for the elite.


There are a lot of differences between the foundation deposit and the relief. Physically, the foundation deposit is the size of a brick and the relief is about 3 feet tall. The writing on the foundation deposit is a collection of short and intricate lines crisscrossing each other at distinct angles, the lines are similar to the cuneiform writings. While the writing on the relief is very different. The writing on the relief is carved with deeper and thicker lines of equal depth and the writing is in the form of pictures and symbols that are organized in a linear fashion.

The picture-based texts on the relief would probably be categorized as a semasiography, writing that is bond to ideas instead of glottography which is bond to speech. The shift towards semasiography may have started so that more people can understand the content of the writing without being able to decipher the letters, the characters, or the tick marks. This also supports the function of the artifact in that Tjawy would want more people to remember him and his achievements. Contrasting the writings on these two artifacts based on the style instead of the content (what the writing says) really made me think more about what the message of the medium is.