A History of Art in Chaldaea & Assyria Part 2

[31] _Genesis_ x. 6-20.

[32] _Genesis_ x. 22: "The children of Shem."

[33] _Genesis_ xi. 27-32.

[34] In his paper upon the _Date des ecrits qui portent les Noms de Berose et de Manethou_ (Hachette, 8vo. 1873), M. ERNEST HAVET has attempted to show that neither of those writers, at least as they are presented in the fragments which have come down to us, deserve the credence which is generally accorded to them. The paper is the production of a vigorous and independent intellect, and there are many observations which should be carefully weighed, but we do not believe that, as a whole, its hypercritical conclusions have any chance of being adopted. All recent progress in Egyptology and Assyriology goes to prove that the fragments in question contain much authentic and precious information, in spite of the carelessness with which they were transcribed, often at second and third hand, by abbreviators of the _basse epoque_.

[35] See -- 2 of Fragment 1. of BEROSUS, in the _Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum_ of CH. MuLLER (_Bibliotheque Grecque-Latine_ of Didot), vol. ii.

p. 496; En de te Babuloni polu plethos anthropon genesthai alloethnon katoikesanton ten Chaldaian.

[36] Gaston MASPERO, _Histoire ancienne des Peuples de l'Orient_, liv. ii.

ch. iv. _La Chaldee_. Francois LENORMANT, _Manuel d'Histoire ancienne de l'Orient_, liv. iv. ch. i. (3rd edition).

[37] The principal texts in which these terms are to be met with are brought together in the _Worterbuch der griechischen Eigennamen_ of PAPE (3rd edition), under the words Kissia, Kissioi, Kossaioi.

[38] A single voice, that of M. Halevy, is now raised to combat this opinion. He denies that there is need to search for any language but a Semitic one in the oldest of the Chaldaean inscriptions. According to him, the writing under which a Turanian idiom is said to lurk, is no more than a variation upon the Assyrian fashion of noting words, than an early form of writing which owed its preservation to the quasi-sacred character imparted by its extreme antiquity. We have no intention of discussing his thesis in these pages; we must refer those who are interested in the problem to M.

HALeVY'S dissertation in the _Journal Asiatique_ for June 1874: _Observations critiques sur les pretendus Touraniens de la Babylonie_. M.

Stanislas Guyard shares the ideas of M. Halevy, to whom his accurate knowledge and fine critical powers afford no little support.

[39] MASPERO, _Histoire ancienne_, p. 134. Upon the etymology of _Turanians_ see MAX MuLLER'S _Science of Language_, 2nd edition, p. 300, _et seq._ Upon the constituent characteristics of the Turanian group of races and languages other pages of the same work may be consulted.... The distinction between Turan and Iran is to be found in the literature of ancient Persia, but its importance became greater in the Middle Ages, as may be seen by reference to the great epic of Firdusi, the _Shah-Nameh_.

The kings of Iran and Turan are there represented as implacable enemies. It was from the Persian tradition that Professor Muller borrowed the term which is now generally used to denote those northern races of Asia that are neither Aryans nor Semites.

[40] This family is sometimes called _Ural-Altac_, a term formed in similar fashion to that of _Indo-Germanic_, which has now been deposed by the term Aryan. It is made up of the names of two mountain chains which seem to mark out the space over which its tribes were spread. Like the word _Indo-Germanic_, it made pretensions to exactitude which were only partially justified.

[41] This is the opinion of M. OPPERT. He was led to the conclusion that their writing was invented in a more northern climate than that of Chaldaea, by a close study of its characters. There is one sign representing a bear, an animal which does not exist in Chaldaea, while the lions which were to be found there in such numbers had to be denoted by paraphrase, they were called _great dogs_. The palm tree had no sign of its own. See in the _Journal Asiatique_ for 1875, p. 466, a note to an answer to M. Halevy entitled _Summerien ou rien_.

[42] MASPERO, _Histoire ancienne_, p. 135.

[43] These much disputed terms, Sumer and Accad, are, according to MM.

Halevy and Guyard, nothing but the geographical titles of two districts of Lower Chaldaea.

-- 4.--_The Wedges._

The writing of Chaldaea, like that of Egypt, was, in the beginning, no more than the abridged and conventionalized representation of familiar objects.

The principle was identical with that of the Egyptian hieroglyphs and of the oldest Chinese characters. There are no texts extant in which images are exclusively used,[44] but we can point to a few where the ideograms have preserved their primitive forms sufficiently to enable us to recognize their origin with certainty. Among those Assyrian syllabaries which have been so helpful in the decipherment of the wedges, there is one tablet where the primitive form of each symbol is placed opposite the group of strokes which had the same value in after ages.[45]

This tablet is, however, quite exceptional, and, as a rule, the cuneiform characters cannot thus be traced to their primitive form. But well-ascertained and independent facts allow us to come to certain conclusions which even this scanty evidence is enough to confirm.

In inventing the process of writing and bringing it to perfection, the human intellect worked on the same lines among the Turanians of Chaldaea as it did everywhere else. The point of departure and the early stages have been the same for all peoples, although some have stopped half-way and others when three-fourths of the journey were complete. The supreme discovery which should crown the effort is the attribution of a special sign to each of the elementary articulations of the human voice. This final object, an object towards which the most gifted nations of antiquity were working for so many centuries, was just missed by the Egyptians. They were, we may say, wrecked in port, and the glory of creating the alphabet that men will use as long as they think and write was reserved for the Phoenicians.

Even when their civilization was at its height the Babylonians never came so near to alphabetism as the Egyptians. This is not the place for an inquiry into the reasons of their failure, nor even for an explanation how signs with a phonetic value forced themselves in among the ideograms, and became gradually more and more important. Our interest in the two kinds of writing is of a different nature; we have to learn and explain their influence upon the plastic arts in the countries where they were used.

In our attempt to define the style of Egyptian sculpture and to give reasons for its peculiar characteristics, we felt obliged to attribute great importance to the habits of eye and hand suggested and confirmed by the cutting and painting of the hieroglyphs. In their monumental inscriptions, if nowhere else, the symbols of the Egyptian system retained their concrete imagery to the end; and the images, though abridged and simplified, never lost their resemblance;[46] and if it is necessary to know something more than the particular animal or thing which they represent before we can get at their meaning, that is only because in most cases they had a metaphorical or even a purely phonetic signification as well as their ideographic one. For the most part, however, it is easy to recognize their origin, and in this they differ greatly from the symbols of the first Chaldaean alphabet. In the very oldest documents there are certain ideograms that, when we are warned, remind us of the natural objects from which their forms have been taken, but the connection is slight and difficult of apprehension. Even in the case of those characters whose forms most clearly suggest their true figurative origin, it would have been impossible to assign its prototype to each without the help of later texts, where, with more or less modification, they formed parts of sentences whose general significance was known. Finally, the Assyrian syllabaries have preserved the meaning of signs, that, so far as we can judge, would otherwise have been stumbling-blocks even to the wise men of Nineveh when they were confronted with such ancient inscriptions as those whose fragments are still found among the ruins of Lower Chaldaea.

Even in the remote days that saw the most venerable of these inscriptions cut, the images upon which their forms were based had been rendered almost unrecognizable by a curious habit, or caprice, which is unique in history.

Writing had not yet become entirely _cuneiform_, it had not yet adopted those triangular strokes which are called sometimes nails, sometimes arrow-heads, and sometimes wedges, as the exclusive constituents of its character. If we examine the tablets recovered by Mr. Loftus from the ruins of Warka, the ancient Erech (Fig. 1), or the inscriptions upon the diorite statues found at Tello by M. de Sarzec (Fig. 2), we shall find that in the distant period from which those writings date, most of the characters had what we may call an unbroken trace.[47] This trace, like that of the hieroglyphs, would have been well fitted for the succinct imitation of natural objects but for a rigid exclusion of those curves of which nature is so fond. This exclusion is complete, all the lines are straight, and cut one another at various angles. The horror of a curve is pushed so far that even the sun, which is represented by a circle in Egyptian and other ideographic systems, is here a lozenge.

[Illustration: FIG. 1.--Brick from Erech.]

It is very unlikely that even the oldest of these texts show us Chaldaean writing in its earliest stage. Analogy would lead us to think that these figures must at one time have been more directly imitative. However that may have been, the image must have been very imperfect from the day that the rectilinear trace came into general use. Figures must then have rapidly degenerated into conventional signs. Those who used them could no longer pretend to actually represent the objects they wished to denote. They must have been content to suggest their ideas by means of a character whose value had been determined by usage. This transformation would be accelerated by certain habits which forced themselves upon the people as soon as they were finally established in the land of Shinar.

[Illustration: FIG. 2.--Fragment of an inscription engraved upon the back of a statue from Tello. Louvre. (Length 10-1/4 inches.)]

We are told that there are certain expressions in the Assyrian language which lead to the belief that the earliest writing was on the bark of trees, that it offered the first surface to the scribe in those distant northern regions from which the early inhabitants of Chaldaea were emigrants. It is certain that the dwellers in that vast alluvial plain were compelled by the very nature of the soil to use clay for many purposes to which no other civilization has put it. In Mesopotamia, as in the valley of the Nile, the inhabitants had but to stoop to pick up an excellent modelling clay, fine in texture and close grained--a clay which had been detached from the mountain sides by the two great rivers, and deposited in inexhaustible quantities over the whole width of the double valley. We shall see hereafter what an important part bricks, crude, fired, and enamelled, played in the construction and decoration of Chaldaean buildings.

It was the same material that received most of their writing.

Clay offered a combination of facility with durability which no other material could equal. While soft and wet it readily took the shape of any figure impressed upon it. The deftly-handled tool could engrave characters upon its yielding surface almost as fast as the reed could trace them upon papyrus, and much more rapidly than the chisel could cut them in wood.

Again, in its final condition as solid terra-cotta, it offered a chance of duration far beyond that of either wood or papyrus. Once safely through the kiln it had nothing to fear short of deliberate destruction. The message intrusted to a terra-cotta slab or cylinder could only be finally lost by the reduction of the latter to powder. At _Hillah_, the town which now occupies a corner of the vast space once covered by the streets of Babylon, bricks are found built into the walls to this day, upon which the Assyrian scholar may read as he runs the royal style and titles of Nebuchadnezzar.[48]

As civilization progressed, the dwellers upon the Persian Gulf felt an ever-increasing attraction towards the art of writing. It afforded a medium of communication with distant points, and a bond of connection between one generation and another; by its means the son could profit by the accumulated experience of the father. The slab of terra-cotta was the most obvious material for its reception. It cost almost nothing, while such an elaborate substance as the papyrus of Egypt can never have been very cheap. It lent itself kindly to the service demanded of it, and the writer who had confided his thoughts to its surface had only to fire it for an hour or two to secure them a kind of eternity. This latter precaution did not require any very lengthy journey; brick kilns must have blazed day and night from one end of Chaldaea to another.

If we consider for a moment the properties of the material, and examine the remains which have come down to us, we shall understand at once what writing was certain to become under the triple impulse of a desire to write much, to write fast, and to use clay as we moderns use paper. Suppose oneself compelled to trace upon clay figures whose lines necessitated continual changes of direction; at each angle or curve it would be necessary to turn the hand, and with it the tool, because the clay surface, however tender it might be, would still afford a certain amount of resistance. Such resistance would hardly be an obstacle, but it would in some degree diminish the speed with which the tool could be driven. Now, as soon as writing comes into common use, most of those who employ it in the ordinary matters of life have no time to waste. It is important that all hindrances to rapid work should be avoided. The designs of the old writing with their strokes sometimes broken, sometimes continuous, sometimes thick, and sometimes thin, wearied the writer and took much time, and at last it came about that the clay was attacked in a number of short, clear-cut triangular strokes each similar in form to its fellow. As these little depressions had all the same depth and the same shape, and as the hand had neither to change its pressure nor to shift its position, it arrived with practice at an extreme rapidity of execution.

Some have asserted that the instrument with which these marks were made has been found among the Mesopotamian ruins. It is, we are told, a small style in bone or ivory with a bevelled triangular point.[49] And yet when we look with attention at these terra-cotta inscriptions, we fall to doubting whether the hollow marks of which they are composed could have been made by such a point. There is no sign of those scratches which we should expect to find left by a sharp instrument in its process of cutting out and removing part of the clay. The general appearance of the surface leads us rather to think that the strokes were made by thrusting some instrument with a sharp ridge like the corner of a flat rule, into the clay, and that nothing was taken away as in the case of wood or marble, but an impression made by driving back the earth into itself.[50] However this may be, the first element of the cuneiform writing was a hollow incision made by a single movement of the hand, and of a form which may be compared to a greatly elongated triangle. These triangles were sometimes horizontal, sometimes vertical, sometimes oblique, and when arranged in more or less complex groups, could easily furnish all the necessary symbols. In early ages, the elements of some of these ideographic or phonetic signs--signs which afterwards became mere complex groups of wedges--were so arranged as to suggest the primitive forms--that is, the more or less roughly blocked out images--from which they had originally sprung. The _fish_ may easily be recognized in the following group [Illustration]: while the character that stands for the _sun_, [Illustration], reminds us of the lozenge which was the primitive sign for that luminary. In the two symbols [Illustration] and [Illustration], we may, with a little good will, recognize a _shovel_ with its handle, and an _ear_. But even in the oldest texts the instances in which the primitive types are still recognizable are very few; the wedge has in nearly every case completely transfigured, and, so to speak, decomposed, their original features.

This is the case even in what is called the Sumerian system itself, and when its signs and processes were borrowed by other nations, the tendency to abandon figuration was of course still more marked. It has now been clearly proved that the wedges have served the turn of at least four languages beside that of the people who devised them, and that in passing from one people to another their groups never lost the phonetic value assigned to them by their first inventors.[51]

In the absence of this extended employment all attempts to decipher the wedges would have been condemned to almost certain failure from the first, but as soon as its existence had been placed beyond doubt, there was every reason to count upon success. It allowed the words of a text to be transliterated into phonetic characters, and that being done, to discover their meaning was but an affair of time, patience, and method.

We see then, that the system of signs invented by the first inhabitants of Chaldaea had a vogue similar to that which attended the alphabet of the Phoenicians in the Mediterranean basin. For all the peoples of Western Asia it was a powerful agent of progress and civilization. We can understand, therefore, how it was that the wedge, the essential element of all those groups which make up cuneiform writing, became for the Assyrian one of the holy symbols of the divine intelligence. Upon the stone called the _Caillou Michaud_, from the name of its discoverer, it is shown standing upon an altar and receiving the prayers and homage of a priest.[52] It deserved all the respect it received; thanks to it the Babylonian genius was able to rough out and hand down to posterity the science from which Greece was to profit so largely.

And yet, in spite of all the services it had rendered, this form of writing fell into disuse towards the commencement of our era; it was supplanted even in the country of its origin by alphabets derived from that of the Phoenicians.[53] It had one grave defect: its phonetic signs always represented syllables. No one of the wedge-using communities made that decisive step in advance of which the honour belongs to the Phoenicians alone. No one of them carried the analysis of language so far as to reduce the syllable to its elements, and to distinguish the consonant, mute by itself, from the vowel upon which it depends, if we may say so, for an active life.

All those races who have not borrowed their alphabet _en bloc_ from their neighbours or predecessors but have invented it for themselves, began with the imitation of objects. At first we have a mere outline, made to gratify some special want.[54] The more these figures were repeated, the more they tended towards a single stereotyped form, and that an epitomized and conventional one. They were only signs, so that it was not in the least necessary to painfully reproduce every feature of the original model, as if the latter were copied for its plastic beauty. As time passed on, writing and drawing won separate existences; but at first they were not to be distinguished one from the other, the latter was but a use of the former, and, in a sense, we may even say that writing was the first and simplest of the plastic arts.

In Egypt this art remained more faithful to its origin than elsewhere. Even when it had attained the highest development it ever reached in that country, and was on the point of crowning its achievements by the invention of a true alphabet, it continued to reproduce the general shapes and contours of objects. The hieroglyphs were truly a system of writing by which all the sounds of the language could be noted and almost reduced to their final elements; but they were also, up to their last day, a system of design in which the characteristic features of genera and species, if not of individuals, were carefully distinguished.

Was it the same in Chaldaea? Had the methods, and what we may call the style of the national writing, any appreciable influence upon the plastic arts, upon the fashion in which living nature was understood and reproduced? We do not think it had, and the reason of the difference is not far to seek.

The very oldest of the ideographic signs of Chaldaea are much farther removed from the objects upon which they were based than the Egyptian hieroglyphs; and when the wedge became the primary element of all the characters, the scribe ceased to give even the most distant hint of the real forms of the things signified. Throughout the period which saw those powerful empires flourishing in Mesopotamia whose creations were admired and copied by all the peoples of Western Asia, the more or less complex groups and arrangements of the cuneiform writing, to whatever language applied, had no aim but to represent sometimes whole words, sometimes the syllables of which those words were composed. Under such conditions it seems unlikely that the forms of the written characters can have contributed much to form the style of artists who dealt with the figures of men and animals. We may say that the sculptors and painters of Chaldaea were not, like those of Egypt, the scholars of the scribes.

And yet there is a certain analogy between the handling of the inscriptions and that of the bas-reliefs. It is doubtless in the nature of the materials employed that we must look for the final explanation of this similarity, but it is none the less true that writing was a much earlier and a much more general art than sculpture. The Chaldaean artist must have carried out his modelling with a play of hand and tool learnt in cutting texts upon clay, and still more, upon stone. The same chisel-stroke is found in both; very sure, very deep, and a little harsh.

However this may be, we cannot embark upon the history of Art in Chaldaea without saying a word upon her graphic system. If there be one proof more important than another of the great part played by the Chaldaeans in the ancient world, it is the success of their writing, and its diffusion as far as the shores of the Euxine and the eastern islands of the Mediterranean.

Some cuneiform texts have lately been discovered in Cappadocia, the language of which is that of the country,[55] and the most recent discoveries point to the conclusion that the Cypriots borrowed from Babylonia the symbols by which the words of the Greek dialect spoken in their island were noted.[56]

We have yet to visit more than one famous country. In our voyage across the plains where antique civilization was sketched out and started on its long journey to maturity, we shall, whenever we cross the frontiers of a new people, begin by turning our attention for a space to their inscriptions; and wherever we are met by those characters which are found in their oldest shapes in the texts from Lower Chaldaea, there we shall surely find plastic forms and motives whose primitive types are to be traced in the remains of Chaldaean art. A man's writing will often tell us where his early days were passed and under what masters his youthful intellect received the bent that only death can take away.


[44] We are told that there is an inscription at Susa of this character. It has been examined but not as yet reproduced. We can, therefore, make no use of it. See Francois LENORMANT, _Manuel d'Histoire ancienne_, vol. ii. p.


[45] M. LENORMANT reproduces this tablet in his _Histoire ancienne de l'Orient_ (9th edition, vol. i. p. 420). The whole of the last chapter in this volume should be carefully studied. It is well illustrated, and written with admirable clearness. The same theories and discoveries are explained at greater length in the introduction to M. LENORMANT'S great work entitled _Essai sur la Propagation de l'Alphabet phenicien_, of which but one volume has as yet appeared (Maisonneuve, 8vo., 1872). At the very commencement of his investigations M. OPPERT had called attention to the curious forms presented by certain characters in the oldest inscriptions.

See _Expedition scientifique de Mesopotamie_, vol. ii. pp. 62, 3, notably the paragraph entitled _Origine Hieroglyphique de l'ecriture anarienne_.

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