|I Jornadas Internacionais de Promoção
do Turismo Cientifico e do Património do Vale do Côa
Mêda (P), Abril 20-24, 2002
Section II : Iconography & Symbolism in the Prehistoric & Protohistoric
R & D:
Da imagem de nós próprios à
A identificação escrita, a reconhecida representação gráfica do individual
é o resultado de um longo processo de ... „R
Surpreendentemente, quer a representação figurativa como a icónica têm
sido usadas desde o nascimento das artes gráficas.
Mas a aceitação de "nomes pessoais" tinha que esperar pela invenção
da escrita fonética.
Sugerimos que uma vez que alguém ousa representar uma coisa por outra coisa,
a principal barreira mental para representar fonemas por signos fica levantada.
O relevante processo genérico envolvido é a redução de signos gráficos em
"elementos de repetição" pré-fabricados,
ou grafemas, prontos a serem reunidos de vários modos.
A nossa demonstração será focada em duas letras com caracteres antropomórficos: o
"R & D", ou seja "Rosto e
R & D :
from the image of ourself to signature
A psychologist from Aberdeen, Jan Deregowski has been the
first Rock Art researcher to acknowledge that the perceptual aspect of the task of
depiction is a process of the eye-brain system, therefore a
process occurring in, what is suited to call, a normal state of consciousness.
DEREGOWSKI has introduced the concept of "typical contour",
i.e: one selects the most useful elements for the recognition of the
model; each element being represented under its most characteristic or unusual angle.
Open-Air Rock Art in the Guadiana and the Douro basins offers numerous illustrations of
Palaeolithic "typical contour".
e.g.: the finely carved Toro of Cheles (Spain):
The typical contour of the horns being not coplanar with the dominant typical contour of
the bull gives rise to a twisted drawing.
Orthogonal view angles give rise to an even more dramatic effect such as in the engraved
bovid of Canada do Inferno (Portugal).
In those early days, in the absence of a sufficient language for a satisfactory oral
sapiens sapiens might have found in Rock Art a stimulating activity to "format"
In order to "express his magical vision of the world", sapiens sapiens had
little choice other than to excel in Rock Art.
By the end of Neolithic era, such a privilege role of a particular mode of expression will
no longer hold :
orality became more competitive, and a new competitor to Rock Art emerged:
Examples of Palaeolithic typical contour of human beings are not so common as those of
animals. Fortunately, photographic illustrations of two of them, recently found in the
Cave of Cussac, in France, were part of a press release of the
Centre National de la Préhistoire.
B.The First Lady
As shown in Fig. A & B, only a few strokes, engraved
30'000 years ago in Cussac, suffice to characterize females. Noteworthy, those
images of sapiens sapiens are faceless and mute. Why ? It might be that the
social acceptance of the individual identity is a recent event, maybe bound to
the invention of phonetic writing. In Roman times, we know that only the gent name
was attributed to women. Even today, the mimetic anonymity of the social role often
supersedes individual names, e.g.: numerous grown-up children are naming their parents Mom
& Dad. In other words, what is depicted in Cussac might be only a social function: NOT
individual women, but the ideal nurturing mother.
After those figurative representations of human female, let us turn to her iconic
representations. One of the very first icons has been the pubic triangle. It is in the
Chauvet cave, in the French department of Ardèche, that the team of Jean Clottes has
found a fine example of this early iconic female representation. Fig. C
shows a rough engraving of the pure iconic sign. Standing alone, this icon evokes, without
ambiguities, sapiens sapiens of female gender.
15'000 years later, during the Magdalenian period, appeared as shown in Fig.
D, one of the most delicately sculptured pubic triangle, on the Frise Bourdois at Angles-sur-Anglin
With a further jump, by 8'000 years, into the Chalcolithic Era,
Rock Art does appear more skeletal compared with the sensual images of the
Magdalenian Era. The engraved piece of marble (3 cm long) shown in Fig. E
has been found in Portugal. Another Chalcolithic example is the
mouthless idol on the stele found in Miandassa" in Italy, see Fig. F.
Among the attributes of this idol, Dario Seglie has pointed out the pubic triangle and the
three cupmarks depicting the nipples and umbilicus. This idol has several similarities with
statue-menhirs, except that here the pubic triangle is still depicted.
By the end of the Neolithic Era, selected graphical signs appeared as
reduced into prefabricated "repeat-elements" or graphemes, ready to be
assembled in various ways. In the "radiography-like" pictures of insect women,
in Helanshan, see
Fig. G & H, the pubic triangle icon is used as a dominant
attribute of this composed figure.
Later, the pubic triangle icon has been taken
over in Sumer in order to become the cuneiform ideogram for "woman" or
"female", not carved with a graver, but imprinted into a tablet of soft clay
with the wedge of a Reed stylus. As shown in Fig. I, the
Acadian word-sign "woman" was developed from a straight line approximation and
rotation over 90 degrees from the pubic triangle. In Fig. J, the
cuneiform grapheme (the wedge) is substituted to each of the four strokes of the pubic
Votive stelae of Carthage are providing most perfect
examples of the in-formatical mutation, where a graphical sign is reduced
to a grapheme ready to be assembled in various ways in order to represent another
object than the original one. Fig. K shows a mouthless face
built-up with two graphemes: for the nose, the triangular sign of the Goddess Tanit
for the eyes, twice the sign of the couple moon-sun. If the Acadians have used the
triangular icon for their ideogram "female", the satellite picture of the Nile's
Delta, see Fig. L, reminds us that, the
symbolic meaning of mouth has even been extended to rivers, as testified in various
languages, e.g.: one speaks of les bouches du Rhône, in
France, of Swakopmund,
in (the former German colony of) Namibia, or of a desembocadura do
Tejo, in Portugal. Should one dare to conjecture that the consonantal skeleton
"dlt" had its origin in an ancient language with the meaning of
"mouth" ? What is sure is that the anthropomorphic triangular icon might be
considered as the graphical prototype of the Latin letter D, and
that it lost its original meaning of mouth to get the phonetic value attributed to the
hand. Let us now turn our attention to the avatars of the hand-icon.
C. Iconic sapiens
E. Chalcolithic icon
F. Miandassa idol
I. Rotating pubic triangle
J. Female in cuneiform
K. Goddess Tanit
L. Nile's mouth
M. Stamped hands
N. Stenciled hand
At the Chauvet cave, see Fig. M, in
those early examples of "positive" hand-prints, the coloured "right"
hand has been used as a stamp against the wall. The "page setting" of
those hands reflects a prototype organisation of the mental thought. The meaning of this
ludo-pictorial message might be "I imprint the traces of my hand, therefore I do
exist", after all, the technique of digital print is still used nowadays as a kind
Not much later than the invention of this printing process appeared another one: the blow
printing with stencils. The example shown in Fig. N, is from the Chauvet
cave. This reproduction method allows the printing of the so-called "negative"
hands. The graphical perfection of hand-icons produced with this method is such that one
might guess that it has inhibited the development of the figurative representation of
hands in painting.
A recurrent example of the perenniality of the stencil printing process could
be the tag shown in Fig. O on a wall near the Castello San Jorge in
Lisboa. This left-hand-grapheme seems to be used here as a kind of "quality
On another wall, near the Polytechnic Institute of Lisboa, see Fig. P,
the sole addition of the tag Palavras brings, in our opinion, a tone of sharp
scepticism toward the idyllic charm of the first tag.
The difficulty to interpret correctly this icon of today sheds of course a gloomy light on
our abilities to interpret icons produced 30'000 years ago.
In Chalcolithic age, appeared statues-menhir
intriguing representations of the hand. On the one found in Saint-Sernin, in France,
a grapheme made of parallel "digital" strokes represents the scarifications of
the face, see Fig. Q. This face has no mouth.
Remarkable is the secondary face on this monument, see Fig. R. It
is sketched by the breasts, the Y-shaped pendant (an attribute which might be considered
as a substitute to the pubic triangle icon ?), and the hand whose fingers strangely remind
the scarification grapheme of the head face. This replica of the face is as mute as the
original. This absence of mouth on early statue menhirs seems to testify that orality,
or should one say "the verb", has not been sacralized until Bronze
Age. Maybe the spoken language was still too crude to be represented, and the message
remained a "short memo" of the mute transactions between human and goddesses. By
the way, one should notice the typical contour of the feet in Fig. Q.
They are drawn as a straight extension of the open legs.
Such a typical contour calls for one of the favourite examples of Jan
Deregowski. Fig. S shows Saint Mark and his acolytes on a 17th century
Ethiopian manuscript. Fig.T shows a blow-up of the iconic feet of Saint
Mark. Those feet are depicted here in an even more twisted way than the ones depicted onto
The technique of engraving for figurative
representation of the hand was not popular before the Neolithic era. In Helanshan, in
Northern China, it is the left hand which has been used as a model, see Fig.
U. The details of the fingers of the hand disappear in hieroglyphic engravings,
see Fig V while in Carthage, see Fig. W, the iconic hand
demonstrates how effective is the interchange of graphemes. Once one
dares to represent something by something else, the main mental barrier to represent
phonemes by signs is lifted. After the mastering of the representation of an
object by another one, selected "graphemes" have been substituted to spoken
In Pharaonic Egypt, the commercial
transactions have led to code the oral, i.e.: to code the names of the trade partners (men
or gods). While both figurative & iconic representations
have been used in parallel since Palaeolithic ages, both pictograms
& phonograms have been used in parallel in ancient Egypt.
A well proven process for the formation of some alphabetic signs is the so-called
acrophonic principle: one substitutes to the complete name of an object its
first "letter". The phoneme is born out of the grapheme. As discovered
in royal cartouches by Champollion, the grapheme lion, lou in
Egyptian, has been used to represent the phonetic value "L". In a same way, the
hieroglyph depicting a mouth (or face), "rosh" in Semitic,
„rosto" in Portuguese, took the phonetic value "R". The
hieroglyph depicting a "hand", say "det" in
semitic, took, according to the acrophonic principle, the phonetic value "D", though, as we have
seen, the graphical sign had originally another meaning. The zoomorphic letter L
and the anthropomorphic letters R & D appear in the royal cartouches of Alexander the Great, see Fig. X, and of
Queen Cleopatra "Qliopadra", see Fig.
Y. While one says Alexander, one
says Cleopatra, because the "d" slipped
toward "t" at the Ptolemaic times.
The social acceptance toward individuals to have their own proper name, has first
been granted to the most powerful persons, and probably, those proto-individuals were also
habilitated to have their own feelings and their own dreams. In fact, their dreams
are the first relevant testimonies we have of how the language structures our way of
thinking. In the case of Alexander, Plutarch reported the following poliorcetical
dream : In 332 BCE, after having besieged Tyre for seven months, ALEXANDER the Great decided
one day to raise the siege. He believed he had lost all chances. Nevertheless, during the
following night he dreamt he chase a "satyr" around a fountain. The next
morning his counsellor explained to him: "sa", in Greek it means "to
you", and "tyr", means. "Tyre will be yours". Indeed,
after having dared to dream his victory, he came into Tyre without resistance from
the besieged people who, after seven months, could endure no longer. The choice of the
symbols is of course depending of the structure of the language, e.g.: Chinese, a language
where the written form prevails over the spoken one, will induce dreams
"unthinkable" in another language.
In short, sapiens sapiens had to wait for the emergence of trade & writing
to have his first chance to develop an individuality in the modern sense
of the word, with an ID, not yet an ID-card of course, but a proper name. Before this,
only social roles were relevant, and the spoken language was probably too crude to
allow the invention of narratives involving supernatural persons, too crude to
Léo DUBAL / virtual laboratory for archaeometry
/ dubal (at) archaeomety.org
O. Lisboet tag
Q: Mute face
S. Ethiopian icon
T. Typical contour
U. Engraved hand
V. Egyptian hieroglyphs
W. Punic composition with graphemes
X. Alexander's cartouche
Y. Cleopatra's cartouche