Probing pre- and proto-historic signs

The origins of writing have been set at the inventions of lexicographic, logographic, and alphabetic writing-systems, thus providing a ground for distinguishing history from pre-history; proto-history was construed to accommodate overlapping cultural features between these two conceptually distinct periods of time in human cultural evolution. However, studies focused on pre-history, proto-history and history tend to neglect the possibility of alternative forms of symbolic and systematic communication prior to the invention of what by many is considered ‘true’ (i.e. lexicographic) writing. This approach has not been conducive to the serious study of the numerous clusters of abstract geometrical patterns, often referred to as ‘signs’, which can be observed in late Paleolithic and Neolithic rock art, from the Blombos cave to Near Eastern Halaf and Predynastic Egyptian ceramic vessels. Interpretations of figurative patterns are easily provided by plausible ‘referentiality’ (fauna, rituals, environment, etc.) but clusters of geometrical patterns remain ambiguous in the absence of a comprehensive cognitive and social context.

The purpose of this roundtable is to discuss the conditions under which falsifiable hypotheses can be expressed regarding the cultural evolutionary continuum between pre-, proto-, and historical graphic sign patterns. Here ‘graphic’ is not meant specifically as referring to early hypothetical writing systems but simply to underline the geometrical and topological commonalities that can be observed across the clusters of such abstract signs (sometimes referred to as ‘scriptoids’, i.e. ‘somewhat looking like part of a script’) provided by the archaeological record. These issues were raised, albeit inconclusively for lack of proper investigative methods, by some of the pioneers of prehistory such as Edouard Piette (1905) and Sir Matthew William Flinders Petrie (1912). Both have pointed out that the basic morphologies of the elements making up the earliest recognized scripts have not been created ex nihilo and can be observed in prehistoric ‘art’ in various combinations, predating the currently recognized first writing systems. The ever increasing amount of archaeological iconographic data combined with contemporary information technologies should make it possible to probe over long periods of time, from an evolutionary stance, the continuous process of innovations, variations, selections, and normalizations of clustered signs which, without being writing systems proper, may have served some recording or communicative functions, a property which could be proved (or disproved) through probing their degree of systematicity and consistency within well-defined (material) cultural areas. Such a task is all the more pressing as much evidence shows that the invention of writing was not a unique linear process, but emerged independently in at least four global areas.

The questions to be addressed in this roundtable will include:

  1. Are there reliable criteria to distinguish art from non-art in prehistoric iconography?
  2. How to heuristically assess clusters of abstract patterns in terms of invention, evolution, cognitive and social significance, and in relation with lexicographic writing systems which are known to have emerged about eight millennia ago?
  3. How to systematically record these clusters and their known contexts in databases that can be searched and parsed with appropriate algorithms?