Springe direkt zu Inhalt

"Cultural Techniques and Instruments of Order” (Images - Scripts - Numbers)

Principal Investigator:
Research Team:
DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft)
Jan 01, 2004 — Dec 31, 2007

Introduction and Objectives

The project Images - Scripts - Numbers (BSZ) is a collaborative research effort funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. Various sub-projects of Images - Scripts - Numbers are directed by members of the Humboldt University Berlin (6), the Technical University Berlin (1), and the Freie Universität Berlin (2).

The concept of BSZ analyzes images, scripts, and numbers as basic means of communication from the beginning of history until today. A key issue of the sub-project “Cultural Techniques and Instruments of Order” is the function that images, scripts, and numbers fulfilled in giving structure to the world. How can these cultural techniques of creating images, script, and numbers or a combination thereof build structures and order? How do different societies make use of the structuring potential that is inherent to such cultural techniques? What knowledge can be gained through the heuristic use of these techniques? Three case studies, developed independently of each other, will offer a multi-dimensional perspective of the interplay between images, scripts, and numbers.


The Genesis and Standardization of the Archaic Metrological System

Our project began with a study of the genesis and standardization of metrologies in ancient Mesopotamia as an example of the productive dynamic between images, scripts, and numbers. Metrological systems are among the most essential yet quotidian means of organization and can change how the world is perceived by creating new structures. Metrology thus offers the possibility to measure, transmit, and store information on quantities of discrete objects, volume of grain, measurement of surfaces, etc. by using language and writing.

The script of the earliest cuneiform documents, the archaic tablets, show various developmental stages between proto-script and actual script. These texts date to the period between about 3400 and 2900 BCE. Most of them were found in Southern Mesopotamia, but some were also found in Iran. The texts are part of an administrative system of early states and are records of deliveries and expenditures of agricultural goods, such as grains, animals, beer, milks, but also fish and ceramic vessels.

The numerical and scriptural signs on these earliest written documents are arranged in a deliberate manner suggesting that they connected two independent structural systems: one is a relationship of space, the other a symbolic relationship. For example, numbers are only written with numerical signs that were incised into the tablets and that were always written right before the sign that designated the object that was counted. Objects are grouped together according to categories and these groups are physically separated through lines that were drawn around them. Spatial relationships are expressed through a particular order that the numerical signs follow: the highest values are on the left side, the lowest on the right. The numerical signs were often arranged in symmetrical ways, as, for example, on the reverse of this tablet.

Numerical values in between the numerical signs signify a system of symbols, in this case the arithmetic relationship between numerical signs.

Researchers of the Berlin Research group at the Freie Universität Berlin and at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science were able to distinguish between 13 different numerical sign systems. These numerical sign systems can measure and denote various things, for example grains, time, surface, and beer. Our analysis focused on the ways in which these numerical sign systems were structured with the goal of furthering our understanding of the relationship between image, script, and number. In the course of our work it emerged that the numerical sign systems integrate various operational levels through complex processes:

1. The tangible, concrete level

2. The symbolic level

3. The level of pictorial representation

With the first level we mean the discrete objects that are measured or counted, with the second the cognitive constructions and conventions that underlie the numerical sign system, and with the third the ways in which numerical signs and scriptural signs representing objects are combined. Thus, a sign (level 3) is not identical with the idea, which it represents (level 2), nor with the discrete object (level 1). This has a bearing upon how we analyze the constituent elements of this ancient numerical sign system.

The History of Script as Part of a Cultural History

Reflections on the relationship between images, scripts, and numbers as discussed in theoretical and critical studies leads to more general thoughts on writing as a benchmark of culture.

Many theories on the development of writing are implicitly influenced by European Renaissance ideals of phonocentrism. With the invention of “pictographic texts” at the beginning of the 20th century CE various theories were developed that sought to explain the beginning of writing, e.g. “from pictogram to alphabet,” from an “écriture des choses” (“writing things”) to an “écriture de mot” (“writing words”). As a result, scholars tended to simplify the complex development of cuneiform writing systems and their typological diversity, which can be seen in logographic, syllabographic, and alphabetic types, for example. Cuneiform writing was only viewed as a stepping-stone in the invention of writing, whose epitome was the Greek alphabet. 

Our discussions of the relationship between image, script, and number should be viewed against the background of our approach to the study of writing systems in general and therefore focuses on two main areas:

1) The Beginning of Writing

Cuneiform writing first developed at the end of the fourth millennium BCE. Proto-cuneiform administrative tools include seals and “tokens,” small three-dimensional clay objects representing symbols of numbers. These tokens can take the form of tetrahedrons, cylinders, balls, lentils, etc. It is commonly assumed that these tokens are precursors of writing. The theory holds that tokens were placed in the middle of clay balls, “bullae,” which were then sealed, and the tokens then left impressions on the inner clay surface of the bulla, then leading to the concept of the first written sign. Because our study is based on the theory that the principles, which structure the order of signs, are essential for how writing was conceptualized, it will offer an opportunity to test the hypothesis that tokens are precursors of writing.

2) The Development of the Alphabet

The first “alphabetical” signs were written in two basic ways. They could be brushed with ink onto objects with hard surfaces, such as papyri, ostraca, stone, and metal. They could also be incised or pressed onto the soft surface of a moist clay tablet. The first type of writing is referred to as linear alphabet script, the latter is called cuneiform alphabet script.

Linear alphabet scripts are attested earlier than cuneiform alphabet scripts. The oldest linear alphabet scripts are first attested in two neighboring regions: the Sinai and Syro-Palestine. Therefore they are usually referred to as “Proto-Sinaite” and “Proto-Canaanite.” This distinction is neither historical nor linguistic but purely geographical.

The Assyriologist I.J. Gelb considered neither of these writing systems an alphabet script. In Gelb’s view only the Greek script, which continued the tradition of the Phoenician writing system, was truly alphabetical. Gelb also regarded the introduction of signs representing vowels in the 8th century BCE a revolutionary step in the development of writing, which distinguished the Greek writing system from the Phoenician.

By using archaeological and written evidence from the ancient Near East we will be able to show that identifying alphabet scripts is closely connected to the question how certain signs are interpreted and categorized.


Project Director: Prof. Dr. Eva Cancik-Kirschbaum
Additional Researchers: Dr. Grégory Chambon
Research Assistant: Babette Schnitzlein



DFG Projekt Bild, Schrift, Zahl
Kulturtechniken, Ordnungsinstrumente
Gelfertstr. 45, Z. 9
14195 Berlin