So far, we have looked at the very first illustrations in cave paintings, then we moved on to Pictograms and looked at semiotics and the relation of an object to its many symbols. This leads us to Typography and the origins of the written languages of today.

However, no one is quite sure why humans made the leap from drawings and pictograms to learned symbols. Within fixed communities writing developed more quickly and this knowledge was passed between them and other nearby communities.

In Ancient Egypt, the written language that we have all heard of today is Hieroglyphics. However, these were actually considered to be mainly for decoration, for writing prayers and religious script on the walls of tombs or palaces. A faster of writing was developed, known as Hieratic, which was the simplified version of the Egyptian language. Hieroglyphics and Hieratic are now thought to be the basis of many languages including Chinese, Latin and some Greek. The Hieratic evolved into the demotic, which bore no trace of the original Hieroglyphs, then was replaced by Greek (Coptic), after which, all knowledge of the language disappeared. It was not until 1798 when the Rosetta Stone was discovered that historians were able to decipher Ancient Egyptian texts. What made this possible was the three sections of text carved onto the stone all translated to mean more or less the same thing, but were written in Greek, Demotic and Hieroglyphic. After many years of study, Champollion was finally able to translate the writing into a memorial to honour the deceased Pharoah.


I include now a fun image from the Asterix and Cleopatra comic of characters speaking ‘Egyptian’.





I feel it is important to look at Sumerian Cuneiform Script in further detail, as it is relevant to the topics I have covered so far. Sumerian Cuneiforms were developed in Southern Mesopotamia, now known as Iraq. These symbols represent the first form of learned communication – language in a written form. Unlike the older Pictograms of the Rinconada Canyon, today we understand their exact functions, and have even been able to translate them.

Sumerian Cuneiforms were developed to make records of goods and services. They were stamped into wet clay using Mesopotamian Counting Tokens. The nature of the Pictogram, that it is carved or stamped onto a tablet, meant that the records were very durable and the clay tablets they were carved upon were fairly easy to travel with.

Originally, Counting Tokens were kept in clay containers and sealed. However, there came the problem of not being able to determine what was inside. To remedy this, they used the tokens as stamps to make an imprint on the outside of the container, thus enabling the owner to determine the value inside. Eventually, they simply used clay tablets with the different symbols stamped onto the surface.

ImageMesopotamian Counting Tokens


Another example of Pareidolia in Semiotics is Emoticons. It has been observed over time that text messages often do not convey appropriate tone and emotion – and in fact can make the ‘speaker’ seem cold and robotic. A relatively modern way to remedy this was developed by Scott Faltman in 1982 – the use of parenthesis symbols to form a face when read sideways. He originally introduced 🙂 (happy) and 😦 (sad), however since then, many different Emoticons (combination of ‘emotion’ and ‘icon’) have evolved.

More typical, western emoticons are similar to Scott Faltman’s basic idea; they are read sideways and consist mainly of parenthesis symbols and letters, e.g.

😀   B-)   😥   😉   :-S

Emoticons used in places such as Japan are slightly different. More recently, the west has adopted the style of their emoticons that do not need to be read sideways, but can be written with standard ASCII characters found on western keyboards. For instance;

\(^.^)/   (O_o)   (?_?)   (-_-‘)


During our lecture on cognition we also discussed the phenomenon of Pareidolia in great depth. The Collins English dictionary defines Pareidolia as “the imagined perception of a pattern or meaning where is not exist.” The most common association with this phenomenon is to see faces in strange places, such as in carpet textures, toast, and even on the surface of the moon. Pareidolia is often closely linked with religion, with many people having claimed to see Jesus or the Virgin Mary in food, tree trunks even in bird poop on a windscreen. Many of these ‘artefacts’ have made their original owners rich, with items going on EBay for thousands of dollars. In fact, the majority of famous cases of Pareidolia are associated with religion. Often the case seems to be that many people have a strong need for evidence of the authenticity of their beliefs and their own self-importance, perhaps on a subconscious level.


Pareidolia is also sometimes used as an art practice. Leonardo da Vinci encouraged his students to looks at ink stains and wall textures to find unique and interesting landscapes and figures, as a source of inspiration for paintings. Since Pareidolia is mainly based on certain patterns of tone, many artists have explored this idea. I saw this portrait of the Virgin Mary in Venice in 2011, by Ukrainian artist Oksana Mas. It is made up of 15 000 wooden eggs covered in different patterns. The pictures below show a far away photo, and a close-up photo.


Constellations found in the night sky are also forms of Pareidolia. Ancient people saw patterns in the stars, which they used to tell stories specific to their cultures. Today, we remember them mainly by their Greek names. For instance, the constellation, Cygnus, is named for the Greek word for Swan.


It is most often associated with the Greek legend in which the God Zeus disguised himself as a swan to seduce the mortal woman Leda. However, in reality it actually looks like this;


Not incredibly similar to the form of a swan (another name for this constellation is the Northern Cross, which is probably more appropriate), but today, astronomers find these useful as maps to clarify the positions of individual stars.

The phenomenon of Pareidolia brings up many questions about our species. Many believe that humans are hardwired from birth to recognise the basic features of the human face. Carl Sagan suggested it is a survival technique – seeing something that turns out to be an illusion will not harm you, but to miss something in a situation, such as a lion hiding in a bush, could potentially mean the difference between life and death.

And now, here is an example of Pareidolia which I found on Tumblr



During our second lecture, Exploring Cognition, we began with a talk about the movement from observational drawing to abstract art. Even in Prehistoric times this is easy to see – in my last posts on the Birth of Symbolic Language, I wrote about the Lascaux cave paintings and the Pictograms of the Rinconada Canyon. Here, we can easily identify the move from the representational paintings to the abstract symbols.

An interesting example of the move from representation to abstraction is the study Pablo Picasso made in his series El Toro. He began with an accurate study of a bull, and in 11 stages broke it down to its most basic characteristics in a much more abstracted image. Through each stage Picasso analyses, adds line, tone then removes them, finishing with an image that captures the true essence of the bull. The 11th stage shows the great, hulking body, the horns, and the equal size of the head and genitals. Picasso uses the bull as a metaphor throughout his work, but always remained ambiguous as to its true meaning. Some have called it a representation of the Spanish people, or a stance on fascism and brutality, even a self portrait, as many say that his signature is the 12th stage, and therefore a depiction of his own nature. I personally really love this series. Picasso’s exploration of different ways to break down the form of the bull and the train of thought throughout the eleven stages is really interesting to see, and the eventual resolution is an excellent representation of the true nature of the bull.

ImageEl Toro Pablo Picasso

Scott McCloud also illustrated this process in his popular 2000 book, Reinventing Comics. In this image he looks at the development of Mesopotamian Cuneiform script, showing the evolution of the bull and wheat, until their final forms bear little to no relation to the first image.

Image Scott McCloud’s evolution of Sumerian Cuneiforms

I have done some research into how Chinese characters evolved in similar way, but there are many different theories and it is difficult to ascertain which are most accurate. However, I have drawn a few I have found, just to show another language that has developed in this way over time.

Image Illustration of how the Chinese character for ‘fish’ has evolved over time.


Petroglyphs are similar to the much older cave paintings, still a form of communication prior to the development of speech. However the term ‘Petroglygh’ refers only to rock carvings created around 30 000BC – 1000/500BC, and have been found in many cultures across the world. Pictograms are the semi-symbolic shapes often found in the Petroglyphs. Symbols may represent an idea, a physical entity or a process, but the image will often seem obscure and abstract from it.An example of the more abstract Pictograms is the Rinconada Star Being. It could be marking territory, a recording of a historical event or a story.Most likely it is a religious entity; however without more knowledge of the symbolic language, we have no way of knowing for certain.

Image Rinconada Star Being

The Rinconada Canyon, where this symbol is found, offers a rich variety of Pictograms. It is understood that the orientation of the symbol to the surrounding images, the landscape and even the horizon is important – certainly it is no accident that the Pictograms are in alignment with the five Albuquerque volcanoes. Because of this in particular, the indigenous Pueblo Indians believe that this is a spiritual place, where messages are conveyed between the spirits of their ancestors and the living – the symbols may choose not to reveal themselves to everyone. They still hold religious ceremonies, collect medicinal herbs and give thanks at this site. They even use the Pictograms to teach the children about the history and culture of the tribe.


Our first lecture, The Birth of Symbolic Language, spoke about the very first use of images as communication. In particular, we looked at drawings left behind by prehistoric communities, prior to the development of cognitive abilities and the vocal tract, to understand and produce words. Therefore, they would have communicated simply by gesture and symbols. I found this topic extremely interesting – the very fact that cave paintings created millions of years ago still remain, mostly intact, today is amazing.

The first cave paintings seem to be mainly pictorial representations of animals. I did not know much about cave art before this lecture, and certainly nothing in detail, but after further research in the Chauvet and Lascaux cave paintings, I have come to realise how incredible they are. I was surprised to see the amount of detail in these illustrations. There is some use of shading and tone, and different ways of applying the ‘paint’ have been administered to mimic the patterns on the hides. The unfinished lines and blurred edges also add the illusion of movement and energy (although this may simply be due to the way time has aged and distorted the rock surface and painting). I believe the Lascaux cave image below of the red cow and the chinese horse illustrates this perfectly – also it is one of my favourites.

lascaux3a Red Cow & First Chinese Horse

The insights and information available to us about our history as a species from these simple drawings is irreplaceable. Without words, not only did they successfully communicate with each other, millions of years later they are communicating with us, offering information about the society, events, religion, even narrative sequences about their day to day lives.