© Denise Schmandt-Besserat and Figure/Ground Communications
Schmandt-Besserat was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on April 15th, 2011
Denise Schmandt-Besserat graduated from the Ecole du Louvre, Paris. She was Professor of Art and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin until she retired in 2004. Her field is the art and archaeology of the ancient Near East. Denise Schmandt-Besserat has worked on the origin of writing and mathematics. Her publications include How Writing Came About, University of Texas Press 1996; Before Writing (2 vols), University of Texas Press 1992; When Writing Met Art (University of Texas Press 2007) and numerous articles in major scholarly and popular journals (among which Science, Scientific American, Archaeology and American Journal of Archaeology). Her present interest is the Neolithic symbolism in the art of Ain Ghazal, near Amman, Jordan. She has published articles on the various art forms represented at the site. Schmandt-Besserat received a Dr. h. c. from Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio in 2008; The Walter J. Ong Award for Career Achievement in Scholarship, from the Media Ecology Association in 2004. In 2003-4 she was a Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, Stanford University, and in 1995, 1997, 2000, 2009 at the American Center of Oriental Studies, Amman, Jordan. She has been cited Outstanding Woman in the Humanities by the American Association of University Women. She received the Holloway teaching award, the Eugene Kayden University Presses Book Award, twice the University of Texas Hamilton Book Award. In 1999 How Writing Came About, was listed in American Scientist, as one of the 100 books that shaped science in the 20th century.
What attracted you to academia?
My original goal was museum work. I did museum research at the Harvard Peabody Museum in 1965-1971, immediately after graduating from the Ecole du Louvre, Paris. There was no major museum in Austin, Texas, when my husband received an appointment at the University of Texas in 1971.
Joshua Meyrowitz’ thesis in No Sense of Place is that when media change, situations and roles change. In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
I can only say that, during my long career at the University of Texas, I have sensed an ever growing resentment on the part of students for tasks based on memory. This is regrettable because memorizing is necessary to have at one’s disposal a reasonable personal data base.
What makes a good teacher today?
The best teacher I have known was Dough Oliver, professor of Anthropology at Harvard. Professor Oliver came to his class room, wrote on the board the detailed outline of his class: 1 … a) .. b).. 2. … a) … b)… At any time you knew exactly where he was and where he was heading.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
Teaching involves charismatic qualities that cannot really be taught. Some people are born good teachers. Others are not. One thing that is most helpful to students, and that everyone can do, is starting and ending class punctually.
Let’s move on. You are an internationally renowned scholar, recognized as an expert in the history of writing and counting. I’m curious about the relationship between these two systems. We live in a society that tends to parcel out knowledge into disciplines, field, sub-fields, and various areas of specialization; but within the taxonomies and categorizations that we create, writing and counting are often placed at opposite extremes. Was this always the case?
Counting preceded writing by 4000 years. I view counting as the technology that created the cognitive skills required for writing, in particular the faculty of abstracting data. Starting in 7500 BC, in the Near East, goods were counted with small clay counters of geometric shapes called “tokens.” The tokens were tangible artifacts that could be grasped with the fingers and manipulated. Just by moving or removing tokens, the Mesopotamian accountants could perform simple and complex operations. They could add, subtract, multiply, divide. In 7500 BC it was new to do such operations. The Mesopotamian accountants continued performing the same operations during 4000 years, and by doing so, they created new cognitive skills.
The fundamental principle of the token system was substituting miniature counters of geometric shapes to real goods. This eliminated the bulk and weight of the merchandise. As a result, heavy loads of grains could easily be counted and accounted. In other words, the token remove goods from reality. They abstracted goods from reality. Thanks to tokens the Mesopotamian accountants dealt with goods in abstraction during 4000 years.
Tokens abstracted goods from life and movement. With the counters, unruly animals, difficult to control, could be easily counted and recounted. During 4000 years the Mesopotamian accountants internalized counting and recounting sheep in abstraction, and by doing so they created new cognitive skills
Tokens abstracted goods from time. Therefore, with tokens the accountants could manage merchandise whether they were still in the fields or harvested, whether they were delivered or promised. All this was done for the first time with tokens and continued to be done for 4000 years, creating new cognitive skills.
Patterning, the presentation of data in lines and columns also promoted abstraction. With tokens, the Mesopotamian accountants could budget the amounts of foods for the preparation of festivals using columns according to the types of good, entries/expenditures or donors/recipients. In sum, computing in abstraction an ever greater volume of more and more complex data over 4000 years, paved the way to writing.
Writing meant four further tremendous leaps in abstraction which occurred in rapid succession – probably within one century: The written signs abstracted the tokens that abstracted goods.
The tokens were tangible – the signs of writing were intangible and therefore more abstract
Tokens were used concretely in 1/1 correspondence/ Writing abstracted numbers. Tokens only referred to units of goods/ in order to write the name of individuals, signs were created (phonograms), which abstracted the sound of speech. This was the beginning of phonetic script when, by emulating speech, writing was no longer confined to the recording of goods. It could communicate any idea of any human endeavour.
In sum, writing was preceded by 4000 years of counting and accounting with tokens. In this perspective, the immense value of tokens and counting was to create and develop the cognitive skills necessary for writing in particular dealing with data in abstraction.
You just asserted that counting “is a technology that created the cognitive skills required for writing, in particular the faculty of abstracting data.” What do you make of the allegations that this line of thinking leads to technological/historical determinism?
Determinism in my American Heritage dictionary is “the philosophical doctrine that every event, every decision is the inevitable consequence of antecedents, such as physical, psychological, or environmental conditions, that are independent of the human will.”
Archaeologists excavate sites layer by layer. The deeper the layer, the most ancient it is. The documentation and comparison of data from various levels allows archaeology to trace, for instance, the evolution of technology through time. If we take the example of Mesopotamian pottery, in 7500 BC there are no pots; in 6500 BC pots are handmade; in 4500 BC they are shaped with a tournette; they are wheel turned after 3500 BC. Each stage of the technology gives an insight on how one invention led to another. However, all were the result of human ingenuity and none was the inevitable result of the last. The tournette and the potter’s wheel were the unpredictable inventions of geniuses who have disappeared from human memory.
Is it not the same to-day? Computers and smart phones evolve from year to year. Each of the new steps can be credited to a creative mind such as that of Mr Jobs at Apple. There was no inevitable necessity governing the invention of the iPad. Rather than illustrating historical determinism, technological innovation shows that gifted individuals and serendipity govern evolution. It seems to be the same for cognitive development.
Tokens, like computers, dealt with organizing, manipulating and storing data. Both tokens and computers are tools of the mind and as such they also affect the mind. The 7000 BC tokens stood for units of goods, such as measures of grain, making it possible to compute quantities of merchandize in abstraction. The usage of computing in abstraction with tokens over 4000 years paved the way for the invention of writing. We can credit the break through to one of the administrators of the Mesopotamian city of Uruk, about 3200 BC. As I mentioned in a previous part of the interview, writing meant further tremendous steps in abstraction, namely the abstraction of numbers and sound.
Could we, to-day, have computer programming, modeling, spread sheets, without writing? Again, these new computer techniques deal with greater and greater volumes of data stretching the human mind to think in more and more abstract terms. What will come next?
You mentioned off the record being in the final phase of drafting an excavation report of the Neolithic Jordanian site in Ain Ghazal. What can you tell us about this project?
‘Ain Ghazal is a Neolithic site located near Amman, Jordan. It was excavated in 1982-1998 by an American-Jordanian team directed by Gary O. Rollefson Director, the ‘Ain Ghazal Research Institute and Zeidan Kafafi, the University of Yarmouk at Irbid, Jordan.
‘Ain Ghazal was first settled about 7250 B.C., during the so-called Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) period. In a matter of a few centuries the village of stone houses had spread over 30 acres along the Zarqa River. During a prosperous period when the mixed economy increasingly relied on farming, ca. 7250-6000 B.C., ‘Ain Ghazal witnessed what can be termed an explosion of symbolism that subsided only with a shift to nomadic pastoralism in the following PPNC period.
The forthcoming final report, Symbols at ‘Ain Ghazal, deals with the uniquely rich and varied assemblage of symbols including tokens of many shapes, animal and human figurines, modeled human skulls, “monumental” statues and motifs painted on walls and floors of buildings. It will be published by Ex Oriente, The Free University Press, Berlin, Germany. Several of the completed chapters are available online.
I am also aware that you are also preparing a series of lectures in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan soon. Could you give us a sneak peak?
I am lecturing on tours organized by a commercial travel agency, Spiekermann Travel. Each year I join two or three tours. In 2010 I went to Uzbekistan in the Spring, to Iran in October, and to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in November. Over the years I have lectured on tours to Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Central Asia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Socotra and Oman. The clientele of Spiekermann Travel consists of mostly retired, interesting people who are characteristically very well read and amazingly well travelled.
If all goes well, I will be leaving at the end of this month for a 3-week trip to Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. The Highlights in Lebanon are Beirut, Sidon, Tyre, Byblos and Baalbek; in Syria Damascus, Palmyra, Aleppo, Lattakia, Ebla, Homs, Hama and Krak des Chevaliers; and in Jordan, Amman, Madaba, Petra and the Dead Sea.
I love the trips because I learn a great deal from the preparation of lectures. I try to have short (15 m) but meaty presentations that I often deliver while we are travelling in the bus. My strategy is to prepare the people to what they are going to see. I have handouts with plans and drawings of monuments including dates and whatever special vocabulary needed. The hand outs make it easy to describe the sites we are about to visit, to draw attention to what is significant in the materials, designs, style, etc…. On the whole the system seems to work well. I also have presentations on broader background topics. In Syria, for example, I am prepared to discuss: The beginning of Agriculture, The early cities, The first empires, The impact of Alexander the Great on Syria, The Crusades, Saladin, Islamic Art and Architecture, the Ottoman Empire, etc…
The preparation of lectures and hand outs is, of course, a great a deal of work, but I enjoy the reading, cutting and pasting. I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to visit each year the Middle East, visit new sites, follow developments in the various countries, enjoy Middle Eastern hospitality, catch up on the latest tunes of Arab or Persian music. Perhaps the best of all is to return again and again in great ruins such as Persepolis, Baalbek, Palmyra or Luxor. It is such a great pleasure, when after the sites have become familiar, to fully appreciate both their complexity and details.
What are you currently working on?
Fortunately, I do not have too many “other projects” because my present archaeological work for the publication on ‘Ain Ghazal, my trips to the Middle East, together with whatever comes every day across my desk, fills up my days aplenty.
Two things come to mind: My book How Writing Came About is being translated in Chinese. I have been asked to write a preface for the Chinese edition. Also, from experience after the previous Japanese and Polish translations, the work will entail working from time to time with translators and editors.
I am fortunate to be invited to speak at various events, where I meet all kinds of interesting people. My last lecture was at the 4th International conference on Writing Research, which took place at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Next, I will be the guest of the Polish Academy of Sciences to address the participants of a conference entitled LANGUAGES IN CONTACT 2011 in Wroclaw. Polish colleagues have asked me to give a lecture at Warsaw university while I am in the country. I am a member of the Editorial Board of SCRIPTA, the publication of a Korean society on Writing and the Korean Alphabet – The Hunmin Jeongeum Society. As such I will take part in the Fall in the conference SCRIPTA 4, at the Seoul National University, Seoul, Korea.
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