- continued, part 3 -

The reed bundle as heraldic sign of the city of Uruk

There is one concept that often emerges when dealing with this culture of seals and property marks. It is the idea of the heraldic sign [Wappen], as in the case of Gelb, for instance (71).

The heraldic sign, in general, lives in a very poor milieu with regard to spoken language. Anyone can illustrate this using the heraldry of his/her own daily environment.Once the owner of the heraldic sign is known, then the sign starts to unfold its silent language. It is usually related to a spatially delimited area, and it speaks of the property of persons or institutions that are often also related to political power. Still today, and beyond language borders, it owes its existence to good relations, both in the social or territorial sense and on any scale.

Consequently, the Innin-Ishtar sign may not be just a sign and symbol of the deity of Uruk, but may also be a heraldic sign. “City names among the Sumerians were usually written with the name of the main god of the city concerned. Enlil as city God of Nippur is another example. If the sign meant the deity, it was combined with a godly determinative. This was added to the reed bundle. If the sign implied the city, this was characterized by adding the city sign” (Ekschmitt, :46). The reed bundle sign, in this sense of sacrality, is thus also ideogram. It implies the population of the city, in particular its legislative and administrative body and its power, as well as its territory with its defined limits.

Of further importance is the fact that early Sumerian script was not a phonetic script in the modern sense. There is common agreement about this. It is a simple word script that can only record simple factual conditions. Its primary intent is not the representation of language, but to function for registration.“The most elementary form of Sumerian documents are found on plates showing drilled holes. In these holes, traces of cords were found, with which they were evidently suspended.These plates, in fact, show nothing other than the imprint of a seal cylinder, that is to say, the seal of a person” (Gelb, 68). Some, like Gelb, interpret these findings in close relation with products that were marketed in the near or wider environment. The plates were characterized with the names or seals of firms that were essential for final calculation (Fig. 22). “Thus, the first Sumerian script notations were not recording historical facts. They were simply notes of economic bookkeeping. The most ancient plates were therefore small and poor in content” (Friedrich, .44). According to Friedrich, an ancient economic plate fromWarka is supposed to “represent the names of owners of listed objects without, however, being able to interpret these clearly for the moment” (45). The question is, if these clay-plates served as an economical method of bookkeeping, why do they not list such well known things as sausages, breads, pots, containers or other recognizable items?

Certainly, the economy of these early, centralized city-states must not be taken in the modern sense of a liberal commercial activity.“The Babylonian script developed with the need of a local economic structure formed around the religious center of the city and possibly also around the court of a ruler” (Falkenstein, 64). Evidently, the probability is high that these clay plates functioned as tax registers. Large-scale trade is a consequence of the city, certainly not its primary producer. Whether through the religious system or in the military sense, those who have political strength can impose taxes from the beginning in a favorable agrarian environment. As history shows in various places, this process provides the elite with wealth, power and monumental splendor.

Kienast is best in this context:

A survey of the archeological finds allows us to retro-project the organization of statepolitics of the Sumerian temple city . . .into the times of early historyof the most ancient script documents. According to this, Babylon was composed of individual city states, at the top of which we find, in each case, the god of the city represented by an earthly ruler who represents the functions of the supreme priest andworldly ruler, both functions united in his person. The duke of the city was responsible to his god for the cultic domains, as well as for the welfare of the state in war and peace. Theoretically, the whole territory was considered the property of the deity, including the population, which was the direct subject of the deity. (44)

How can such a system begenerated? Kienast thinks that there was no private property in such atheocratic organization; however, this can be easily recognized as a retro-projection from an evolved position. It neglects the agrarian preconditions of city forming (see Krämer, 74 ff.). One of the earliest Babylonian creation myths provides very clear ideas in this regard:

The holy House, the House of the God, was at sacred place not created,
Reed not sprouted, tree not grown, brick not placed, lower structurenot built,
House not made, settlement not built, settlement not made,
Living together not made possible.
Nippur not created, Ekur not built,
Uruk not created, Eanna not built,
Eridu not created, Eridu not built,
Of the Holy House, of the house of the God, the place not created.
The lands all together were seas.
The grounds of the island were water streams;
. . . .

Marduk (Ea) constructed reed wickerwork on the water together,
Earth made he, heaped it on the reed-wickerwork
With it for the gods a seat of comfort to produce
Men he created, Aruru human lineage with it created;
Animals of the fields, living beings, in the fields he created,
The green of the field he created, the lands, the meadows and the reed;
The wild cow, its young, the calf, the sheep, its young, the lamb of the pen,
Fruit tree plantations and woods

This text from the earliest version of the Babylonian world creation myth is clearly rooted in the environmental conditions of the Mesopotamian reedlands. It also clearly shows what the reed object implies: to be a seat of comfort for a deity. Evidently, the founder of a settlement builds a sacred sign, the first miniature temple, which then transforms the uninhabited wilderness, the unnamed chaos — at first legally — into a human habitat that is structured and terminologically characterized by human dimensions. A world for human residence is thus created!

The divine sign is thus not just a symbol in the diffuse sense, a heraldic sign as we understand this today. In its concrete relation to the ground, it develops a territorio-legal capacity that favors — from this initial point — the founder and his line in regard to the social structure in the making. In archaic times, whoever owned fertile land could distribute agrarian surfaces, at first to his descendants, and thus could demand services and tributes. He could also integrate newcomers as peasants and demand taxes from them. It is probably by this method that Uruk and the other earliest towns of the Sumerians managed to gain power and wealth. Figure 23 graphically describes what has been said in the form of a simple three-phase scheme.

Naturally, not only the founder line will cultivate such a heraldic sign and deity sign as its territorial legal symbol. If this arrangement is of a systematic character, this could be only the top of an iceberg— fragmented indicators which, by favorable circumstances, were historically preserved. Below the historically visible, we would have to assume similar structures in each farm, village and district. It is very probable that there were similar signs for cultivated fields, livestock and transport outfits in general (Fahrhabe).

At this point, the historically important invention of the centralized temple bureaucracy comes in (mentioned by Kienast, 45). The priests found procedures to reduce the ancient tradition of spatially plastic (or three-dimensional) legal signs into a two dimensional state by projecting spatiality onto the surface of a clay tablet. The priests could now copy reed bundles, and the like, onto clay tablets. In this way, the whole system of legal signs locally handed down in a potentially large area could be durably and efficiently recorded and preserved and made easily accessible in relatively little space. Evidently, this became the trigger for an entirely new form of life in cities. This is not at all far from our own modern experiences. Are we not — with the advent of electronic data processing — at the beginning of an entirely new way of life: the global village, or better, the global city?

Thus, there is much evidence against taking these clay tablets too optimistically as signs of a flourishing market. They speak of something much more unpleasant; they speak of tax loads. The clay tablets thus registered inventory. This was not done by objective depiction, however, but by reference to a pre-urban substrate of agrarian property markers constructed with fibrous organic materials. Their heterogeneous forms were copied on the tablets, and these were stored in the temple. Situated in the center of the area supporting the temple, the tax register now — very likely through the ancient form of ritually fixed sacrifice— developed its own autonomous principles. The larger the area, the larger the contributions. The rich collection of clay tablets found by archaeologists thus develops a new dialogue with all the grandiose palaces, streets and temples that were excavated and reconstructed. They were the precondition of these new luxuries. Krämer’s work is well documented, and he states clearly that not only commerce but also taxation played an important role in Sumerian cities, and even took the form of massive exploitation. The reform text of the king Urukagina of Lagash (ca. 2350) describes the tyrannies and suppression practiced by the preceding dynasty founded by Ur-Nanshe around 2500 B.C. Correspondingly, Krämer depicts a rather depressing picture of expropriations — duties and taxes with which the temple bureaucracy, its harsh tax collectors and other parasitic administrators, exploited and oppressed farmers, artisans and the city population (79 ff.). This could also explain why we later find similarly scratched scripts in very different cultures. Obviously, it was not the desire to be able to write the spoken language that would have generated scripts in other cultures, but rather the information that could be memorized for more rationalized taxation using this new type of technological data! It might have spread quickly among the elite. No doubt, this more perfected technique of taxation allowed the building of palaces and temple cities, as well as whole empires, to be kept under control. From this idea, it is not far to assume that the invention of script and the emerging of the earliest cities occurred in very close relation to one another.

In another sense, too, the clay tablets can give us new hints, particularly in regard to the multitude of pre-urban agrarian signs and symbols which were evidently condemned to disappear with the introduction of the written sign. If one enters this three-dimensional world characterized by organic signs with Andrae's reed ring bundle model, the symbol of the deity Innin-Ishtar, then a further point becomes evident. With regard to specific constructive character, these signs and symbols must have expressed something that was common to the whole evolutionary line of stelae and life trees, up to the Ionian column. It was something that only found its exterior unfolding in this development. The imminent symbolic qualities of this type of built form will be dealt with in a later study, however, under the expression Polar Categorical Asymmetry. Let us, for the moment, note that Andrae's evolutionary approach —a hitherto non-clarified domain (Sumerian script) and, at the same time, a key position of script research (origins of script) — could be highlighted in new ways. An important type of built form, the free standing symbolic column (semantic/symbolic architecture), evidently shows a close parental relation with the earliest pictographic signs and ideograms found in the deepest accessible archaeological levels. The function of these earliest pictographic signs consisted of the depiction of highly ephemeral built forms with their hitherto unknown manifold purpose — there was already progress — of tax registration.

There is no doubt that we are on the anthropological level with these results. This invites cross-cultural comparisons. The analogies in regard to the origins of Chinese script are most important. “The written documents of the Chinese are entering our view shortly after the beginning of the second half of the second pre-Christian millenium . ..”. Unger (11) locates this temporally “at the time of the so called Shang dynasty” (Fig. 24, 25). “The written documents, which shift the Shang period into the bright light of history shortly before 1900, often consist of thousands of inscriptions on bones. The greater part of these documents were uncovered at the excavation of the Shang capital”(12). Here, too, the origins of writing are found to be “in service of religion, . related to religiously orientated action” (13). The Chinese types of scratched signswere not used for cultic taxation, however. They were part of divination rites — a kind of decision-optimation handed down in cults, in which the world-law was consulted. It must be noted here that, in the case of China, the evolution of the script is also very well known. China has never developed an alphabet. Though strictly systematized (according to root-characters), Chinese script has always remained pictographic (or ideogrammatic) and often very close to the original prototype. For one particular sign, which remained very important until today, the history of the exterior form is known. The ideogram she for society (sha in Japanese) originally implied a socially and territorially representative spatial structure: a symbol made of bundled reed (Moriya). Thus, we have very similar conditions to those of the Sumerian signs. It is important to note here that the methodical constellation to perceive iconically represented signs with territorial and social functions is not new. Hermann Kees(1972), has reconstructed similar structural concepts somehow using materials that are more heterogeneous but show distinct parallels (Djed column of Memphis). Note that Kees is in line with post-mythical developments in Egyptology, researching“ local traditions and their cultic-historical sources” (G. Maspero) rather than verbal myths. The systematic reconstruction of the local, regional and imperial cults provides the message. Kees clearly shows that cultic constructions and sacred signs of the abovementioned type functioned as registers for territorio-political dynamics over a period of centuries in ancient Egypt. Relations of deities and cults within the hierarchical system of local, district and imperial deities indicate the historical processes that finally led to the formation of the empire.


We initially departed from a critical presentation of architectural theory based on the history of art. We have seen that the art historian's optics permit arbitrary orientations and approaches. Based on the a priori of aesthetics, the art historian believes in being able to handle the problem without a definition of the basis of the factual phenomena constituting the subject, and thus remains vague,ambiguous or fixed on style. More recent theoretical attempts must also fail for the same reasons: The aesthetic a priori blurs the view on what factually constitutes the topic, as can be seen in our example architecture and script. Oechslin's contribution remains very narrowly limited to an isolated episode without touching the substance of architecture and script.

In contrast to such highly questionable architectural theory based on the history of art, we first held a consultation on the German architectural archeology of the 1930’s, discussed Walter Andrae's evolution theory of the Ionian column in view of archaeological script research and, consequently, arrived at a surprising discovery. In ancient Sumer, which provides the earliest archeological documents concerning the topics earliest script and earliest city, a cultural interface between Neolithic/metal age agricultural settlements and first urban civilization could be demonstrated. It must have known a type of tectonic demarcation that used fibrous materials. It produced formally differentiated sacred signs in the framework of a system of territorial rights handed down from ancient times. This assumption provides a new and plausible explanation for the seemingly abstract character of the larger part of earliest Sumerian “symbolic signs” (Falkenstein) not clarified by script archaeology. We managed to shed new light on the processes, and even the motives, of script invention. Furthermore, plausible ideas focussing on the influence of the invention of script on city formation could be brought forth. On the other hand, the great number of signs on the Sumerian clay tablets also speaks clearly of a formal manifold. These could be recognized not only as the earliest prototypes of script but also as early models of architectural symbols of the type of freestanding stelae and columns, and, as Heinrich(1957) has shown, roof huts belong to this type. Is architecture, then,the mother of script?

The script documents gathered from most ancient times (about 3000 BC) in the process of this study and the conclusive ideas provided by Andrae's model of the Innin-Ishtar sign give new weight to his evolutionary theory. Andrae's structuro-analytic and comparative method is in strong opposition to what is established. Andrae is vehemently opposed to the esthetically a priori descriptions produced by conventional history of art and architecture.Andrae's evolutionary theory not only questions the art historian's architectural research but also fundamentally questions the history of style Č la Vitruvius! To simply classify what is terminologically and formally similar within a defined spatio-temporal domain in view of characteristics of style is a very misleading method that produces great distortions. On the other hand, if structural conditions are considered, functionally heterogeneous materials become macro-theoretically comparable through their homologous internal structure. The essential statements are not made in the narrow circle of apriori defined forms but, rather, between them. The essential relations must be searched for and reconstructed using homologous structural conditions cross-functionally, as in the present case where the path started with the Ionian column and, surprisingly, ended at the earliest known script signs of mankind.

This entirely different method also produces an entirely different evaluation of Greek antiquity. Following Andrae, Vitruvius now becomes a late figure in the history of building. What he reported is a late rationalization of a fairly developed phase of sculptural stone architecture. In Vitruvius' time, it was impossible to understand its real origins on the level of contemporary research.Consequently, it makes no sense to base modern architectural theory on these rationalizations. According to Andrae, the “orders” of classical Greek architecture must be understood as accumulations, that is, as a cluster of elements of phaseologically different provenience. The Greeks — long an underdeveloped marginal people — have evidently given themselves their status of “highculture” largely by borrowing forms from other, higher, cultures. The architectural theories of the art historians related toGreek classicism have (doubtless purposely) neglected the influences of ancient Egypt and the Near East. The reason for this is simple: their theories would fall to pieces!

The most important point is that this methodological comparison shows massive differences in interpretation leading to contradictions regarding the same object. In the concept of the history of art, the Ionian column is an integral part of the Ionian architectural order, but, with Andrae, it becomes an isolated unit, a sign, a symbol with its own expression. We showed its primordial character as a territorially and socially representative ideogram within a territorio-semantic system. Furthermore, within the interpretation of the history of art, its form — in a derivation of the Doric order — is conceived to carry loads. In Andrae’s conception, it becomes a reed bundle transubstantiated into stone. A sculpturally standardized copy of a factual form that had either disappeared in urban domains or was devalued by the elite, and thus not perceived with historical value; therefore, supporting functions are a secondary thing. For the Ionian tradition (which, doubtless, has much deeper roots than the Doric), the essence is, consequently and without doubt, in its coat, in its outer clothing. It expresses its primordial fibroconstructive history, and, with this history, its social status is documented. Natural plants jutting out above the bundled, “geometric” shaft indicate coincidence of opposites. Its spiritual status is documented.

Thus, its outer texture is not just embellishment, decoration or ornament. Evidently, ornament wants to be an anthropological term! Nevertheless, as shown clearly in our case, the ornament can not just be taken off and researched by itself (Frankl). On the contrary, it can only be understood as a whole from an evolutionary point of view.

Let us illustrate this with a comparison. Andrae's vision of the Ionian column is contrasted with the conventional terms of the art historian. If confronted with the new, concrete and plausible interpretations given byAndrae, the superficial and even nonsensical terminology of the history of art becomes evident.

The cannelure now simply corresponds, as etymology indicates, to the texture of a reed bundle, and the capital shows the bundled plants protruding naturally above the technical shaft, producing the most essential aspect of its deeper meaning: categorically polar tension. Egstaff, pearlband, torus, etc. were originally strings, cords, ropes, bindings or garlands that kept the column together. They were constructive means, the conditio sine qua non, and therefore often emphasized formally.

In other words, what the art historian ornately describes with aesthetically abstract terms becomes vividly plausible to those who manage to transgress the idea of the stone form, through the principle of metabolism, towards its organic primordial forms. The historically frozen system of classic styles becomes dynamic.Terms like articulated form, proportion, geometry, etc. can now be explained as autonomous results of most simple grips with the human hand (Egenter 1995).

The main accomplishment of this confrontation between two diametrically opposed theories related to the same object is that basic terms of the history of art, such as order, style, and beauty, can be recognized as historistic constructs that, it seems, can be quite far from factual conditions.

The Ionian column was not a decorated load-bearing form, but developed as an ideogram from an age-old territorio-semantic system that could, at the same time, express the highest values of a society. With this interpretation,we can understand its surprising history in modern Europe and the West. It is, doubtless, more than a decorated load support. The evolutionary approach questions the method of the history of art.


The following is an outline of some of the more important points:

1. To a great extent, the so-called “crisis of architecture” is also a product of the history of art.

2. On the other hand, architecture would have to become aware of its own independent status and of its own and autonomous problems.

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