Monday, August 28, 2006

Written in Blood

Image courtesy of

We recently visited the walled city of Provins which is situated some fifty kilometers south-east of Paris. It was an interesting day out. The town retains many aspects of its medieval character, including a large section of its high defensive wall and a number of ancient medieval houses restored to their original character. The town was an important trading place in the 14th Century due to the special protection given to traders voyaging into the region by the Dukes of Champagne. The town became well known and attracted trade from as far away as Italy and Scandinavia. These traders in turn brought items such as cloth and spices from even further afield: the Orient for example.

What caught my attention among the many interesting exhibits was a recreation of the fabrication of parchment from animal skins. Parchment became important at this time in the first banking enterprises. The word 'bank' comes from the French word 'banc' describing the wooden table at which the money changer would sit. Rather than travelling between trading posts carrying large sacks of money that might be stolen, merchants began to use guarantees of payment on parchment which could be bought and then later traded in for money at the next trading post.

The fabrication of parchment was a labour intensive one and included treating the skins with various caustic ingredients, thinning them by scraping and stretching them on a frame. Seeing the effort involved in producing the equivalent of what we so take for granted: a sheet of paper, I started to reflect on what a revolution parchment, and later paper, really was.

How would people have recorded information before that? There are several methods: papyrus paper made from reeds; printing into tablets of damp clay that was later allowed to dry; writing onto stone such as slate and, lastly, writing on the body.

The last of these is almost certainly the oldest method of conveying symbolic meaning. Aborigines today still paint themselves with ochre, a red, brown or yellow coloured iron ore. Archaeological studies indicate that ochre has been used by man for at least 300,000 years. Thousands of pieces of ochre have been found in cave excavations in Africa and detailed analysis of this material using microscopic analysis of surface textures has shown that the wear on the ochre may well be compatible with use for body painting. Some pieces have also been shaped into crayons which might have been used for the creation of symbolic patterns, similar to the 'totem' symbols that aborigines paint themselves with today. To quote the Australian Museum on body painting:

For these communities, body painting is not necessarily just about visual artistic creativity, it relates to conventions, laws and religion. It is a means of communication.

The body painting not only communicates membership of a particular group, but it links individuals to the patch of earth on which they live:

For Indigenous Australians, spirituality centres around the land. The nurturing and life-giving capacity of even our hardest terrains has been the mainstay of Indigenous religious beliefs. Incorporating the earth into spiritual ceremonies is done by many tribes using various ochres.

The patches of earth are themselves related to dreamtime stories so that the totem symbolises a myth, for example the story of the origin of red ochre earth from the blood of a dying giant kangaroo that I mentioned recently in a previous article here.

The anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss was interested by body painting and discusses it at some length in his book 'Tristes Tropiques'. He was struck by the beauty of the designs used by Brazilian indian women to decorate their faces and read in these designs histories of the past greatness of a society:

The female beauties trace the outline of the collective dream with their make-up; their patterns are hieroglyphics describing an inaccessible golden age, which they extol in their ornamentation, since they have no code in which to express it, and whose mysteries they disclose as they reveal their nudity.

If we can allow the word 'poem' to express a condensed and elegant method of expression, then it is almost certain that the first 'poem' was written in ochre on a human body. The poem would have appeared as a symbol summarising a well known story, in the same way that the calligraphy of a few chinese brush strokes may summarise a complicated concept like the rising of the sun in the morning.

I think these marks, written with ochre (the "blood of the earth") on a human body represent the earliest writing. These early writings might well have begun tens of thousand, if not hundreds of thousands of years ago.


Anonymous said...

I like that - body art as the first poems - great idea. The most impressive ones I have come across in my reading are the all-over white daubs and strange hats of ome of the people of Tierra Del Fuego. The make themselves look quite strange and surreal. I think they are supposed to be ghosts- and they're qute convincing. Good post - you always make me think. Thank you.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Thanks for your comment Clare. White daubs may be kaolinite clay which I have read of being used.