The Austinite who discovered the origins of writing

Forty years ago, Denise Schmandt-Besserat made ancient connections nobody had seen before.

A Pulitzer Prize winner pulls up a chair near the front row. Not far away sits a distinguished university dean. Just beyond him, at the back of the big Austin bookstore, is a writer of several popular volumes.

Just as the evening’s author starts to speak, a stylish woman with short hair and bright eyes takes the last empty seat up front.

“Look who’s here!” gasps the speaker. “The person who discovered the origins of writing!”

The crowd chuckles at what they assume is a joke. The woman just smiles.

“I know,” says Denise Schmandt-Besserat, nodding to the full house. “Always at parties, when I tell people that, they laugh. They don’t believe me.”

The time has come to believe her.

The longtime Austinite and University of Texas professor emerita of archaeology and art history, born in France, is credited with figuring out how, thousands of years ago, Sumerian cuneiform script grew out of clay accounting tokens — not pictographs — then was used to enhance the subjects of funereal figures, and how, after that, writing turned into sentences for the very first time, as art evolved from strictly linear depictions into narrative storytelling.

One of her publications, “How Writing Came About,” was listed by American Scientist magazine as one of the 100 books that shaped science in the 20th century. She has penned books for children, too, including “The History of Counting.”

Yet the widely traveled Schmandt-Besserat, 82, could walk through a crowded bistro near her downtown residential tower, where she lives with husband, Jurgen Schmandt, an early hire at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, without anyone taking notice.

She is humorously at peace with her — and her topic’s — odd non-celebrity. Example: “I have put to sleep one and a half Nobel Prize winners.”

Revered by former students, including this reporter, she is not exactly a public figure. Over the decades, her theories — like all theories — have been questioned by other scholars, but they have never been disproved.

“Schmandt-Besserat’s discovery and its ramifications … are crucial to understanding the development of civilization,” wrote Stephanie Dalley, a British scholar of the ancient Near East, when the Austinite’s theories were first presented for general readers. “This is a thought-provoking book … and what it tells us is of great importance.”

Out of France

Born in Aÿ in France’s Champagne region, Schmandt-Besserat is descended from lawyers and winemakers. She grew up among a clutch of cousins, and was instructed early on by tutors.

“It was altogether another world, the place where I lived,” she says with a melodic lilt and a sunny smile. “It’s very beautiful, very hilly. We had such peaceful times. We did evacuate during the war, and you know, I have wonderful memories of that, too. We went first to the west, to a small castle that belonged to an uncle. Then Germans came closer, so we went south to the family of my aunt. They had a donkey; they had ducks; what more could you asked for?”

Then the Americans came, filling the roads with trucks. After World War II, she attended a Catholic boarding school in Reims.

“I loved boarding school,” she insists. “Everybody else hates it. I felt independent. I had my own money. My box to do my shoes. We had little alcoves with curtains. Your bed, your night table.”

Schmandt-Besserat was not very good at school. The nuns thought she might have an aptitude for languages, so in preparation for an interpreters’ school, she stayed for periods in Ireland and Germany.

“That’s where I met my husband,” she says. “There goes that!”

In Bonn, the capital of what was then West Germany, Jurgen Schmandt worked for a group that gave scholarships to students who wanted to study in Germany.

“It was not very fashionable in 1954 for a French woman to be engaged to a German,” she recalls. “My parents said, ‘Fine, but you are going to have to wait two years to be sure it’s OK.’ I never questioned my parents. During those two years, I took a program to teach you how to be the secretary of a doctor, which meant training in all the hospitals. I saw babies being born. I saw people die or get very sick. It was an introduction to life that has been very precious.”

After marrying, the couple lived in Paris and had three children, “one after another.”

“In Paris, I had everything I wanted,” Schmandt-Besserat remembers. “Three beautiful babies. A good husband. A nice apartment. And I was miserable. So I decided to find out what was wrong with me.”

She sat on a bench in a magnificent Japanese garden and decided not get up until she knew what was the matter.

“Quickly, I realized that my husband had business luncheons and travel, and I did not,” she says. “I also wanted to have those things. It was not theoretical — it was that concrete. Later, I knew, well, I had to go back to school.”

Into the ancient world — also America

At the Ecole du Louvre in Paris, Schmandt-Besserat intended to focus on antiques, which her parents had collected.

“I wanted to take classes with Pierre Verlet, a specialist on Marie Antoinette furniture,” she says. “Every week, another American had bought something that had been part of the royal furniture of Versailles. The French people would never give him enough money to keep them in the country.”

She started her studies with the “chronological classes.”

“Paleolithic — wow! It was so exciting!” she says. “Then ancient Middle East! I wanted to do Egypt next. I had a great teacher on the Khmer.”

Just as her last exams approached, her husband, a philosopher who is an expert in science policy, was offered jobs back in Germany and in Cambridge, Mass.

“We had to decide,” she says. “We picked the unknown. We picked America. My husband said: ‘No, you stay here. I’ll pick you up after exams.’ We went on triumphantly to the U.S.”

This was 1965. She and her three children — Alexander, Christophe and Phillip, now two attorneys and a water engineer — took the classic SS France ocean liner, whose “sailors come and wrap you up on the deck.”

She applied for a fellowship at Harvard University’s famed Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, where she hoped to look into the origins of the use of clay in the Middle East.

“After the Paleolithic era, everything is made of clay — houses, pots, figurines,” she says. “How, when and why did clay became such a universal material?”

At this time, Fred Matson, considered the “Pope of Clay,” was visiting campus. He told her to dig beyond the paper archives.

“You cannot do that with books,” she remembers him saying. “You will go nowhere. You have to go to the Middle East. To the artifacts themselves.”

She found in Near Eastern collections loads of little clay tokens of uncertain use and origin. Nobody knew their value. Retrospectively, she offers a provocative gender theory about why she, ultimately, was the one who finally figured them out.

“I was born a woman!” she proclaims. “I found little objects — cones, spheres, disks — that looked like nothing, tiny tokens and nobody knew what they were. There were lots of them. I gave them all my attention. I recorded everything. I think this is a ‘woman thing.’ Women can do much better at repetitive jobs. It was not for glory. The archaeologists were amused by what I was doing.”

The little tokens turned out to be extraordinary.

“They paid me back my attention and devotion,” she says. “I came back home with all this data I had collected. I had measured those tokens, made sketches, noted the colors, whether they were fired or not fired, whatever I could see that was worth saying.”

Putting it together

Still, she didn’t know what they were exactly. Back in America, one of her teachers from the Louvre came for a visit.

“He spoke only French, so he gave me his lecture in my living room,” she says. “He was interested in seals. He had clay balls with magnificent seals. He noticed that something was wiggling inside one of the clay balls. With a little French knife, he made a hole and found tiny tokens.”

As she was preparing for a class on writing, she noticed tokens, dating from 7000 to 4000 B.C., everywhere. What did they mean?

“They remained the same over the centuries, these mystery objects,” Schmandt-Besserat says. “Then I realized that there were also marks on the clay envelopes that held the tokens, and that were made by impressing the tokens. Then I was on the way. Those tokens were counters!”

It was, indeed, the first evidence of counting. And along the way, they were used for the redistribution of goods, for instance, as with harvests brought to a public granary.

“Those tokens show that these people didn’t count the way we count,” she says. “We have abstract numbers. They did not. Each thing was counted with different number words. Then it becomes administration. Counting was not invented to see what you have in your reserve pots. It was administration.”

Until 3300 BC, the tokens were loose. Then some tokens were enclosed in clay envelopes or balls.

“Maybe they are records of debts,” Schmandt-Besserat muses. “The tokens were safe, but one did not know what was inside. Impressing the tokens (in the clay envelopes) before putting them in, you could read on the outside what was inside. The cone left a wedge, the sphere left a deep circular mark, the disc a flat circular mark. These were measures of grain.”

In 1978, she first published her findings under the title “The Earliest Precursor of Writing” in Scientific American magazine.

The story from art

Some of her further discoveries she credits to a career spent teaching art history at UT, where she arrived with her husband in 1971. (This reporter took Egyptology from her during graduate school in the 1980s.)

“Every semester, I was teaching the Cemetery of Ur,” she says, referring to art from the ancient Sumerian city. “There’s a glorious, beautiful tomb: A skeleton has three bowls. The gold bowls have his name on it. Each time I presented that, I’d wonder: ‘Why would the guy put his name on it?’ When you question something a long time, you will get to it some day.”

At one point, she got to it: “In Sumer, the name of a person was very important,” she says, her eyes widening. “If you don’t have a name, you don’t exist. It’s also very important after death. In order to survive in the afterlife, the descendants had to utter the name of the departed once a month. Then, the ghost is happy.”

Well, that could get old for the living. So the names were reproduced with the figures in the first phonetic writing.

“This replaces for eternity the name calling,” Schmandt-Besserat says. “No one had ever thought of this. I did.”

She published her discovery in the 2007 book “When Writing Met Art.”

“These are the first texts that are not three goats, three sheep — not administration, not accounting,” she says. “Writing took a big turn when it was used for funerary purposes, and we have the first text without numbers.”

It doesn’t stop there. The writing started with names, but the text lengthened.

“The name, then the ‘son of so-and-so,’ then a profession, all of that is phonetic,” she says. “The number of signs is increasing. Then ‘give’ becomes the first verb. ‘X gives X to X’ written on the left shoulders. The first sentence in phonetic writing. Giving speech to the little statue to tell to the gods. It is a way to reach the gods. To be sure the gods understand, it is spelled out.”

Her next insight: That writing subsequently turned art into storytelling.

“It was on art that writing changed function,” she says. “Then writing changed art. That is fabulous! Before writing, the figures in art are only figures in lines. Then you have writing and narrative, and the figures begin to interact.”

When figures interacted within a work of art, their positions became meaningful: Big leaders up front, face to face.

“The figure is to be understood according to its position,” she says. “It made art narrative. It told a story.”

Schmandt-Besserat retired in 2004. She works from a tiny office dominated by a narrow day bed and decorated with objects collected during her travels. Regular outings with former students brighten her days.

Even for those who have never heard her name, Schmandt-Besserat’s accomplishments are hard to ignore.

“I am proud of my work because I have seen what people had not seen,” she says. “All that I have done, it was obvious from day 1. It just needed someone to see it.”

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