Lettering Inspiration From Long Ago

My snapshot of Saluting Protective Spirit (883–859 BC) at the Cleveland Museum of Art

I’ve been designing some new lettering projects, for myself to carve, but also with the idea of offering some lettering patterns for sale. As I sat drawing, my mind went back to a trip to Cleveland last month and the protective spirit I encountered.

My mom and I spent part of the day at the Cleveland Museum of Art. When we walked into the Ancient Near East room, we were met by a larger-than-life Assyrian spirit, impressive in his own right, beautifully carved and over seven feet tall.

A closer look revealed a pattern of cuneiform script carved right across the hand, body, and feathered wings. A translation of the message brings to light the typical report of a king’s conquests, power, and palatial details. That last bit is interesting if only for the types of wood used in the construction of the palace. A complete translation of the inscription, background information about the piece, and an image that can be explored in detail are all at The CMA website, here.

In addition to the way that the carver inscribed the text right over the details of the background carving, I was fascinated by the subtle arcs making up the walls of each symbol and the way the walls of neighboring shapes are linked to form continuous lines and wonderful curves. This is evident in my photos, but can be seen especially well by zooming in at the link above.

We may think of cuneiform as simply different combinations of wedge shapes, but it seems to me that this carver delighted in the possibilities and the carving of them. I understand relatively little about that carver’s world or language, but when it comes to beauty and the joy of creating, of watching a shape emerge at the cutting edge, what’s three thousand years? But some things do change; I suppose he’d be surprised to learn that his carving is on a wall in Cleveland.

Driving eastward home through rural Ohio that evening, I pulled off the road to walk through a couple small cemeteries. There are interesting things to see even among the sandblasted letters, but I mainly look for older, hand carved stones. I discovered the work of a letter carver from only two centuries ago, which are about the oldest gravestones you’ll tend to find in this part of the country.

The style and carving designs led me to believe that many of these stones in two cemeteries in close proximity were carved by the same person. For example, notice the zig-zag element at the side borders of the stones above and below. This was a fine-grained local sandstone of some sort that has held up pretty well.

I won’t bother pointing out all of the elements I noticed, but I’ll just share some photos of the stones. The shadows weren’t falling right to get good shots. Next time I can visit, I’ll try to remember to take some big paper and make some rubbings. These stones scratch the surface of stories that go much deeper than the carving.

One stone had the initials “P.W.” carved at the bottom. Possibly the carver. More to explore another time. Now it’s back to the drawing board.

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6 Responses to Lettering Inspiration From Long Ago

  1. francedozois says:

    xlent and for some silly fun watch the youtube video and learn to write cuneiform

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dave Fisher says:

      Thanks for that link, Marie! I learned a lot and want to understand more.
      It was fascinating to see the making of the cuneiform marks in clay, which is the reason that cuneiform symbols are what they are. This relationship between tools and design in lettering is interesting. The carver of the Protective Spirit panel had to use a chisel to replicate a design in stone that occurs much more naturally by pressing a reed into clay. Likewise, Roman characters with serifs developed from the fact that they were being created with paint and a brush. Runes are much more straightforward to carve, because they were designed with that method in mind. Certain fonts or typefaces are bears to carve because they were designed to be made with other tools and materials.


  2. Chris Edie says:

    Great piece, I wonder if there are links are between modern chip carving patterns and cuneiform writing . Having had the chance to visit some very old ruins in Eastern Turkey / Kurdistan and not understood the cuneiform writing’s meaning I realise I never even thought to look at the details of the letters, now I regret not looking closer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dave Fisher says:

      That’s an interesting thought, Chris. They’re at least both matched well to the tools used to make the designs.
      Your travels through that part of the world must have been an amazing experience.


  3. aniline2 says:

    Amazing that this is actually a written language!
    Please let us know when your lettering patterns will be available.


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