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James Nasmyth by James Nasmyth: Sun-Ray

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Before I take my leave of the public, I wish to put on record my speculations as to the origin of two subjects of remote antiquity, viz.: the Sun-ray origin of the Pyramids, and the origin of the Arrow-head or Cuneiform Character.

First, with respect to the Sun -ray origin of the Egyptian Pyramids.

In pursuing a very favourite subject of inquiry, namely, the origin of forms, no portion of it appears to me to be invested with so deep an interest as that of the Worship of the Sun, — one of the most primitive and sacred foundations of adorative religion, — affecting, as it has done, architectural structures and numerous habits and customs which have come down to us from remote antiquity, and which owe their origin to its influence.

On many occasions, while beholding the sublime effects of the Sun's Rays streaming down on the earth through openings in the clouds near the horizon, I have been forcibly impressed with the analogy they appear to suggest as to the form of the Pyramid, while the single vertical ray suggests that of the Obelisk.

In following up this subject, I was fortunate enough to find what appears to me a strong confirmation of my views, namely, that the Pyramid, as such, was a sacred form. I met with many examples of this in the Egyptian Collection at the Louvre at Paris; especially in small pyramids, which were probably the objects of household worship. In one case I found a small pyramid, on the upper part of which appeared the disc of the Sun, with pyramidal rays descending from it on to figures in the Egyptian attitude of adoration. This consists in the hands held up before the eyes — an attitude expressive of the brightness of the object adored. It is associated with the brightness of the Sun, and it still survives in the Salaam, which expresses profound reverence and respect among Eastern nations. It also survives in the disc of the Sun, which has for ages been placed like a halo behind the heads of sacred and exalted personages, as may be seen in eastern and early paintings, as well as in church windows at the present day.

This is also intimately connected with lighted lamps and candles, which latter may often be met with in Continental churches, as well as in English Ritualist Churches at the present day. In Romish Continental churches they are stuck on to pyramidal stands, and placed before pictures and images of sacred personages. All such lighted lamps or candles are survivals of that most ancient form of worship, — that of THE SUN!

The accompanying illustrations will serve in some degree to confirm the correctness of my views as to this very interesting subject. Fig. 1 is from a "rubbing" of one of the many small or "Household" pyramids in the Louvre Collection at Paris; while Fig. 2 is an attempt to illustrate in a graphic manner the derivation of the form of the Pyramid and Obelisk from the Sun's Rays. In connection with the worship of the Sun and other heavenly bodies, as practised in ancient times by Eastern nations, it may be mentioned that their want of knowledge of the vast distances that separate them from the earth led them to the belief that these bodies were so near as to exert a direct influence upon man and his affairs. Hence the origin of Astrology, with all its accompanying mystitications; this was practised under the impression that the Sun, Moon, and planets, were near to the earth. The summits of mountains and "High Places" became "sacred," and were for this reason resorted to for the performance of the most important religious ceremonies.

As the "High places" could not be transported to the Temples, the cone-bearing trees, which were naturally associated with these elevated places, in a manner partook of their sacred character, and the fruit of the trees became in like manner sacred. Hence the Fir Cone became a portable emblem of their sacredness; and, accordingly, in the Assyrian Worship, so clearly represented to us in the Assyrian Sculptures in our Museums, we find the Fir Cone being presented by the priests towards the head of their kings as a high function of Beatification. So sacred was the Fir Cone, as the fruit of the sacred tree, that the priest who presents it has a reticule-shaped bag in which, no doubt, the sacred emblem was reverently deposited when not in use for the performance of these high religious ceremonies.

The same emblem "survived" in the Greek worship. I annex a tracing from a wood-engraving in Fellow's Researches in Asia Miner, 1852 (p. 175), showing the Fir Cone as the finial to the staff of office of the Wine-god Bacchus. To this day it is employed to stir the juice of the grape previous to fermentation, and so sanctifying it by contact with the fruit of the Sacred Tree. This is still practised by the Greeks in Asia Minor and in Greece, though introduced in times of remote antiquity. The Fir Cone communicates to most of the Greek wines that peculiar turpentine or resinous flavour which is found in them. Although the sanctification motive has departed, the resinous flavour is all that survives of a once most sacred ceremony, as having so close a relation to the worship of the Sun and the heavenly bodies.

In like manner, it appears to me highly probable that "The Christmas Tree," with its lighted tapers, which is introduced at that sacred season for the entertainment of our young people, is "a survival" of the worship of the sacred tree and of the Sun. The toys which are hung on the twigs of the tree may also be "survivals" of the offerings which were usually made to the Sun and the heavenly bodies. If I am correct in my conjecture on this subject, it throws a very interesting light on what is considered as a mere agent for the amusement of children.

Next, with respect to the Cuneiform Character. When I first went to reside in London, in 1829, I often visited the British Museum. It was the most instructive and interesting of all the public institutions which I had yet seen. I eagerly seized every opportunity I could spare to spend as many hours as possible in wandering through its extensive galleries, especially, those which contained the Assyrian, Egyptian, and Greek antiquities. By careful and repeated examination of the objects arranged in them, I acquired many ideas that afforded me subjects for thought and reflection.

Amongst these objects, I was specially impressed and interested with the so-called "Arrow-head" or "Cuneiform Inscriptions" in the Assyrian Department. These remarkable inscriptions were on large tablets of burnt clay. They formed the chief portion of the then comparatively limited collection of Assyrian antiquities in the British Museum. I was particularly impressed with the precision and simple beauty of these cuneiform inscriptions, — especially with the strikingly distinctive nature of what I may term the fundamental or elementary wedge-like form, of which the vast variety of letters or words of these Fig. 1. inscriptions were composed. The triangular or three-sided indentation will be observed in the annexed engraving (Fig. 1).

This elementary form, placed in various positions with respect to each other, appeared to be capable of yielding an infinite variety of letters and words, as seen in Fig. 2. I may here mention that I entered upon this interesting subject with no pretensions as a linguist, nor with any idea of investigating the meaning of these remarkable inscriptions; but only as a Mechanic, to ascertain the manner in which the striking characters were produced, so as to convey words and ideas through their variety of combinations.

I soon perceived that the simple but distinctive characters shown in the above representations were essentially connected with the employment of plastic clay; this being the material most suitable for their impression, by means of a three-sided instrument or stylus. The angular extremity of this instrument, when depressed into the surface of a tablet of plastic clay in different positions and directions leave these cuneiform impressions in all their beautifully distinct and characteristic forms. And thus, after the tablets had been subjected to fire and made into hard brick, the impressions have come down to us, after the lapse of thousands of years, as fresh and distinct as if they had been produced but yesterday!

I was so fortunate as to have my conjectures confirmed with respect to the exact form of the instrument by which these remarkable characters are produced, by observing, in what appeared to be a hastily-formed inscription on the edge of a large brick, that the inscriber had apparently used rather more pressure on his stylus than was requisite. In consequence of which, the end of it had been so deeply depressed into the soft clay as to leave an exact counterpart of its size and form. I secured a cast of this over-deep impression of the stylus, from which Fig. 3 is taken, after a photograph.

In order further to illustrate the simple mode of producing inscriptions on tablets of clay, I give in Fig. 4 a tablet inscription produced by means of the stylus which is seen laid over the tablet.

The next illustration (Fig. 5) is intended to convey an idea of the manner in which the stylus was held and applied to the surface of the clay when a cuneiform inscription was being produced. The upper, flat, or third side of the stylus enabled the inscriber to keep it in correct relative position in correct relative position in respect to the tablet, yielding at the same time a convenient flat surface upon which to rest the end of his finger when indenting the angular end into the clay.

Refer back to Fig. 2, and it will be found that any variety in the size of the cuneiform inscriptions may be produced by the same stylus, by simply depressing the angular end of it to a greater or lesser depth into the surface of the clay. In many of the more elaborate inscriptions, a certain lop-sidedness of the cuneiform character may be observed. This is due to the inscriber having held his stylus somewhat askew, as we do a pen in ordinary writing.

Referring to my remark that the distinctive clay as the most suitable shape of the cuneiform character was essentially due to the use of plastic clay as the most suitable material for its production, I think it highly probable that the origin of these inscriptions took its rise not only from the facility with which the characters could be indented on the material, but from the abundance of plastic mud which forms the natural soil of the lands adjoining the great Assyrian rivers. This, when made into bricks, became the chief building material of the energetic people of Babylon and the other great cities of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys. The laborious work of brick making was generally assigned to captives as task-work, and it appears to me highly probable that "the tale" of the brick-maker or his task-master might be most readily marked by simply indenting the side of the soft tale brick with the corner angle of a dry one; and that thus the strikingly peculiar character of the cuneiform character was produced (see Fig. 6). In course of time the elementary form was expanded into this most beautifully simple mode of communicating ideas through the agency of conventional signs or letters; being also especially suited for making historical or other records on tablets of moist clay, which, when " fired," became absolutely indestructible, so far as time is concerned.

This is abundantly proved by those marvellously perfect burnt clay tablets, covered with exquisitely minute and perfect inscriptions, which, after having remained hid in mounds of rubbish for ruins of the Assyrian cities, are curious as to the origin written language.

This attempt to explain the probable origin of the cuneiform character may to some appear fanciful. But whether or not, it is certain that this simple and impressive character can be readily produced by the primitive means which I have ventured to suggest. I give a cuneiform inscription (Fig. 7), which I have produced by simply employing the corner angle of an ordinary brick as the stylus for indenting the inscription on the tablet of soft clay. This might have been- extended to any length, in longer as well as minuter impressions.

As soon as the capability of the cuneiform impression was adopted as the Assyrian character, it was in due time employed for inscriptions on stone or other materials, such as marble or alabaster. The chisel was then substituted for the stylus; but the characters remained in a great measure the same. In some cases a slight modification was observable, being naturally due to the change of material and the method of carving it; but in most respects the departure from the clay prototype is very slight, and the original is adhered to with remarkable integrity.

When examining some early Greek inscriptions in marble, in the British Museum, in the year 1837, I was much interested to observe the appearance of a cuneiform element in the limbs of several Greek letters, especially in the terminals, as illustrated in Fig. 8, each limb of the letters being in itself a perfect cuneiform; and as such the terminal of each limb is at right angles to the axis, and not as now (in our modern capital letters) parallel to the line of inscription.

This apparent presence of the cuneiform element in these early Greek inscriptions suggests some very interesting historic causes which led to their introduction, and so passed from the Greek into the Roman, and eventually into the capital letters of our own alphabet. To give one instance, — though many might be cited, — take the capital letter T, and it will be found that it went from the Cuneiform into the Greek, then into the Roman, and lastly into our own letter, thus presenting a remarkable instance of the survival of a form, from remote antiquity down to the present day.

The letters A K H I K M N Y X have the distinct remains of their Babylonian origin in the top and bottom stroke, which is nothing more nor less than a corruption of the original or primitive arrow-headed impression of the stylus in the moist clay, begun thousands of years ago.

In a lecture which I gave at the Royal Institution in London, in 1839, and in another at the British Association at Cheltenham, in 1856, I referred to this presence of the cuneiform element in the Greek letters, illustrating the subject by actual casts from the inscriptions themselves. At Cheltenham the question gave rise to a most animated and interesting discussion, in which Dr. Whewell and Sir Thomas Phillips (the great antiquarian) took a prominent part. I understood that Sir Thomas Phillips assigned that the intermixture of cuneiform with the Greek alphabet proceeded from the Samaritans, who were originally an Assyrian colony. I find that many Greek inscriptions exhibit the cuneiform element in nearly all the letters composing them. This is a subject well worthy of the attention of our antiquarian Greek scholars, as pointing to an intimate intercourse with the Assyrians at some remote age. The distinctive character of the cuneiform in the Greek inscriptional letters could not have arisen from chance. Some intercommunication with the Assyrians must have taken place.

This subject is all the more interesting, as the cuneiform element appears to have passed from the Greek inscriptional letters into those of the Roman, and from thence into our own capital letters. This affords a very remarkable instance of the "survival" of a form, which, however naturally due to the plastic material in connection with which it originated, nevertheless led to its use for ages after the circumstances which led to its adoption had passed away. This tendency in mankind to cling to shapes and forms through mere traditional influences is widely observable, especially in connection with architectural forms, arrangements, and decorative details. It offers a subject of great interest to those who have a natural aptitude to investigate what I may term the etymology of form, a subject of the most attractive nature, especially to those who enjoy thinking and reflecting upon what they have specially observed.

Before concluding this subject I may mention that the Assyrians employed a cylindrical roller-seal in order to produce impressions in a wholesale way. This is exemplified in the annexed engraving. The mechanical principles inherent in this beautifully simple form of roller-seal, indicate a high order of ingenuity, well worthy of the originators of the arrow-beaded character. In fact it is the prototype not only of the modern system of calico printing but of the Walter Printing Press, by which the Times and many other newspapers are now printed — a remarkable instance of the survival or restoration of a very old method of impression.

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