Denise Schmandt-Besserat

Denise Schmandt-Besserat (born August 10, 1933 in Ay, Marne, France) is a French-American archaeologist and retired professor of art and archaeology of the ancient Near East. She spent much of her professional career as a professor at the University of Texas.[1]

Early life and education

Denise Besserat was born into a family of lawyers and winemakers. Her early education was at the hands of tutors. Her family evacuated to southern France during World War II, after which she attended a Catholic boarding school at Reims. The school's nuns directed her to a prospective career as a language interpreter, for which she spent periods in Ireland and Germany in language studies.[1] She met her future husband, Jurgen Schmandt (a philosopher and expert in science policy), in Bonn in 1954; they were married in 1956. They lived in Paris, where three sons (Alexander, Christophe, Phillip) were added to the family.

Deciding to resume her studies, she entered the École du Louvre. She graduated in 1965, after which the family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her husband had been offered employment. She applied for a fellowship at Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, to study the origins of the use of clay as a writing material in the Middle East. Her first published findings was The Earliest Precursor of Writing in a 1978 issue of Scientific American magazine.[1]

She and her family moved to Austin, Texas in 1971, where she began teaching Art History.


Schmandt-Besserat has worked on the origin of writing and counting,[2] and the nature of information management systems in oral societies. Her publications on these subjects include:

  • Before Writing (2 vols), University of Texas Press 1992;
  • How Writing Came About, University of Texas Press 1996;
  • The History of Counting, Morrow Jr. 1999 (a children's book);
  • When Writing Met Art (University of Texas Press, 2007); and
  • numerous articles in major scholarly and popular journals among them Science, Scientific American, Archaeology, American Journal of Archaeology, and Archaeology Odyssey.

Her work has been widely reported in the public media (Scientific American, Science News, Time, Life, New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor.) She was featured in several television programs such as Out of the Past (Discovery Channel), Discover (Disney Channel); The Nature of Things (CBC), Search for Solutions (PBS), and Tell the Truth (NBC).

She retired in 2004 as Professor of Art and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

In her most recent book, When Writing Met Art (2007), Schmandt-Besserat investigated the impact of literacy on visual art. She showed that, before writing, art of the ancient Near East mostly consisted of repetitive motifs. But, after writing, conventions of the Mesopotamian script, such as the semantic use of form, size, order and placement of signs on a tablet was applied to images resulting in complex visual narratives. She also shows how, reciprocally, art played a crucial role in the evolution of writing from a mere accounting system to literature when funerary and votive inscriptions started to be featured on art monuments.

Schmandt-Besserat's present interest is the cognitive aspects of the token system that functioned as an extension of the human brain to collect, manipulate, store and retrieve data. She studies how processing an increasing volume of data over thousands of years brought people to think in greater abstraction. She also continues her research on Neolithic symbolism at the site of 'Ain Ghazal, near Amman, Jordan.[3]

Awards and honors

Schmandt-Besserat has received the Walter J. Ong Award for Career Achievement; the Holloway teaching award; the Eugene Kayden Press Book Award and the Hamilton book Award. She been cited Outstanding Woman in the Humanities by the American Association of University Women.

Her book, How Writing Came About, was listed by American Scientist as one of the 100 books that shaped science in the 20th century.[4]

She is listed in Who's Who in America.

At the 180th Commencement of Kenyon College she received an honorary degree.

See also


  1. Austin American-Statesman, Michael Barnes, The Austinite who discovered origin of writing, 3 July 2016, p. D1
  2. Rudgley, Richard (2000). The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 48–57.
  3. 'Ain Ghazal Excavation Reports, Vol. 1 Symbols at 'Ain Ghazal
  4. Philip Morrison, Phylis Morrison (Nov–Dec 1999). "100 or so Books that shaped a Century of Science". American Scientist.
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