Grotte du Pech Merle

Image: Michel Lorblanchet
Image: Michel Lorblanchet

At the Grotte du Pech Merle in the Lot department of France, we again see a person tied. This time the person is represented by a painted pictograph rather than a glyph. The item of special interest in the image is however, what I think may be a pictograph of a hand-held balance scale. The pictograph is thought to be around 18,000 years old indicating that the idea of weighing the evidence to prove a person’s innocence or guilt is nothing new.

We can perhaps gain a better understanding of the image if we consider the Chinese characters jīn and fú 巿. Jīn looks bit like a hand-held balance scale and fú might be a combination of jīn and the character shí meaning ten.

One to ten is a merism for knowledge. Shí might therefore be an abbreviation for knowledge.

Jīn has lots of modern interpretations that don’t have an obvious link to our prisoner. However, Xu Shen defines jīn as 佩 巾. The first character pèi can mean a pendant. Hence we have a hanging jīn; perhaps a balance scale.



Images: Shuowen Jiezi: research tool

The real insight comes however, if we look at a seal script form for fú (above). The left hand side of this character is Shuowen Jiezi radical number 201 wéi . Does it sound familiar? It means to examine or study the reverse side. If we look at the character composition, we can see two opposing people (rén and bǐ) with lines drawn across them, meaning to measure, and a mouth in the middle. In other words, we are weighing two sides of an argument.

On the right hand side is the character bá . One meaning that Xu Shen gives for bá is 則 剌; literally law contradict. From looking at the character, I would argue that it depicts a person, who is both captive and hobbled.

Thus the character fú is effectively depicted in the scene from Pech Merle.


Image Credits:

L'homme blessé: Photo: Michel Lorblanchet: Courtesy, Michel Lorblanchet

Seal script characters: Shuowenjiezi: research tool in Chinese traditional philology: