© The Trustees of the British Museum

In the second half of the fourth millennium B.C., painted pottery disappeared entirely in Mesopotamia. Then, in the early third millennium B.C., artisans began producing pottery paintings with narrative scenes—such as the 13-inch-tall vase from Tell Khafaje, in central Iraq.

These paintings clearly tell some kind of story, even if the details are now obscure to us. The upper register of the Khafaje vase, from left to right, shows three musical scenes followed by a scene in which someone accompanied by an attendant departs in a chariot. The division of scenes into registers, the use of common baselines, and the communication of information through the use of space and size (the attendant in the Khafaje vase is smaller than his master, for example, and the master has a more central position in the scene) all derive from writing, according to author Denise Schmandt-Besserat. Such “writerly” techniques allowed artisans to create the earliest images that tell a story.