Symbols

Many archaeologists now believe that it is possible to reconstruct elements of human cognition from material remains. But in order to do so, it is crucial to recognize a means of expression unique to human beings: the use of symbols. The digit "2," for example, is a symbol used by Europeans to define a certain numerical concept. But if a hypothetical future archaeologist, ignorant of all other aspects of twentieth-century European culture, were to try to interpret the digit "2" carved, say, on an isolated stone, they could not deduce its meaning from the form of the symbol alone. On the other hand, they might be able to deduce something from the fact that stones marked "1 km," "2 km," "3 km," etc. occurred at intervals a fixed distance apart by the side of a road. The context of the symbols—their association with one another, as well as their association with the road, which seems relevant to the way in which they were used, and their spatial distribution— clearly does suggest possible meanings. A complication is that symbols may mean several different things at once; they may convey different meanings to different people, some of which may be very different from those in tended; and the meanings may well change through time. But just as the Stars and Stripes would be recognized by virtually everyone in the modern world as a symbol of the United States, people sharing a common cultural background are likely to perceive common sets of meanings. It is this set of shared meanings that gives us some hope of retrieving meanings that reflect certain worldviews.

Designs found in prehistoric rock art, especially those that do not obviously "literally" represent something like an animal, may have had symbolic meaning, and it is possible to try to deduce something about that meaning from its context. For example, it has been suggested that many circles and rayed circles in megalithic art all round the Atlantic fringe of Europe may be sun symbols or representations. Such a design, along with other decorations, was carved onto the back corbel of the roof-box above the entrance of the Neolithic passage tomb at Newgrange, Ireland. The tomb was apparently designed so that shortly after sunrise on days around winter solstice, the sun would shine through the roof-box and down the nineteen-meter-long passage, reaching the chambers in the interior of the tomb.

Can we do more than simply recognize possible symbols and possible meanings? Can we use them to reconstruct elements of other worldviews? What gives us hope is the human propensity to express and reinforce the nature of the cosmos, as a given group of people perceives it, in many different ways in order to keep their own lives and activities in harmony with the world. Verbal or visual metaphors might be expressed in myth, exhibited in activities that we might interpret as either ritualistic or mundane (or both), or displayed in architecture. For example, hogans, traditional round or octagonal buildings built by Navajo families in the southwestern United States, reflect the harmony of the cosmos in various ways. Their single door faces the rising sun, and the space within is conceptually divided into four quarters used in different ways, reflecting the four directions of the cosmos and their associated properties and qualities. Movement within the hogan is always clockwise, reflecting the motion of the sun around the sky.

Where we have only the material record to go by, associations between symbols, if we can fathom their meaning, may give us insights into correspondences that form part of a worldview. We might notice, for example, the consistent orientation of hogans toward the solar rising arc in the east; if in addition we consistently found material evidence of different activities in the four quarters of the hogan, we might correctly deduce the quadripartite structure of the Navajo cosmos.

See also:

Cognitive Archaeology; Cosmology; Science or Symbolism?; Star and Crescent Symbol.

Mesoamerican Cross-Circle Designs; Navajo Hogan; Newgrange.

References and further reading

Green, Miranda. The Sun-Gods of Ancient Europe, 20-28. London: Bats-ford, 1991.

Hodder, Ian. Symbols in Action: Ethnoarchaeological Studies of Material Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Renfrew, Colin, and Ezra Zubrow, eds. The Ancient Mind: Elements of Cognitive Archaeology, 3-12. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice (4th ed.), 497-500. London: Thames and Hudson, 2004.

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