Last Update: 13 April 2004
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Position Papers

The papers collected here are working documents which have not been edited for publication. They should not be quoted without the permission of the authors.

To communicate with the authors via email click on their names.

Ten Positions On Symbolicity In Archeology
Joao Zilhao (Department of Archaeology, University of Koeln)

The origins of symbolling
Robert G. Bednarik (International Federation of Rock Art Organisations)
Picture Gallery

Criteria of symbolicity. Intrinsic and extrinsic formal properties of artifacts
Paul Bouissac (University of Toronto, Victoria College)

The Status of Ethics in Contemporary Epistemology and Ontology, and the Problem of Meanings and Values (the Symbolic) in Archaeology
Stephanie Koerner (School of Art History and Archaeology, University of Manchester)

Stone tool "style" and the evolutionary origins of symbolism
Philip G. Chase (University of Pennsylvania, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology)

Archaeological data on symbolic thinking in the European neolithic
Eszter Bánffy (Archaeological Institute of the HAS, Budapest)

Stone Age symbolic behaviours: questions and prospects
Andrea Vianello (Graduate School of Archaeology, University of Sheffield)

The Everyday Life and the Symbolism in the Prehistoric Balkans
Lolita Nikolova (University of Utah and International Institute of Archaeology)

Clever Etchings:
Prehistoric language, religious language, and prehistoric religions

Peter Jackson (University of Chicago)

V. Gordon Childe among the “vulgar cognitivists”.
Michael Chazan(University of Toronto, Department of Anthropology)

Symbol for them / symbol for us?
Lisbeth Bredholt Christensen & David A. Warburton (Aarhus Universitet, Denmark)

Printable version of the position papers which were presented and discussed in St. Petersburg at the EAA round table of September 13, 2003

Position Papers (PDF: 390K)


Prehistoric language, religious language, and prehistoric religions

Peter Jackson (University of Chicago)

0. Introduction: The readability of prehistory

A prevalent convention locates the beginning of history in the first tangible traces of writing. Some scholars (such as Ong 1982) have even assumed that the acquisition of writing resulted in a revolutionary, noetic economy. People often speak of a "darkness of prehistory," but apparently not so much because this space is clouded in oblivion, but because there is nothing to read there. As the term "prehistory" started to circulate in the academic world during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the reference to writing was often implicit. Consider, for instance, the following lines quoted by the OED from an article published in Nature (299/2): "The clever etchings on bone and ivory of the cave-dwellers of Western Europe ... are well known to all who interest themselves in the pre-history of man." The markings mentioned here are said to be "clever," but not clever enough to be termed "writing."

Despite the apparent lack that defines prehistory as illiterate, prologues to the stories told about the religions of our earliest ancestors, apart from being a matter of vivid imagination, often seem to be concerned with the decipherment of testimonial "documents" constituting a "language." One might hesitate in regarding writing and other conventional systems of notation, real documents containing information intentionally stored for the purpose of temporal and spatial transmission, as an equivalent to any arbitrary trace of human activity (bone and stone tools, pig-ments, various objects found in burials). Nevertheless, prehistorians sometimes think of their discipline in terms of linguisitcs and philology. In the late sixites, R. L. Holloway (1969) argued that tool-making and syntactic operations involve the same hierarchical and concatenated structure, which implies that tool-making and symboling involves the same mental processes. Another aspect of readability in the study of prehistory was emphasized by Ian Hodder (1986), who applied the notion of "reading the archaeo-logical record" to the ex-traction of non-discursive, material-culture meanings.

A far more original contribution to the problem of readabilitiy in the study of prehistoric societies (especially the study of rock art) was given by Paul Bouissac (1994) in a special issue of the journal Semiotica devoted to prehistoric signs. Bouissac showed that the unwillingness to regard prehistoric visual displays as calculi, that is as sets "of forms or patterns differentiated from each other by at least one feature so that they can be clearly distinguished contrastively and combined according to some rules" (a precondition of any written or spoken language), depends much more on certain biases and preconceived notions about the cultural evolution of mankind than on serious investigations of the actual material.

If no longer limited to archaeological data, on the other hand, the study of prehistoric ideational culture could also be directed towards the center of its own dilemma: the dissolution of the written record and the absence of readability. This approach may develop as a Begriffsgeschichte paying attention to the emergence and development of concepts and semantic fields that eventually became associated with writing, visual representations, symbolic behaviour, burial customs, etc. It would be a discipline concerned with its own limitations and the earliest conceptual history of artifacts and practices formerly regarded as the primary sources of prehistoric archaeology, a discipline concerned with the prehistory of the notions evoked by non-literary media, seen through the lens of literacy. In so far as we lack access to readable texts, one of the alternatives still at hand is trying to come as close to the borders of history as possible, using experience from this borderland in order to determine disregarded traits in the development of concepts. While the method as such is far from new, based as it is on historical linguisitcs and comparative philology, a possibility that has been neglected by prehistorians is rather the understanding of prehistory as that which conceptually "comes before" writing.

For better or for worse, such an approach prevents us from regarding the evolution of techniques and the evolution of cultural representations of techniques as interdependent processes. These evolutionary processes may run in parallel, but each has its own dynamics (Boyer 1999: 884). If, for instance, writing had a place in the mythology of the earliest literate cultures, this does not imply that the status of writing or the motifs associated with it in myth were unprecedented, nor does it imply that the concepts eventually associated with writing developed as a result of the invention of writing. There were certainly technological and conceptual precursors of phonetic writing (such as seal impressions or notched bones, concepts such as "scratching" or "painting"), but the technological and conceptual precursor of writing in myth may just as well have been a tortoise, a lyre, or a we-aving, concepts such as "speaking artfully" or "arousing fear." This lack of unilinear interpre tations of the traditum is seen in Greek literature, where the same turn of phrase may index the deceptive capacity of different artistic and technical inventions. I am thinking in particular of a motif associated with the invention of the lyre in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes and Euripides’ Ikhneutai as compared with a topos in Plato’s Phaedrus regarding the invention of writing. Just as the lyre first constructed by Hermes from a tortoise shell, writing produces the uncanny illusion of a living, yet truly inanimate artifact.

1. Opacity and transparence in the study of prehistoric culture

Before turning to the primary task of this paper, let us take a closer look at some salient tendencies in the approach to prehistoric religion. In an article intended as a survey of "Neolithic Religion," published in the frequently consulted Encyclopedia of Religions, D. Srejovi% (1987) assumes that the religious life in Neolithic cultures was varied and dynamic, but that wordless archeological remains do not allow us to give an accurate definition of this variability:

"Lack of evidence that might help us to define each of these religions does not justify generalization and neglect (353)."

In accordance with this view, the adjective "prehistoric" could be understood as a particular limitation of access rather than a particular kind of culture, but the term still evokes such associations. Archaeological remains are used in the study of religions that have not left any traces in written sources, just as field-data are used to shed light upon religions only accessible through observation and participation. But there is no "religion of the field," nor does one expect an "archeological" or "philological" religion to emerge from the study of religious artifacts or religious texts. In the application of the adjective "prehistoric," on the other hand, there has been a tendency to confuse the prehistory of a particular culture with the prehistory of cultural diversity on the whole, as if the development of writing was the underlying cause of this diversity. Given this terminological indistinctness, it is worth noting how Srejovi%, elsewhere in the already quoted article, characterizes the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic periods:

"Since in the Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods, not only everyday activities but complex religious beliefs, cults, rituals, and probably myths were also associated with stone, this ‘Neolithic Revolution’ may be defined, from the point of view of the history of religions, as a gradual process of the desacralization of stone and the sacralization of earth (353)."

The second statement implies that some archeological remains are self-contained as to their religious meaning, because when a minimum of information about religions in prehistoric cultures is looked for, attention is usually paid to the traces of ecological conditions in artifacts and practices assumed to have had a religious significance. Consider, furthermore, the common idea that the religions in Paleolithic Europe were centered on the hunt (as reflected in the cave paintings from Spain and southern France) or that the Neolithic farmers directed their religious interest towards fecundity and growth (as reflected in the female figurines found in Central Anatolia or in the Danube Valley). Not only does this perspective amount to treating religion as an adjunct or isochrestic style, that is a style extorted from or added to expedient things and routines, but it also implies that the constraints of cultural inheritance could not survive changing social, economic, or ecological c onditions.

This contrasting effect is also present in the discussion of prehistoric visual displays. Either nothing is expected to emerge from these documents independently of the structures that provided constrained interpretations for the signs used, as assumed by Pascal Boyer (Boyer 1999: 882f), or, as assumed by Anati,

"a step towards future understanding of rock art is to recognize in it some fundamental elements of man’s cognitive dynamics" (Anati 1994: 136) [...] "[t]he real tower of Babel came into being when the hunting and gathering era approached the end" (Ibid: 132).

2. Language of gods, language of the past

We have shortly discussed the contradictory, yet sometimes coexisting notions that 1) prehistoric remains constitute a self-contained language and 2) that the complexity of prehistoric ideational culture is obscured by the defectiveness of archaeological data. When trying to establish the implications and preconceptions of this topos one notices a similar ambiguity in descriptions of automatized, quasi-verbal activities, such as glossolalia, which may either be perceived as opaque or held to reproduce the unmolested, universal language of the divine, or the notion of a liber naturae, according to which which nature—the least artificial, culturally determined entity—is understood as a book containing an encoded, hieroglyphic message. One may even take into consideration the focus on aphasia in synchronic linguistics as a potential source to a deeper understanding of human language. Without assuming that scholars must fail to recognize the fundamental elements of man’s cognitive dynamics or religious behavior in the most distant and deviant traces of human symbolic behavior, one should still emphasize that this figure of thought has something imperative about it. The explicit reference to the tower of Babel in Anati’s article asserts to the tenacious nature of the topos. We also encounter it in the Homeric description of Apollo’s hand-maidens at Delos, who imitate the clattering speech of all men as the god incites them to sing (Homeric Hymn to Apollon, 158-161), as well as in contemporary works of fiction. In Wiliam Golding’s novel The Inheritors, Neandertaloid Lok witnesses the coming of the "new people" and is struck by their strange manners:

"They were coming down from the overhang, their steps careless on the stones. He could hear their speech and it made him laugh. The sounds made a picture in his head of interlacing sha-pes, thin, and complex, voluble and silly, not like the long curve of a hawk’s cry, but tangled like line weed on the beach after a storm, muddled as water. This laugh-sound advanced through the trees towards the river." (p. 104)

Golding imagines the speaker of a primordial language at pains to apprehend the intricate speech of modern humans. Although it is Lok who tries to grasp us in this scene, and not the other way around, he does it on the linguistic premises we have prepared for him. His speech is not "muddled as water," but flows smooth and clear along "the long curve of a hawk’s cry."

The notion of an unmolested, prehistoric language also characterizes the interpretation of prehistoric ritual activity. When Mirceal Eliade analyzed the use of red ochre in Paleolithic burials as early proof of a belief in a survival after death, because red ochre has served as a ritual substitute for blood and hence a symbol for life (Eliade 1978 [1976], 9), these first traces of a universally attested ritual practice were considered to speak directly about their original religious impetus. Eliade may have been correct in identifying recurrent traits in the interpretation of this practice, but the question as to how a ritual was (or could be) understood should not be confused with the question as to why it was performed. If the symbolic significance of the custom really constituted the focal point of performance, then the interpretation of the custom would have to remain unchanged in order not to cause changes in praxis. As far as I can see, the plasticity of orally transmitte d instructions and interpretations in the course of time, as well as the momentary social and intellectual differentiation of each society, prevents us from attributing a uniform symbolic code to ritual dusting. We can only be reasonably sure that such practices were a matter of recapitulation (the strife to repeat the last performance correctly, were and how to extract the earthly materials, and so on). Instead of asking what a certain symbolic behavior means, we should perhaps better ask what it means to behave symbolically or, more accurately in this context, what it means to leave marks or imprints according to a prescribed order of performance. This question becomes important in any study of prehistoric ideational culture, because it is precisely the act of leaving readable marks in a lasting record that puts and end to prehistory. If one takes a closer look at the conceptual history of carvings and markings on the one hand, and writing on the other, it is evident that the religious significance of these activities does not only pertain to that which was mediated, but that these activities were occasionally regarded as ritually marked in themselves. In so far as the identification of writing becomes a means of fixing the boundary between history and prehistory, the emergence and significance of religious behavior should thus form a part of the general issue at stake.

3. A different path to the prehistory of writing

I will try to elucidate this issue by drawing attention to the history of a single linguistic item present in a group of widely dispersed Indo-European languages. Such an investigation must of course proceed from the study of texts, but many of these texts were handed down orally long before they were commited to writing, either because knowledge of writing was not yet extant, or because writing was not conceived as the preferable medium of religious heritage.

There is virtually no word for writing in an Indo-European language, including Greek gráphein, Lat. scribere, and English write, without the etymological sense "scratch, cut, carve." This also seems to be true of a word denoting "to write" in the Slavic languages, Old Persian, Tocharian, and the earliest Germanic dialects. The Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root is reconstructed as *peik-. Although the sense "to write" is widely attested, it is generally assumed that writing was unknown at the time of Indo-European unity. The original sense of the reconstructed root has thus been derived from other languages, such as Greek, Vedic, and Avestan, where the verb rather seems to denote "to hew out," "cut out," "embelish," etc. Some may stop at this point and consider the semantic development as perfectly commonplace: an illiterate people without any notion of visible speech is only capable of defining the act of writing as the act of leaving visible marks on stone, wood, wax, or other m

ouldable materials. They are not expected to bring forth a concept defining the linguistic priorities of such an act, but rather to conceive of it as comparable to that of carving, adorning, painting, or sketching, none of which bears any obvious relation to spoken discourse. However, instead of yielding to this temptation, let us recede from any preconceived notions as to this development and consider the early metaphoric potentials of the verb.

We begin by noticing that, among seventeen instances of the root in the poetry of Pindar (5th century BC), as many as eight apply directly to sung or spoken discourse, two to the sound of the lyre, two to ornamented artifacts (without a metaphoric sense), two to the pattern on snakes or serpents, one to the locks of serpents, and one to the wryneck. In one of the fragments, the poet ponders upon his own craft, claiming that (fr. 194 (206))

"a golden foundation has been wrought for holy song. Come, let us now construct (teikhízomen) an elaborate (poikílon) adornment (kósmon) that speaks words."

In the orally transmitted Vedic poetry from the 2nd and 1st millenium BC, furthermore, metaphoric references to daily cares (such as smearing the naves of a wheel, milking cows, tracing lost cattle, carving and carpentry, weaving, decorating wooden and ceramic artifacts) disclose a complex system of ritual meaning. This does not necessarily imply that the logic of Vedic ritual was modeled upon domestic activities and the links that existed between them, so that the ritual sphere became a transcendent household in which domestic cares were symbolically repeated and given new meaning, because the Vedic poets were themselves preoccupied with the interpretation of their own legacy and the hidden meaning behind immemorial usage. Some portions of RigVedic poetry may thus be understood as modes of inference regarding already established rituals, the preferable basis of which were observations made in daily life. Vedic ritual was constantly in the making, not merely a given complex of

hereditary customs. As demonstrated in a study by George Thompson (1995), an important focus of Vedic ritual exegesis was the observation that, just as humans and animals may be traced through the footprints they leave on the ground, the gods may be traced through the footprints they left in the verbal and kinetic precedents of memorized ritual. The Vedic poets saw an underlying unity behind different ritual procedures, such as pouring out oblations and uttering prayers, carving up the victim and dividing speech into metrical and semantic constituents.

As mentioned above, the earliest Vedic realizations of the PIE root *peik- (Vedic ?pi$) seem concern the cutting out wood or meat, but a much more prevalent sense in the hymns is that of "adorning." The nominal derivations thus more frequently apply to the metaphoric sense, that is to the state of being adorned or excellent, an adornment or an ornament, etc. Consider, for instance, the following stanza (RV 2,3,6, cf. also VS 20,41) found in a hymn to the goddess of Dawn:

"Night and morning, the two having grown since ancient times, (perform their (?)) proper works like two rejoicing weavers. United they weave together the extended thread (= time (?)) and the pé$as of sacrifice, the good milking, milky ones."

In the commentary to his German translation of the hymn, K. F. Geldner, suggested that pé$as should be understood as a variegated embroidery in the web of time. Realized as an evolving thread, the regular recurrence of natural phenomena constitutes the basis of ritual action. Just as in the case of musical notation, the lines or threads represent the flow of time and the notes, the ornaments, or embroideries, represent distinct ritual operations. If we consider the redundancy of such systems of notation, the semiotic priority of pé$as (?pi$) becomes a matter of perspective. Needless to say, the ornamental appearance of incisions, threads, or paint forming regular patterns does not exclude the possibility that they also represent an underlying order of concepts. A similar tension exists between the redundancy of bodily adornments and the harmony of the universe, as implied by the Greek word kósmos. The metaphoric sense of pé$as in this stanza does not only involve the visual app earance of a piece of embroidery, but also variegated patterns encoding ritual meaning.

There are further indications of this sort as regards Vedic opi$. In at least seven RigVedic passages, opi$ (both in verbs and nouns) is applied to ritual speech. Although the specific sense of the verb remains somewhat unclear, light and color seem to have been at stake, perhaps conceived as characteristic of substances rendering the form of praise efficient. The act of making a verbal imprint could also be described as a ritual modulation of the voice. Vocal matter was thought of as a physical object that could be cut out and shaped in order to render it an efficient poetic message. We should not think of this activity as an embryonic, pre-literary writing, but rather as something that writing and ritual speech have in common: a conventional modification or deformation of spoken discourse. One passage is particularly significant in this regard, because it brings us back to the center of the problem initially addressed, that is to the twofold nature of deviant speech (7,103,6) :

"Variously they (the Vedic priests) have modulated (pipe$ur) their voices/the words in speaking"

It is perhaps no coincidence that this hymn depicts the priests as frogs, because when man defines himself as situated between gods and animals, the language of gods (or hieratic language for all that) is also comparable to that of animals: it is incomprehensible because it is not intended for humans, but for non-human beings.

4. Conclusions

I would like to propose a slight adjustment of the notion that there was writing before the letter (in the sheer pronunciation of speech sounds) by regarding etchings, incisions, and ornaments as the common denominator of ritual speech and writing. One notices a conceptual (or even etymological) connection between speech and writing in the manipulation of everyday language. Traces of activities that consist in manipulating expedient things and everyday routines would thus not only strike us as religious because we fail to understand their practical purpose, but because such violations actually constitute a common characteristic of religious behavior: that of leaving marks, that of marking speech and performance in order to secure maintenance and authority.


Anati, E., 1994, "Archetypes, constants, and universal paradigms in prehistoric art," Semiotica 100-2/4, 125-140.

Bouissac, P., 1994, "Art or scrip? A falsifiable hypothesis," Semiotica 100-2/4, 349-367.

Boyer, P., 1999, "Cognitive Tracks of Cultural Inheritance: How Evolved Intuitive On-tology Governs Cultural Transmission," American Anthropologist 100 (4), 876-889.

Edwardsen, M. and Waller J., 1987, "Prehistoric Religions: An Overview," in

Eliade, M., 1978, A History of Religious Ideas: Volume 1. From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries, W.R. Trask (tr.), Chicago.

Holloway, R. L., 1969, "Culture, a human domain," Current Anthropology 10, 395-412

Hodder I., 1986, Reading the Past: Current Approaches to Interpretation in Archaeology, Cambridge.

Ong, W., 1982, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, London.

Srejovi%, D., 1987, "Neolithic Religion," in M. Eliade (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Religion, 352-360, Chicago.

Thompson, G., 1995, ""From ‘footstep’ to ‘word’ in Sanskrit," Semiotica 105-1/2, 77-98.

1. But if today there is agreement on the fact that Paleanthropians had a religion, in practice it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine what its content was. The investigations, however, have not cried defeat; for there remain a certain number of testimonal 'documents' for the life of the Paleanthropians, and it is hoped that their religious meaning will one day be deciphered. In other words, it is hoped that these 'documents' can constitute a 'language,' just as, thanks to the genious of Freud, the creations of the unconscious, which until his time were regarded as absurd and meaningless-dreams, waking dreams, phantasms, and so on-have revealed their existence of a language that is extremely precious for a knowledge of man." (Eliade 1978 [1976]: 5f.) "Access to a prehistoric culture, however, is highly problematic. And when one attempts to understand a phenomenon such as religion, the problem becomes acute. We understand religion primarily in terms of 'language,' that is, its principal characteristics are its interpretive meanings and valuations. The wordless archaeological remains of prehistoric religion-cultic or ceremonial artifacts and sites, pictures and symbols, sacrifices-have provided limited access to the religious 'language' of prehistoric cultures." (Edwardsen and Waller 1987: 505)

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