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)


The purpose of this virtual symposium is to probe the implicit criteria used by archaeologists for determining whether artifacts are symbolic or not, and to explore the possibility of specifying some context-independent formal properties which could help identify symbolic artifacts with a higher degree of plausibility.

The discovery of early objects whose morphologies bear evidence of being the result of deliberate human actions raises indeed the issue of whether their functions were practical or symbolic at the time when they were created. There has been a tendency in prehistoric archaeology to foreground the practical use of earlier artifacts and to assign symbolic values only parsimoniously to those which were considered to be more recent. This bias is due to the assumption that symbolic artifacts are signs of an evolved cognitive competence which most archaeologists are reluctant to locate too early in human evolution. It is also caused to some extent, by the fact that it is relatively easier to relate artifacts to practical behaviors than to rituals and beliefs, although there is, in this sort of reasoning, an obvious danger of transferring subjective qualities of the inquiry into the properties of the objects to be categorized. A further, perhaps deeper assumption which underlies such a methodological approach is the primacy of material culture over ideational constructions.

Contemporary developments in the conceptual representation of early humans are questioning such interpretative strategies. Over the last two decades, there has been an accumulation of data (such as artifacts relating to probable decorative and burial practices) which tend to push back in time the emergence of symbolic behavior in Homo, thus suggesting that tools and symbols could have co-emerged and co-evolved by drawing from the same cognitive resources. However, the issue of determining whether a prehistoric artifact is a tool or a symbolic object (or a tool with associated symbolic value) remains a daunting challenge in the absence of direct information concerning its actual use and context. Which observable properties of an artifact can count as reliable indications that it once was endowed with symbolic relevance?

Mainly since the early 1990s, this important issue has been debated in major international journals such as Current Anthropology, Cambridge Archaeological Journal and Semiotica (e.g., Chase & Dibble 1987, Byers 1994, Bednarik 1994, Bouissac 1994, Chase 1999, D'Errico 2001) as well as in proceedings such as Conkey et al., eds.(1997), Blench and Spriggs, eds. (1997) and Nowell, ed. (2001). Some interesting controversies ensued (e.g., Bednarik 1992, Chase & Dibble 1992). But, in spite of these efforts, the practice of inferring symbolic contents in archaeological records remains under-theorized and usually proceeds through ad hoc arguments which rely more on commonsensical assumptions regarding the imagined context of these early artifacts than on consistent analyses of the formal properties of the data. This symposium will therefore attempt to lay the basis for a collective reflection toward some theoretically sound criteria for recognizing symbolicity, or, at least, evaluating the degree of plausibility that some artifacts were also or exclusively symbols.

Paul Bouissac

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