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The Archaeology of Symbols Author(s): John E. Robb Source: Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 27

The Archaeology of Symbols Author(s): John E. Robb Source: Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 27 (1998), pp. 329-346

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Annu.Rev. Anthropol. 1998. 27.329-46 Copyright ? 1998 by AnnualReviews.All rights reserved


John E. Robb

Department of Archaeology,University of Southampton,Southampton S017 1 BJ, United Kingdom; e-mail:

KEYWORDS: agency, social theory,prehistory,semantics,knowledge


Why should archaeologists

article outlines three major traditions archaeologists have followed in

ceptualizing symbols, each with its own preferredtopics of study, under-

standing of power and social relations, and epistemology. These includethe processual view of symbols as tokens that representreality, the structuralist view of symbols as mental girdersframing a cultural reality, and the post- modem view of symbols as arbitraryfragmentsincorporated into phenome-

nological experience. The primary conclusions

siderationof ancient society requires us to deal with its symbols; (b) human symbolism is so diverse (it includes cognitive structures; ritual icons; identi-

ties such as gender, prestige, and ethnicity; technological knowledge; and

political ideologies) that multiple

of symbols is understand-

with it; and (c) a majorproblem in the archaeology

ing how variedkinds of symbols relateto each other.

deal with symbols andhow can they do so? This


arethat (a) any serious con-

approaches areneeded to deal



Archaeologists probably disagree about symbols more than anything else they dig up. Many believe that however important symbols are, we are wasting our time trying to recover mental phenomena archaeologically. Others believe that symbols are irrelevant to the larger systems that have structured human life over the centuries. In recent years, many other views have emerged beyond

these two traditional viewpoints. The relationship of symbols to power and prestige has become an important theme. Both gender archaeology and agency-centered interpretations have forced us to confront ancient identities




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andmotivations.Even underthe agency theoryumbrella,however, thereis di- versity. Some theorists deal with "Symbols with a capital S"-pyramids, chiefly insignia, and the obtrusiveicons of rankand ritual.Otherssee every humaninterventionin material things as a symbolically constructiveact. The archaeology of symbols hasbeen parochialized into gender studies,po- litical studies,cosmological reconstructions, andso on. But symbolic systems workbecause of the coherentties between differentkinds of meanings, which

make politicalparticipationcompelling, identitymeaningful, andritualeffec- tive. Moreover,archaeologists have often studied obvious, iconic symbols but have little sense of the broad range of meanings with which humansinvest the materialworld. In keeping with this, many believe that symbolic archaeology

is exceptionally difficult andthatfew archaeologistsstudy it-a

lief, because a complete archaeologicalbibliography on symbols could

clude severalthousandworks. The archaeology of symbols is fragmented andcontentiousbutalso rich, di- verse, andcreative. By bringingtogetherarchaeological sourceson symbols, I hope to demonstratehow much we already know and to providegrounds for optimism for the future.

puzzling be-


Is Symbolic







In 1954 Hawkes pronounced his famous "ladderof inference":Withoutwrit-

ten texts, archaeologists can investigateeconomy readily, and political andso- cial systems to a lesser extent, but for the most part,prehistoricsymbols and ideas mustremaina closed book (Hawkes 1954). Hawkes's dictumwas essen- tially a formalizationof common sense, and its intuitive appeal has helped to enshrineit in archaeologicaltheory.Fortyyears later, the idea remainswide- spread that symbols are remote,subjective, and archaeologicallyinaccessible, in contrastto the "hard"realitiesof environment,economy, and politics. Hawkeswas wrong, andit is worth consideringwhy he was. It is true,as he presumed, that archaeologists are necessarily methodological materialists:

With only materialremainsto deal with, ourinferencesmustbe anchoredwith

artifacts. However, this idea is easily conflatedwith othersless

trastto a long scholarly traditionin

referentand meaning(de Saussure 1972), our folk model regardssymbols as

material"containers"that convey tidy "packages" of information (Lakoff

Johnson 1980). The material/meaningdichotomy is furtherconflatedwith folk distinctionsbetween a visible, tangible materialworld andinvisible ideas and feelings, between "hard"scientific approaches and "soft" humanistic ap-

proaches, andbetween "objective"knowledge and "subjective"opinion. The

theoretical sleight of hand transmutingmethodological materialism

effect is a

into a theoreticalmaterialismin which signs speak for themselves to the de-

sound.In con-

which the symbol consists of the unity of


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gree thatwe think they are purely material.The

fect is the doublestandardwe use for judging an archaeologicalinterpretation,

basedon our prioropinion aboutits materiality. If we understandhow a prehis- toric rock carving was made technologically without knowing why it was made culturally, the effort is considereda failureand symbolic archaeology is pronounced impossible. But if we understandhow prehistoricpeople pro- duced their food technologically without knowing the culturalreasons why they produced what andhow much they did in the way they did, the effort is considereda successful demonstrationof economic archaeology; never mind thatwe have reduceda complex, value-ladenset of social relationsto a simple faunalinference.The archaeological worldis a cultural world, and by dividing it into a priori categories of materialand symbolic, we deny the degree to which things like economy are fundamentally culturaland things like ideas are embodiedin material practices. In many ways, the question is not whetherwe can find symbols archaeo- logically, butwhetherwe canfind anything culturalthatis not symbolic.Many powerful symbols in any culture are the commonest things: bread, water, houses, the river, andthehills beyond. Powerful symbols arenot irrationaland etherealbut are often highly rationalizedand concrete: Money is a symbol ratherthanmere gold, paper, or numbersin an account.Nor can the symbolic aspect of these things be magically separated froma logically prior economic or material use; indeed, much of our modem, supposedly rational economy is structured by massive efforts to protect symbolically importantthings-the environment, the small farm, the family home. But, havinginextricably entan- gled the materialandthe mental, once we get beyond the superficiallevel, all fields of archaeological inquiry converge in similar epistemological con- straints:We must replace the ladderof inferencewith a level playing field.

best demonstrationof this ef-

Is Symbolic





to Grips with

Current archaeological studies of symbols descend from many sources: the earliestNew Archaeology (Binford 1962), stylistic studies (cf Carr& Neitzel 1995), evolutionary studies (Lindly & Clark 1990), structuralist archaeologies (Conkey 1982, Deetz 1977, Friedrich 1970), structuralMarxistandMarxistre- search (Leone 1984, McGuire 1992, Shanks& Tilley 1988), anddiverse post- processual works (Barrett 1994, Hodder et al 1995, Thomas 1991, Tilley 1993). Recently, several of these lines of researchhave begun to converge withina general framework involving culturalactorsand symbols. Archaeolo- gists interestedin social evolutionhave begun to explain transitionsto agricul- ture (Gebauer & Price 1991, Hayden 1990) andto inequality(Hayden & Gar- gett 1990, Price & Feinman 1995) in terms of ambitious,strategizing human agents. Marxist and structuralist archaeologies have turnedfrom monolithic

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constructionsof high-level structuresto more nuancedaccountsof how insti- tutions, individuals, and symbols interact (e.g. McGuire & Saitta 1996, Pauketat& Emerson 1991). Gender archaeology is based on the concept of culturally defined genders,directing attentionto the symbolic constructionof identities (Conkey & Spector 1984). The broad shift to people-centeredap- proaches coincides with a postmoder view of cultureas fragmented andcon- tested rather than integrated and normative. These agency-centered ap- proaches derived from Bourdieu (1977), Giddens (1979), Ortner (1984), and ultimately Marx provide a missing theoreticalfoundationforthe study of sym- bols. The logical necessities of a practicetheory view imply an archaeology dealing with people as people, that is, as actors behaving in culturallyspecific ways. This approach in turncommitsus to takingsymbolsseriously as a perva- sive aspect of the archaeological record.


While it is no longer the case (if it ever was) that postprocessualistsstudysym- bols and processualists do not, thereremain deep gulfs among archaeologists dealing with symbols. At the risk of oversimplification,perhaps the best cap- sule description is that archaeologists in processual traditionstend to view symbols as representing social realities, while postprocessualists and other structuralism-influenced archaeologistsgenerally view symbols as constitut- ing social realities.Root metaphors arecentralto academic theorizing(Turner

view as "symbols as tokens"


"symbols as girders." To these may be addeda third, recent view, the poststructuralist view of "symbols as tesserae."Eachof these traditionshas its own conceptualization of social relations and power, epistemology, and ca- nonicalcase studies.Becausethe traditions correspond to deep divisions in the

field, it is worth reviewing them


andwe might characterizethese points of

at some length.

"Symbols as Tokens ". The Information Transmission View

According to many archaeologists,symbols

communication (Wobst 1977). As one recentdiscussion putsit, "Symbols, in-

cluding icons, rituals,monuments, and written texts, all convey and transmit informationand meaning to theirviewers" (DeMarrais et al 1996:16). Thus a

sumptuous headdress signals a special status, an

long-rangeconnections, a monument represents a capacity to commandlabor.

As tokens representingmeanings, symbols

produced,exchanged, monopolized, subverted, and destroyed. Much of this materiallife is governedby humanintentionsand strategies,and, as Binford

(1962) and Wobst (1977) argued, when symbols are put into materialform, there may be predictable economies of representation.

serve primarily as instrumentsof

exotic artifactboasts about

have a materiallife: They can be

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This approach has long since proved its value in archaeologicalinterpre-

tation,particularly in

Clark& Blake 1994, DeMarraiset al 1996, Hayden 1995), prestigegoods ex- change(Brumfiel & Earle 1987, Ericsson& Earle 1977), andthe interpretation of gravegoods andburial procedures in termsof the social standing of the de- ceased (Beck 1995, Binford 1972, Brown 1981, Chapman et al 1981, O'Shea 1984, Saxe 1970). A recent exchange in Current Anthropology illustratesboth

the uses of this approach for analyzingpolitical symbols and some criticisms of it. In three originalanalyses, Blantonet al (1996) discussed the use of cos- mological legitimation in "corporate" and "network" strategies of organiza- tion; DeMarraiset al (1996) developedhypotheses aboutwhen andhow ideol- ogy will be deployed in material items;Joyce & Winter (1996) argued thatide- ology is one tool of many by which elites maintaintheir position. All three treated power as the self-evident ability to controlothers (cf Wolf 1990) and ideology as the pragmatic use of symbols to accomplish this power; this point of view contrastswith arguments thatthe mental reality of symbolic meanings can make them a potent causal factor in politics (e.g. Conrad& Demarest 1984). The strongest reactionto these papers camefromMarxistsand interpre-

tive archaeologists, who argued that symbols do not

guise power relationsbut actually constitute them; however, many reactions crosscut theoretical approaches. Criado (1996) argued that the autonomous, freely acting individualis anidea peculiar to modernity andthatculturecannot be reducedto instrumental ideology. Hodder (1996) argued that the authors didnot consider preexistingsystems of meaning, thevaried experiences of ide- ology within a society, and ambiguities and disagreements overwhat symbols mean. Like Hodder, Clark (1996) and Cowgill (1996) demanded greater ex- amination of how ideologies relate to semiotic and phenomenological sys- tems. Clark (1996; cf Miller & Tilley 1984) posed the problem of relating the ambitionsof elites andthe actions of groups, andBrumfiel (1996a), D'Altroy (1996), and Schortmanet al (1996; cf Brumfiel 1992) arguedagainstunitary, "top-down"interpretations of symbols and for considerationof resistance.A key point here may be the dramatic aspect of political ritual (Geertz 1980, Kertzer 1988, Turner 1974), because it is oftenthe publicperformance of sym- bols ratherthan real consensus on their meaning that unites groups. A final problem is how to relate meaningsystems andother aspects of social life in a long-termhistory(Sahlins 1985; e.g. Marcus& Flannery1996). The "symbols as tokens"view meritscriticaldiscussionbecause it hasbeen almost unquestioned. Its most problematicassumption is simply that artifacts, actions, andsocial relationshave a meaning orexistence logically prior to their translationinto symbols, which serve primarily to represent this precultural re- ality. The concept of prestige is a good example. With few exceptions (Helms 1993, Shennan 1982), therehasbeen little examinationof culturalreasons why

the study of

strategies of political leadership(Blitz 1993,

merelyrepresent anddis-

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a particularmaterial,action, or item might have been regarded as prestigious ratherthanof the strategic mechanicsof the pursuit of prestige.Thus,paradoxi- cally, this argument views people as actingpolitically and economically butnot culturally, becauseit implies thatthe identitiesandvalues signaled and sought afterarenot themselves symbolic constructions (a view made explicit in mod- els assuming a universal pursuit of power or prestige). Thereis little investiga- tion of multiple forms of prestige integrated into cosmological schemes, gen- der, and alternativemodes of classifying people and prescribing behavior (Bourdieu 1977, Hatch 1989) or of variationsin the symbolic organization of prestige and authority(Godelier 1982). Nor has the interactionof prestige with other supporting or cross-cuttingcomponents of identity such as gender, lan- guage, and ethnicity (Farr1993, Hendon 1999) been examined.Artifactsare regarded as self-evident and defined by their function; unless their explicit functionwas to signal,they were nonsymbolic. Theuse of symbols, ratherthan being an inescapable characteristicof human existence, thus becomes a spe- cific realmof cultural life, like ceramic production or mollusk collecting. Not coincidentally, this view of symbols is usually implicit in theorizationsof power in which ideological power is understoodas an elite tactic comparable to the use of armies,political resources, or economic funds (Mann 1986). By severing the use of symbols fromtheircontext of meanings, the infor- mational view makes belief irrationaland hence merely disadvantageous in followers and cynically optional in elites. It replaces meaning with a disen- chanted interconvertiblevalue like that of money in a capitalist economy. Without symbolic context, many questions become unanswerable. Why are some exotic goods prestigious and othersnot? Which specific kinds of status does controlof prestigegoods conferin a particularsociety? Why is supplying someonewith food understoodas largesse in one setting andas tributeor duty in another? Why is prestigecompetition more important in some societies than in others?Whatrelationdo gravegoods have to the circumstancesof death, so- cial relations among survivors,ideologies of deathand burial, and otherfac- tors (Bloch & Parry1982, Brown 1995, Gnoli & Vernant 1982, Huntington & Metcalf 1991, ParkerPearson 1982, Ucko 1969). Long-termchanges in the

meaning of artifactsbecome problematic, as

pretation over meanings, andit is not obvious that controlling a symbolic arti-

fact alwaysgives one controlof the ideait represented andthereactionsof oth- ers. As recent feminist critiques (Gero 1997) have pointed out, the cross- culturallyrational,genderless individual portrayed as manipulatingpolitical symbols draws strongly on modem gender andclass values.

"Symbols as Girders ". The Mental Reality Approach Incontrastto the informationtransmission view, manyarchaeologists have ex- plored how symbols constitutedandstructuredthe mentalandsocial worldof


disagreement or misinter-

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ancient people. Leroi-Gourhan's (1982) analysis of FrenchPaleolithiccave art is the best-known example of structuralist analysis in archaeology. Otherfor- ays into structuralismhave treated design rulesin ceramics, bone artifacts,art, and vernacular architecture (Conkey 1982, Friedrich 1970, Glassie 1975, Washburn 1983) as well as generative grammars of artifacts (Chippindale 1992). A less purely cognitive approach was developed in the early 1980s


pean Neolithic cultural structures, TheDomestication of Europe. But interest

in symbols as components of mental reality resists easy alignment with theo- retical schools. Technological studies have investigated the structure of knowledge (see below). Recent "cognitivearchaeology"(Flannery & Marcus 1993, Renfrew & Zubrow 1994) has focused on knowledge, religion, mental

maps, and the materialtools of thinking,using structural analysis, the direct historical approach,technological studies, studies of iconography, and com- putermodeling. WhatthisNoah's Arkof theoristshave in commonis a focus on symbols as

mental structures, as

ing thoughtprocesses. Treatingsymbols as mental building blocks captures a numberof importantinsights. Themost important is simply thathumansorient themselves in the world, think, and act throughlearned, culturally specific structuresthatrecurwherever they organize themselves andtheirmaterial pro-

ductions.Hence structural symbols such as genderoppositions,principles of spatial and temporalorientation, and cosmological qualities(Rappaport1979) are embedded deeply in the individual's being. The individualcannotchoose

notto thinkandact throughthem, andtheir purpose is less to representspecific referential meanings thanto organize other symbols. One implication of this is that even rational strategies are governed by generic rules of behavior,pre- scriptiverituals,symbolic limits, cultural tone, and inappropriate formsof ma- neuvering. Proponents of the "symbols as girders"approach have been active in ana- lyzing artand ritual,space and cosmology, and technologicalknowledge. Up- per Paleolithic arthas become iconic of human symbolic capacities in evolu- tionary narratives. Interpretations show a complex historical layering. Pre- 1960s interpretations of cave art as representing hunting magic, fertility magic, and clan totems have generally been discredited (Ucko & Rosenfeld


oppositions between "male"animalssuch as bison and"female"animalssuch as horses.Other analysts focused on small portable items. Marshack (1972) ar- gued that lines and dots on carvedbones indicatedcalendricaluses. Conkey

(1982), studyingcompositional rules in carvedbone artifacts, relatedmobili- ary artto information exchange at seasonal aggregationplaces and suggested (Conkey 1985) thatart may have been produced for rituals legitimating social

(Hodder 1982b), culminating in Hodder's (1990) sweeping analysis of

girdersframing an essentially culturalworldandstructur-

1967). Leroi-Gourhan's (1982) structuralist approach decoded

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hierarchies.Mithen (1990) argued that Paleolithic images depict animal be- havior and would have served to educate young hunters.These approaches have focused on the meaningfulaspects of Upper Paleolithic symbolism. In

contrast,analyses of

count ofAurignacian ornamentsas a mediumfor creating social identities, and

Gamble's (1982) interpretation of figurines fromFranceto Russiaas part of a

common ritual system that helped to circulateinformationand mates

low-density foragers (cf Jochim 1983). In other approaches, Clottes (1996) used Lewis-Williams & Dowson's (1993) neurophysiological model to con- strue cave art images as products of shamanistictrances. Surprisingly, there

has been little genderinterpretation(though see

1981). Nor has Paleolithicartbeen dealtwith in the postmodernapproach(e.g.


litical history(Dowson 1994). Probably the most effective archaeological work on cosmology has come

throughanalysis of space. Categories of space relateto gender,personal iden- tity, and cosmological systems (Bourdieu 1977); architecturalstudies have used this insight to relate space to social action (Wallace-Hadrill1988, Yates 1989). Other analyses have discussed the experience of being within spaces defined in particularways (Parker Pearson& Richards 1994). Sophisticated Marxist analyses includeLeone's (1984) analysis of the early colonial garden and Kus's (1982) analysis of sacred space in Madagascar. The meaning of space has also been exploredformallythrough network analysis (Broodbank 1993) and Geographical Information Systems (Zubrow 1994). Technologicalknowledge is an integralpart of the symbolic world (Dobres

& Hoffman 1994, Lemonnier 1992, and articles in World Archaeology, Vol-

ume 27, 1995). That makingthings always incorporatescosmological beliefs about tools, materials,qualities, and processes has been well documented by studies of metal production in Africa (Herbert1994), Mesoamerica (Hosler 1994), andSouthAmerica (Lechtman1984). The skills, knowledge, andsocial decisions involved in making things can be investigatedthrough reconstruc- tion of the operationalsequence (chaine operatoire) followed (Lemonnier 1992, Schlanger1994). Because technological processes involve the practice of skills and knowledge associatedwith particular identitiesand values, they are a central way in which social agency is created and exercised (Dobres 1995, Dobres & Hoffman 1994, Sinclair 1995). As this argumentimplies, the archaeology of knowledge is more complex than simply reconstructing a pre- historic road map or recipe. Knowledge may be conscious or unconscious, general principles or specific data, agreed-upon or disputed, and it is often nondiscursive, as with ingrainedbodily skills or practices. Treatingsymbols as cultural structures,especially in structural analysis, has been criticizedon a numberof grounds. Reactionsto TheDomestication of

artas information exchange include White's (1989) ac-


Leroi-Gourhan1982 andRice

1991), as an ecological system (Rappaport1979), or as a mediumof po-

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Europe are typical: Processualistshave questioned the epistemological status of the culturalstructuresHodderreconstructs (O'Shea 1992), while later post- processualists criticize Hodder for the coherentnatureof his culturalstruc- tures, an unchanging script inaccessible to actors (e.g. Thomas 1996:97).

Withinthis framework, it

can be difficult to model both geographic variation

and temporalchange and to account for discrepancies,disbelief, and cynical manipulation. Structuralismalso assumesa coherent underlying belief system

ratherthanthe fertile chaos cosmologies may appear "on the ground"(Barth

1987). Moreover,symbolic structuresmustbe viewed

as products of a specific

social order.The archaeology of technologyprovides a good example:Imper-

sonal knowledge

may be a product of the information age, andin the past, the

act of possessing and using knowledgemay have been as socially important as the actual thing known. Without strong Durkheimian assumptions aboutele- mentary social structures, Levi-Straussian assumptions about elementary mental structures, or Marxist assumptions about hegemony, identifying cul- tural structuresalone usually does not satisfy social-minded archaeologists. For these reasons, alreadyby 1982 a numberof studies (in Hodder 1982b) combined structural analysis with other analyses. Hodder (1982a), for in- stance,explored structural parallels betweenNeolithic houses andtombsin the

context of genderrelations, and Shanks& Tilley (1982) discussed the opposi- tion between individual and collective burialswith reference to relations of production. Structuralismhas lost its identity as a distinctive approach while

contributeto the definition of symbolic structures,particularly oppositions, within structural Marxist,postmodern,processual,

continuing to


or other approaches(e.g. Roe 1995).

Symbols as Tesserae:ThePoststructuralist Critique

It would be deceptively facile to resolve views of symbolism as strategic ma-

nipulation andas culturalstructurewithin the structure-and-actiondualismof

a practicetheory model [for instance, via the "duality of structure" (Giddens 1979; e.g. Marcus& Flannery1996:31)]. But a trenchant critique of both ap- proaches has recently come from Hodderet al (1995), Tilley (1993), Barrett (1994), Gosden (1994), andThomas (1996). These analystsbegin by rejecting the dichotomy between material signifiers andideal meanings: "Materialcul- ture may be physically embeddedbutit is atthe sametime culturallyemergent. precisely because materialculture has this property of being culturally emergent, therecanbe no simple or formaldemarcationbetweenwhatis inter- nal to, or is in, and that which is external to, or outside, the object" (Tilley 1993:5). Meaning does not reside in artifactsorin people butin the momentof interactionbetween the two (Thomas 1996:97);symbols' meanings do not ex- ist outside of the momentin which people apprehend themandassemblethem

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into meaningful formations. Symbols thus resemble mosaic tesserae, or per-

hapsLegos: fragments with qualities such as color, shape, and size, inherently

arbitrary, that are temporarily assembled

people playing with them. Treatingsymbols as tesserae has broad implications. Because symbols' meaning is not fixed but contestable, social life involves continual struggle over alternative interpretations of importantsymbols. Powerin thisview is the ability to formulatea genuineexperience of the world andto resist others' at- tempts to impose theirviews: a Foucauldianview thatrelates power to cultural structuresmore than to personalized political hierarchies and which sees power as enabling as much as restrictive. Proponents of such analyses often

dismiss structuralist-inspiredinterpretations of symbolic structuresas essenti- alizing or totalizing simply because they do not believe thatcultureshave an uncontested essence or totality. Hegemony, counterhegemony, and discord pervade this view of the past.Methodologically, the approach divertsattention fromthe formalor economic qualities of artifactstoward understanding how

they were incorporated into experiences-how

neled bodily movementand attitudes, recalledother artifacts, andwere fit into collages of images. Because how symbols were used was as important to their meaning as any pre-fixedreferent,archaeologists have to carry out close con- textual analysis. Because the emphasis is on the immediatemomentof experi- ence, analysis tends to be strictly on the microscale. Epistemologically, ar- chaeology is couched in languageappropriate to a socially situateddiscourse:

formulationratherthan discovery, interpretation of a text ratherthan analysis of a corpus,plausibility ratherthan proof. Collective burials and megaliths have furnished the paradigmatic case

study for postmodern theorists of kinship, time, and landscape. Culture- historical interpretations treatedthese monuments essentially as religious sites analogous to churches, andNew Archaeologicalinterpretation turnedtoward social structure (e.g. Fleming 1973) and ecology. The Maltese temples were seen as the centersof chiefdoms (Renfrew 1979), and communaltombs were

as territorialmarkerserected as Neolithic farmers came under


populationpressure(Chapman1981, Renfrew 1976). Since the 1980s, Sher- ratt (1990) has argued thatmonumentaltombswere builtas organizational sur-


ings on chamberedtombs have been interpreted as "entoptic"designs repre-


Dowson 1993).

and experienced as meaningful by


appeared,sounded, chan-

for villages as native Mesolithic populationsadoptedfarming. Carv-

visions during shamanistictrances (Bradley 1989, Lewis-Williams&

One common theme in postprocessual approaches, drawing largely on

and Meillassoux (1981), has been kinship and cosmo-

Bloch & Parry(1982)

logical knowledge in the service of social processes. Monuments such as

Stonehenge (Bradley 1991) were remodeledand reused over very long peri-

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ods, showing that ancestral places furnished potent symbols throughoutpre- history. Many tombs have inner chambersthat may have allowed only re-

strictedelites access to burials, andaccess to the pastmay have legitimated an


may also have mediated gender relations (Hodder1982a) andeffaced individ- ual identitiesto mask relationsof production(Shanks & Tilley 1982). But how did people experience the creation and use of monuments?Re- cent interpretations have focused on local experiences of space, movement, landscape, and the body (Tilley 1993). Whittle (1996) has argued thatNeo- lithic architectureinvolved the symbolic creationof defined places, andTho- mas (1991) interprets Neolithic monumentsas part of a new mode of engage- ment with the land. Tilley's (1994) study focuses on the monuments' land- scape settings. As Barrett (1994) points out, space both within the monument and in the surroundinglandscape must be understoodin terms of patterns of movement imposedby the monument. Megalithic structuresthus form part of

a "monumental choreography"(Richards1993). Thomas& Tilley (1993) in- terpret the iconography of cosmological processes of transformationfromlife to death. The limits of the "tesserae" approach mirrorthose of the other two ap-

proaches. In denying the fixity of symbols' meanings, we risk seeing ancient peoples' ongoing reinterpretation of symbols as a quasi-voluntaristic act of will or self-empowerment, andwe shortchange the effect of inheritedandun- questioned terms of thought. All of symbolic life thus becomes superficial, withouthistoricalor psychological roots-a transitoryjuxtaposition of images

on a screen.The

owes as muchto a particularunderstanding of modern politics as does the con- verse view, and it may underestimatethe conservativismof ancient societies whose local cultureformed a more total environmentthan ours does. Power tendsto become equated too broadly with identity or the ability to experience, making it difficult to analyze its varied uses in hierarchicalsocieties. Rather paradoxically for such a locally oriented approach,interpretationsfrequently producegeneric portraitsapplicable to virtuallyany past society.

of ritualleaders (Bradley 1989) or elders (Patton1993); collective burials

insistence that interpretation of symbols is always conflictual


Itwouldbe ingenuous to invokethe fableof theblindmenandthe elephant and argue thatthese three ways of looking at symbols are entirelycomplementary or canbe made so by a "definitive" approach. While the case studiesreviewed above have been investigated primarily within one tradition, issues such as gender and identity show bothhow farthethree approaches to symbolspresup- pose one anotherandhow they are sometimes incompatible.

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Conkey & Spector(1984) originallyargued that gendersystems arecultural constructsrelatedin complex ways to economy, society, and politics. The fol- lowing decade witnessed a profusion of archaeologicalgender studies in all theoreticaltraditions (see Bacus et al 1992, Claassen 1992, Claassen& Joyce 1997, Cohen& Bennett 1993, Conkey & Gero 1997, Ehrenberg1989, Gero& Conkey 1991, Moore& Scott 1997, Nelson 1997, Walde& Willows 1991). In

general,archaeologistsworking in processual andstructuralisttraditionshave focused on the meaning of gender within a system of cognitive categories and on how gender as a preexisting role or identity structures activityregimes and division of labor. Critique of both approaches has concentratedon two points, social context andthe natureof gendercategories. Studiesthattreat gender in termsof staticeconomic roles andidentitiesand supplementexisting interpre- tationsof the past have been criticized (Spencer-Wood1991). Genderis cen- tralto power relations,including inequality(Kelly 1993), hegemony (Ortner 1990), and resistance (Brumfiel 1992, 1996b). Poststructuralfeminists have

argued that gender does mustbe understoodas a

biological basis of male and female sexual categories has been questioned (Nordbladh & Yates 1990). The point is thatwhile much genderarchaeology can be accommodatedwithin a range of theoretical points of view, there are realdivisions in theoretical approach thatcannotbe reconciled (forinstance, as to the reality of enduring, conventional gendercategories and identities). Nor is it clearhow desirablea highly abstractand anodyne theoreticalumbrellafor

all genderarchaeology would be. The same is truefor analysis of other aspects of identity such as prestige, ethnicity (Emberling1997, Jones 1997, Shennan 1989), kinship, and language as well as for topics generally associatedwith a single theoretical approach. Nevertheless, some generalpoints emerge to guide an archaeology of sym- bols. The "symbols as tokens"view really deals primarily with how symbols

areused in specific political contexts, andit worksbest with iconic badge-like symbols and personal identities.It necessarilypresupposes a farbroader and,

with how the symbols were constitutedmean-

ingfully in the first place and how their meanings affected their usage. But treatingsymbols as self-imposing cultural deep structures(as in the "symbols as girders"approach)requires a stratifiedmodel of the actoras constituted by both broad,abstract, andunconscious "generative structures" (Bourdieu1977) and concrete, often conscious, and situation-specificsymbols and meanings. This model requires us to think about contested alternative meanings and struggles over interpretation ratherthan assuming that importantsymbols had unanimous,unproblematicmeanings.Finally, we should distinguish the study of culturalstructuresfromthatof meaning as an active experience andtackle them separately.

ideally, explicit analysisdealing

not forma system of static,agreed-upon dualitiesbut process of relationaldifference (Baker 1997), andthe

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Beyond "Codebreaking".: Getting at Archaeological


Whatmethods can we use to


throw out the most popular image, that of codebreaking, of "making mute stones speak" to suddenly renderthe archaeological record completely trans- parent. Inthis RosettaStone view, interpreting a symbol involves merely iden- tifying its literal referent; if this were true, there would be no differences of

opinion over ethnographicinterpretation, because all ethnographers have ac- cess to the same dictionaries. Pursuing the linguistic analogy, thereare many equally importantaspects of symbolism beyond simple reference and gram- mar: context, medium,intention,genre,register,style, attitude. There is, then, no specific methodologyunique to the archaeology of sym-

bols. Instead, the key startingpoint for investigation is realizing what arethe

rightquestions to ask. Some basic points of study areas follows: (a) iconic representationalmeaning of symbols; (b) structuralor relational meaning of symbols;(c) phenomenological or experientialmeaning of symbols;(d) gram- marsandvariationsof form,technique, and decoration;(e) perceptualaspects


investigate symbols archaeologically? We

of symbolic artifacts (visual, auditory, tactile features);(/) cross-artifact styles and semantic associations; (g) social connotations and associations of arti- facts,representations, and styles; (h) technical analysis of techniques of manu- factureanduse wear;(i) economic aspects of artifactmanufactureandcircula- tion; (') knowledge andexecution of artifactmanufactureas cultural process;

(k) artifactlife histories from manufacture throughdeposition;(/) usage and interpretation;(m) knowledge differentialsand layers of

tion among users of artifacts; and (n) ambiguity, multiplicity of interpreta- tions,misunderstanding, and irony. The significance of anartifact may involve


context of

a complex combinationor juxtaposition of many of these codes, contexts, and

an array of questions to ask, our interpretations can Instead, we will find ourselves crafting(Shanks &

McGuire 1996) good ethnographies, which are always controversial.

Some Future Directions

circumstances.With such never be final or lawlike.

Formulating the archaeology of symbols as an object of study raises interest- ing lines of research.If archaeologists can investigategreatly variedkinds of

symbols, thenthe internal organization of symbols of different kinds, at differ-

ent levels of

self a key focus of theorizing. Canwe identifykey symbols (Ortner1972) that structureother symbols and identities? How do knowledge, technological

practice,rite, cosmology, and gender relateto one other? One direction such questions lead us in concerns cross-artifact analyses.

Archaeologists typically deal with specific artifacts, but

crosses boundaries may be a key to understanding how objects areunderstood


embeddedness,habituation,exegesis, or maneuver, becomes it-


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and used. Why did a

Why did dark green suddenly become popular in 1990s consumer goods? Symbolism of colors,textures,forms, and compositionalstyles may be the link between social relations, semantics, and artifactvariation.Related problems

include the question of economy of meanings among media-for

why did potterydesign simplify rapidly in muchof Europe when metalswere introduced?-and the importance of artifactlife histories.A third problem is thatof regionality-the gap between representation and experience, between widespread materialculturesimilaritiesandlocal beliefs, habits, and interpre- tations.To whatextentcan culturehorizonsbe seen as regional habitus (Bour- dieu 1977), zones of similarcultural responsecontaining withinthemthe seeds of rapid differentiation? Socially, we needto incorporatesymbols more fully intoour understanding of social relations.One routeto this is via the differentiationof prestige into boundedandrelated spheres of semanticvalues. Given the importance of the

body as a nexus of identity,interpretation, and classification,gender is an ob- vious axis of differentiationbut farfromthe only one. Methodologically, this problemmight involve contextual analysis of artifactuse, structural analysis of cultural principles, and iconographies of bodily gestures depicted in figu-


from situationsin which participants often have very different interpretations of one another.Material things are centralto our understanding of one an- other's roles,purposes, andvalues andthusfurnishthe focal points of ambigu-

ity and of multiple interpretation. But ambiguity is not anarchy, andmaterial culture may productively be viewed as systematic miscommunication.

1930s toasterbecome streamlinedlike an automobile?


and art. We must also confrontthe paradox that social orders emerge


I am grateful to Liz Brumfiel, Marcia-Anne Dobres, Clive Gamble, Tim Pauketat, and JulianThomas for their very helpful comments on the manu- script; to SarahTomasek for copyediting; and to Starr Farr, Richard Lesure, andthe studentsin my "Archaeology of Symbols"graduate seminarat South- ern Illinois University for enlightening discussions. All errorsremainmine.

Visit the Annual Reviews home page at

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