Symmetry Comes of Age: The Role of Pattern in Culture by Dorothy K. Washburn and Donald W. Crowe, eds


Seattle : University of Washington Press , 2004 . 354 pp.

Perceived as a specific way through which people “see” their world, symmetry is also often viewed as a method originating in mathematics that is used to both describe and investigate the formation of crystals in nature and to investigate the seemingly boundless variations that humans create in their representational arts.1 The first reaction of most archaeologists, when asked about the use of symmetry analysis for analyzing their materials, is that it is not very applicable. Social rules are made to be broken. Therefore, it seems that by comparing a crystal, which has a clearly defined boundary and which follows natural laws in formation without any ability to break them, with a craft design which, in theory, may break free in formation according to its creator's free will, at first seems a poor analogy for the study of art. However, by arguing that “[c]ultures use symmetrical relationships to structure activities and that cultures reinforce these relationships by using the same symmetries to structure patterns on their material culture” (pp. xiii–xix), papers in Symmetry Comes of Age demonstrate how powerful this method may be in terms of studying the relationships between representational artifacts and the social relationships of craftsmen in a given society.

As stated in both Symmetry Comes of Age and the editors' earlier volume Symmetries of Culture (University of Washington Press, 1988), these works were written to introduce both the procedure and the analytical value of symmetry studies for cultural studies more generally. The editors have sought to develop a descriptive classification system that will allow anthropologists to “systematically observe phenomena and describe their regulations” (Symmetries of Culture, University of Washington Press, 1988, p. 37) in order to define the most basic, universal properties of examined styles. Focusing on the underlying structural, symmetrical patterns instead of representational preference of individual design elements, it is argued that the symmetric approach will provide researchers with a powerful tool to compare symbols materialized in various media, such as pottery, painting, and textiles on a higher level of classification. While in Symmetries of Culture the foundation of defining, illustrating, and classifying both one- and two-dimensional patterns was laid out in detail, in Symmetry Comes of Age, great efforts have been made to demonstrate how these principles may be used to analyze various materials from different parts of the world. Aiming to demonstrate how one may “decode” the ways in which cultures generate and present meanings through symmetrical patterns as a means by which to regulate certain social relationships (p. xii), this book serves as an exemplary achievement in this field. A third volume, Embedded Symmetries (Dorothy K. Washburn, ed., University of New Mexico Press, 2004) emphasizes how human beings are limited by nature in their abilities to recognize and create symmetry in a broad array of social contexts.

In a continued effort to make the definition and classification of symmetries clearer, the first two chapters of the present work articulate the methodological ground for the analyses to follow. The authors emphasize the importance of understanding the limitations that technological, environmental, and cultural factors impose on each material that is used to generate symmetries in any given society. What media is considered a suitable means to carry certain types of information? How is information encoded properly in the materialized symbols? How has this form of signifier been perceived by observers—consciously or not? These are among important and interesting subjects framed for further exploration.

Through examining the way that a floor loom may be created, Carrie Brezine demonstrates that, given the lack of definite technical difficulties in creating nonhexagonal symmetry with a floor loom, the possible reasons for certain symmetrical patterns being generated and circulated in any given group must reside in the realm of cultural preferences rather than being simply a result of technical difficulties. Paulus Gerdes highlights how Yombe mat weavers used various weaving patterns to make the twills look, at first sight, as if they were created according to the desired pattern, while on closer examination, through symmetry analysis, one is able to identify the significant differences. The underlying cultural reasons of such an effort to mask the real symmetrical pattern are yet to be studied. Again, by studying how Chinchero weavers of Peru use complicated weaving techniques to convey certain patterns, E. M. and C. R. Franquemont illustrate how technological constrains are not a factor that limits Chinchero weavers' ability to generate symmetric patterns. The weaving of the textiles, they argue, should be conceived as “instruments of cognition and communication,” as it is through physical participation that weavers “organize themselves symmetrically, and the process of weaving depends upon engaging in symmetrical and reciprocal activity” (p. 208). Thus symmetry does not only exist in the final product but also in the social lives of manufacturers.

Once limitations that are imposed by manufacturing techniques and/or the procuring of raw materials are shown to be minor or unessential in the production of particular desired crafts, one may then proceed to discuss what cultural factors may govern the use of symmetries in representational arts. For example, Frank Jolles illustrates how social and political changes from the 1920s to the 1960s were reflected on Zulu women's colorful beaded belts by exploring how symmetry interacts with color in a contextual way. Through study of Nasca textiles from the Paracas Necropolis site, Mary Frame demonstrates how cosmic structure and the conceptual ordering of various creatures is presented through a complex system of symmetries that describe the various patterns of motion characteristic of each creature illustrated. Frame is then able to argue for the importance of directional oppositions in the symmetrical patterns used by Andean textile weavers to distinguish “categories of animals, their typical modes of locomotion, and their place in the cosmos” (p. 164).

By examining the same group of ceramic samples, Dorothy Washburn devotes great effort to illustrating how different kinds of information may be gained by using symmetry analysis. While a more traditional “features and themes” analysis of Ica pottery demonstrated how the powerful Inca had brought in preferential motifs that were later borrowed by local Ica potters, symmetry analysis reveals the continuity of local design structure. What is fundamental was kept the same, while the superficial appearance may have been modified according to various political interests.

In an ethnographic study of Shipibo-Conibo designs, Peter G. Roe explores how one may be able to trace the cosmological principles of a culture, and how one may use the symmetry observed in the final work to actually identify individual artists as well as characterizing the relationships found among nearby groups. Likewise, Patricia Daugherty examines how the cultural concerns and social experiences of the Yörük women of southern Turkey are evident in their arrangement and execution of motifs in textiles, bringing forward a possibility for future researchers to persuade a better understanding of the underlying reasons that move the artists to reinforce their desires in the design structure of their work.

In short, this book illustrates how one may organize the structures of design using symmetry as the baseline for classifying art structures in “their contextual relationships with their larger cultural whole” (Dorothy K. Washburn, Structure and Cognition in Art, Cambridge University Press, 1983, p. 7). Yet, without strong ethnographic data to provide the contexts within which a particular symmetry is used, it seems very unlikely that one may achieve such a rich interpretation by merely investigating the forms of symmetrical structure utilized. By exploring the techniques required to produce a certain design and by identifying the culturally preferred symmetric rules, archaeologists may further generate interpretations by looking for more general and universal properties of design styles. Yet, what may be the contributing factors that caused and reinforced the choice of such a symmetrical structure, and eventually, which might promote the change or abandonment of such designs in any given society, will still need to be researched with other realms of data and techniques of analysis. A more ambitious goal of the symmetry analysis approach may be to further investigate whether the same set of symmetric rules of a given group are applied to various art designs made of different raw materials, or if, in particular instances, there are different symmetrical design structures used in different social occasions of the group. Such a goal may only be achieved after long-term investigations, and the result is eagerly waited.


  1. 1. See Dorothy K. Washburn (1999) Perceptual Anthropology: The Cultural Salience of Symmetry. American Anthropologist 101(3):543–562, 547.

Scarlett Chiu is an assistant research fellow of the Center for Archaeological Studies at the Research Center for Humanities and Social Sciences of the Academia Sinica in Taiwan. Her doctoral studies in archaeology were undertaken at the University of California at Berkeley, where her dissertation focused on Lapita pottery production and exchange in New Caledonia. She is interested in questions related to ways of constructing social complexity through means of material expressions, such as Lapita decorative motifs, among the early populations of the Pacific.