Signs in Human Hands: A Model for the Intonated Object



Artifacts deemed to have played a religious or ritual role in past societies belong to a broader analytical category of “symbolic” material culture. This chapter explores a new approach to such material culture, in which each symbolic object is understood as a “once-occurrent” dialogic interaction involving (1) coded cultural content, (2) particular material and contextual attributes, and (3) a situated synthesizing human perspective. Drawing on the work of Mikhail Bakhtin among others, an embodied semiotic approach to symbolic objects is outlined, which identifies the constitution of the object not in its elusive past meaning but in the unique and dynamic relationship of its component parts. This approach positions the human actor not merely as an external evaluator of the object but as a fundamental element of its very definition. Discussion of a group of seal stones from Bronze Age Crete illustrates these ideas.