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Keywords:

  • [materiality;
  • semiotics;
  • ritual;
  • symbolic material culture;
  • craft]

ABSTRACT

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. The First Aspect of the Dialectic: The Object as a Coded Expression
  4. The Second Aspect of the Dialectic: The Object as a Physical Manifestation
  5. In Human Hands: Symbolic Objects as Experienced Occurrences in the Lived World
  6. An Example from the Glyptic Corpus of Bronze Age Crete
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

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.

Artifacts deemed to be of a religious or ritual nature belong to a broader category of hypothetically “symbolic” objects. Although such objects are often considered important points of contact with rich elements of a past group's cultural worldview, they also frequently constitute a residual interpretive grouping, obstinately beyond the reach of standard analytical methodologies. The past meaning of symbolic artifacts remains elusive, and developing systematic means for querying the significant roles they played in people's cultural lives continues to challenge archaeologists.

What I propose here might be called an “embodied semiotic approach” to symbolic objects such as postulated religious or ritual artifacts. I am specifically interested in engaging with the inevitable embodiment of any semiotic relationships that are actually a part of lived human experience. Hence the interpretive model I outline problematizes the tension at play in a symbolic object between, on the one hand, its hypothesized role as a recognizable instance of a conventionally coded symbolic expression and, on the other, its existence as a particular material object, whose manifestation and appreciation reflect specific and momentary lived circumstances. These two aspects of the symbolic object are seen not merely to coexist but to mutually inform one another as parts of a unitary dialogic interaction that would also involve a situated person. In this way the model seeks to open the symbolic object so that we can appreciate the particular and rich dynamics at work in each, as a realized event.

The specific character of the symbolic object's constitutive interaction is that of a situated, momentary dialectic relationship constituted by three principal components: (1) the object's relationship to a conventionalized cultural concept (a “symbolic” expression); (2) the sensuous attributes of its realized manifestation within a particular lived context; and (3) the human perspective, positioned within that lived context, which synthesizes the previous two elements by way of both a knowledge of cultural codes and contact with the particularities of the situated manifest physical object. The model is well suited to the archaeological perspective, since it places interpretive emphasis on the particularities met in each artifact within the archaeological record, by treating each as a unique, materialized instance of this dialectic interaction. Given its systematic treatment of an object's interrelated signifying and realized dynamics, the model is especially useful for those archaeologists dealing with religious and ritual objects, who are not interested in proffering interpretations of past meaning but still seek a sense of an object's rich significance in past experience. As such, this chapter suggests a new interpretive approach to postulated religious and ritual artifacts, which embeds them fully within the momentary lived world, as parts of the interactive fabric of humans, landscapes, and things.

The chapter proceeds in four parts. In the first section, I discuss the first half of the dialectic relationship constituting a symbolic object, namely the conventionally coded symbolic expression identified with the piece. This discussion involves a brief consideration of archaeologists’ interpretation of material culture in semiotic terms. My aim with this is not to provide a detailed examination of archaeology's engagement with semiotics (see Preucel 2006) but instead to explore how recognizing some of the semiotic dimensions of an archaeologist's work can help us in the process of reflectively developing a new analytical approach geared specifically toward symbolic objects. The dynamics of religious and ritual subcodes are discussed in terms of their identification in the archaeological record and their cultural/contextual particularity. In the second section, I turn to the second half of the object's constitutive dialectic, its particular material manifestation. Here I explore the unique tension that is at play in each symbolic object as a culturally coded symbol inevitably takes on the realized dimensions of an actual situated occurrence in the lived material world.

In the third section I analyze the synthesizing activity that takes place as a person actually engages with the symbolic object, simultaneously unifying the two aspects of the dialectic into a single dynamic whole. This analysis incorporates the work of two theorists. First, Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of intonation in an utterance is explored as analogy for the manifest symbolic object. Bakhtin's stress on the immediate, “once-occurrent” value of an answerable act serves as a strong link to the particularity of an object's value when experienced by a person in a given context. Second, I draw from Michael Schiffer's theory of communicative interaction in order to see each object in terms of a “complex interaction” of its various elements. This view not only accords the object temporal/spatial dimension and particularity but also provides for the central role of the culturally and physically situated human in the definition of material culture, by positioning her as the “receiver” within this complex interaction.

Finally, an example from my own research with Bronze Age Cretan glyptic illustrates an application of the model and its utility in the archaeological interpretive process. The case I consider uses the concept of intonation in order to problematize a group of ivory stamp seals, uncovered in contexts across Crete, whose remarkably consistent style and iconography represent a powerful expression of emergent transregionality at a moment of dramatic social change on the island. The consistency of the seals’ symbolic expression of transregionality is complicated by empirically demonstrable finer-level variations within the glyptic group, which suggest particular local interaction networks. I argue that in order to appreciate the dynamic sociocultural role of these objects, their symbolized transregional and realized local dimensions must be seen as engaged in a productive dialogue, and not simply as coincidental attributes of the artifactual corpus.

The First Aspect of the Dialectic: The Object as a Coded Expression

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. The First Aspect of the Dialectic: The Object as a Coded Expression
  4. The Second Aspect of the Dialectic: The Object as a Physical Manifestation
  5. In Human Hands: Symbolic Objects as Experienced Occurrences in the Lived World
  6. An Example from the Glyptic Corpus of Bronze Age Crete
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

Archaeology can be viewed quite usefully as a semiotic endeavor.1 This pertains not only to the process by which an archaeologist considers the archaeological record (Molino 1992) but also to the basic nature of one of archaeology's principal analytical subjects, culture, and its multifold manifestations. For the sake of the present discussion, semiotics provides analytical terms that we can engage with, problematize, and build on in order to approach the topic of human interaction with conventionalized cultural concepts. Hence before proposing a model specifically for the symbolic object, it will be helpful to briefly consider the semiotic dimensions of archaeologists’ interpretation of material culture more generally.

When identifying a given artifact as “symbolic,” an archaeologist is often hypothesizing that it is not fully explained by its immediate attributes, and thus supposes that its past “thick” significance must lie somewhere beyond its apparent material existence, in a realm of “symbolized” meaning. But this signifying dynamic is in a sense at play in all examples of material culture. Consider that a very simple definition of a sign (working at the level of shared culture) is “everything that, on the grounds of a previously established social convention, can be taken as something standing for something else” (Eco 1979:16), in other words, as something that points beyond itself for its meaning. Thus in the case of material things acting as signs, we should understand that an object's apparent form, taken as such, does not fully account for its meaning. In fact, an object's apparent form never fully accounts for its meaning, as all culturally recognized objects can be understood, in part, as signs.

Such signs represent the building blocks of cultural codes and can consequently be identified as “cultural units.” Very simply put, a cultural unit represents the conventionalized notion of an entity within a culture (Eco 1979:67) or, in other words, a sign referring to specific cultural content. Taken in this light, the notion of any discrete entity—be it material or immaterial, a physical object or even an emotion—can be understood in one respect as conceptual semantic content that has been recognized and isolated by a culture.2 These notions, however, are generated, transformed, reproduced, and abandoned by people acting in the lived world, who experience cultural, social, and personal ideas as part of their embodied presence in particular momentary contexts.

From this perspective interpretation of past culture appears as the hypothesizing of tentative organizing cultural codes, comprised of hypothetical cultural units, which constitute the archaeologist's working framework for a past group's “socially established structures of meaning” (Geertz 1973:12–13). With these codes, the archaeologist makes assumptions as to the way in which uncovered objects related to the conceptual world of the group as tokens of postulated cultural units. A pot, a figurine, an artistic style, a hearth, a spindle whorl—all of these become identified instances of hypothesized cultural units. The archaeologist thus populates her working semiotic structure—that is, her idea of the culture—through instances of its material manifestation, deciding how specific artifacts will be classified, by determining how she will understand their particular position within the hypothetical cultural schema.

The cultural unit, on its own, seems a static and unreal entity, which is rather unconvincing as a means of discussing actualized human experience. Yet it is valuable to explicitly engage with and question the unit in order to recontextualize it within a more vital interpretive approach. To this end, we can use the cultural unit to consider the first component of a culturally recognized object's defining dialectic, highlighting the object's aspect as a cultural sign, or coded expression. The object gains a certain level of constancy in this respect, as an understood and thus recognizable entity in the cultural world; this is what stabilizes (although never fully) the notion of something from one moment and one human to the next. With this, the cultural object is further able to play a powerful social role as a means of communication and shared experience. A person familiar with relevant cultural knowledge would potentially identify an object with a given cultural unit, thereby decoding its cultural meaning. That the expressed meaning could be relatively consistent from one person's encounter with the object to another's reveals that the object's coded expression holds a degree of conventionalization. As Michael Schiffer notes, such individual encounters between an object and a human can constructively be seen as moments of communication in themselves (between the object and the person), yet naturally the object can also be used as a communicative device in situations of more “traditional” communication occurring between humans (Schiffer 1999:7, 31). In such instances, the interpersonal communicative event can be successful because both the sender and addressee derive a similar meaning from the object, and they can hence use the object to communicate that meaning (or a larger meaning of which it is but a part) to one another.

An appreciation of the coded aspect of material culture moreover draws attention to the fundamental role of the human in determining the definition of a given object. Depending on the knowledge and experience with which a person recognizes it, an object can be identified with variously demarcated semantic content—indeed, for all intents and purposes, it will be different things according to the associations a human makes with the object as it is experienced in a given context. Thus the same physical entity could be both a cooking pot and a ritual vessel, depending upon the cultural context in which, and with which, a person approaches it. Such variation, however, naturally also works at more nuanced levels, so that, for example, while two cultures might both recognize an object as a ritual vessel, this identification might nevertheless carry quite different connotations in each case.

Working with a semiotic approach to objects permits us to open each artifact for consideration in an extended sense, by drawing attention to its conceptual aspect and the human role implied therein. At the same time, if we understand all culturally defined objects to have a signifying dimension, the referential distinctiveness of symbolic objects seems to dissolve. Yet a useful, if imposed distinction remains, which permits us to separate out certain objects for analysis under this designation.

When an artifact is identified as a “symbolic” object, it typically means that the archaeologist postulates the piece to represent an explicit instance of signification, as part of a past cultural code. In other words, the archaeologist hypothesizes that the object in question was consciously utilized as a conventionalized means for signifying a particular meaning or effect,3 perhaps as part of an intentionally constructed symbolic system, such as iconography. Working along these lines, we can distinguish within the broader corpus of signifying codes that permeate every piece of material culture (as cultural units) a symbolic category, which was used knowingly.

It is important to note that, taken in these terms, a symbol, while recognized as an act of explicit signification, is not intrinsically different from other signs. Symbols, like all signs, can present myriad different paths and structures between signified content and signifier. Likewise, through different momentary contexts within the lived world, there can be great variation in the relationships that take form between the shared conceptual/experiential dimensions of cultural symbols, on the one hand, and persons’ embodied interactions with actual, particular tokens, on the other. The fact that these specific instances of signification (symbols) are thought by the archaeologist to have been evident to a past group does not imply that they operated in a peculiar manner.

This being said, criteria have been proposed, popular in analyses from various disciplines, through which the broad corpus of cultural signs can be segmented qualitatively into finer categories. Peirce proposed three distinct categories of signs (symbol, icon, index) on the basis of such criteria (Peirce 1931–58, vol. 2:281, 285, and 297–302). While such systematic subdivisions of signs are unquestionably useful within certain analyses, the present discussion seeks to proceed at a level below such postulated distinctions, focusing on the relationship not between signified content and signifying form, but between sign and manifest token. Further, I am working from an understanding that the arbitrariness characterizing the relationship between signified content and a signifying form, while definitional to Peirce's “symbolic” category, is not necessarily limited to any single group of signs and therefore does not distinguish a symbol from other signs. Instead, following Eco (1979:190, 200) I accept that there is potentially an element of arbitrariness working within many varieties of signs, including signs that would fall into all three categories of the Peircean triad. It is important then to reiterate that a distinction as “symbolic” in the present discussion does not refer to the quality of a sign's particular structure or functioning but to a projected distinction upon that sign, based on the archaeologist's hypothesis that it was part of an archaic consciously constructed and utilized system of signification.

Working in these terms, the archaeologist's interpretive undertaking can be understood to involve the postulation of organizing hypothetical cultural codes. These codes guide the interpretation and classification of artifacts and other archaeological phenomena. Yet naturally the material can also force the archaeologist to adjust her semiotic model. This occurs when phenomena encountered cannot be accounted for within the working schema of codes. In such a moment, the archaeologist must adjust or expand such hypothetical codes in order to provide for the encountered phenomenon. This could involve amending the current codes or hypothesizing further codes, or subcodes, in a process that Eco refers to as “overcoding” (Eco 1979:54–57, 129–130).

Subcodes have the same intrinsic structure as codes in general, being distinguished more as a matter of their layering, rather than due to a difference in their design. Subcodes, whether explicit or undetected, are in fact simply codes that have been built upon other codes, so that a cultural unit from one code functions as the signifying plane for another cultural unit of a further (sub)code. For example, a cultural code may provide for a particular form of clay object to be recognized as a drinking cup, fitting for the consumption of wine. This recognition represents a first level of coding. A person could associate an actual material object with the concept of the wine cup if he feels that the object in question possesses certain attributes that have been conventionally associated with the vessel type. However, if the clay cup was used or found in a grave, it might receive a further layer of coding, allowing it to be recognized, for example, as a ritual vessel signifying ancestral worship through a drinking rite. Such a second level of meaning reflects the effective existence of a subcode, in which the concept of ritualized ancestral worship is connoted through the primary sign (in which the object first denoted the concept of drinking wine). This second level of meaning, associated with the cup as a symbolic object, thus can be seen as part of a ritual subcode, potentially having links to other ideas, actions, and objects.

As this example demonstrates, we can understand ritual and religion as realms of human thought and activity involving rich subcodes of signification. This understanding has been extremely influential in the sociological and anthropological disciplines, wherein some scholars have approached religion and ritual as conceptual structures through which a culture builds and expresses a worldview. Geertz, for example, defined religion in such semiotic terms, as

(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. [Geertz 1973:90]

Despite (or due to) the potentially great significance and rich meanings of objects thought to have been involved in people's religious notions and ritual practices, they are problematic choices for interpretation. Yet naturally they are also attractive pieces for consideration. One of the principal problems posed to archaeologists by religious and ritual artifacts, like other symbolic objects, is simply the matter of their identification within the archaeological record. Efforts have been made to delineate interpretive means through which to approach the material more systematically. Colin Renfrew has outlined certain criteria as “archaeological indicators of ritual” (Renfrew 1994:51–52). These lists outline circumstances met in the archaeological record that may indicate past ritual/religious action or meaning. However, by approaching religion/ritual as a symbolic subcode that intentionally points beyond its apparent forms to signified meanings, it becomes apparent that associating material artifacts with religion often involves a negative identification, not a positive one. One frequently relies on assumptions that rule out other potential roles for an artifact in order to arrive at a religious classification (e.g., asserting that an object is not simply a cup, but instead a sacred chalice). Renfrew himself comments on this “residual” nature of ritual or religious interpretive categories (as well as other symbolic categories he does not specifically treat), which are turned to when one is unable to locate an apparent “rational, ‘functional’” identification for an object, and instead defers to such symbolic categorizations that are “defined principally by the absence of something else, namely a good alternative explanation” (Renfrew 1994:52).

Given the interpretive difficulties they pose and the richness of their potential roles in the contexts of people's lived experience, we have ample motivation to reconfigure our approach to these artifacts. To this end, the model I propose for symbolic objects probes artifacts for a constitutive dynamism, thereby providing an effective challenge to the negative identification of religious and ritual material. On the other hand, the model resists venturing into questions of past signified meanings. Instead, focus is on querying the particular and momentary dialectic that comes into play as a human interacts with an object that actively relates signified and manifest aspects as parts of a unified whole.

The Second Aspect of the Dialectic: The Object as a Physical Manifestation

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. The First Aspect of the Dialectic: The Object as a Coded Expression
  4. The Second Aspect of the Dialectic: The Object as a Physical Manifestation
  5. In Human Hands: Symbolic Objects as Experienced Occurrences in the Lived World
  6. An Example from the Glyptic Corpus of Bronze Age Crete
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

Having considered symbolic objects for their conventionally signifying dynamics, we can now explore how such dynamics would occur in the lived world, in material dimensions experienced by people as manifest tokens. Up until this point, we have discussed objects more as “social forces” than as empirical realities (Eco 1979:65). Yet it is essential to understand the value of an object not merely as a conceptual entity but also as a realized physical event. This approach deliberately moves us away from seeing signs and symbols as first emerging in and belonging to an abstract conceptual sphere, only subsequently to be mapped onto the material world. Instead, we can consider how symbols as objects emerge in dialogue with and as a part of the rest of the lived world, including humans, landscapes, things, and so on. This perspective, which embeds the production of symbols into the experienced world, follows the assertion of Merleau-Ponty that “the world is not an object such that I have in my possession the law of its making; it is the natural setting of, and field for, all my thoughts and all my explicit perceptions” (Merleau-Ponty 2008:xi–xii).

As archaeologists, we are familiar with approaching questions of cultural and social action in material terms. Hence, as interpreters, we are especially well positioned to understand the importance of treating the symbolic object as a manifest materiality with particular surfaces, textures, odors, and lines experienced by people. These real material dimensions of the objects are not separated from the conceptual ones. Instead, both necessarily occur together, in the momentary event of the object experienced as an object.

Indeed, neither aspect of the symbolic object could exist without the other: a concept must be realized in the lived world in order to be experienced—in order to be; likewise an object or event, material or immaterial, must carry conceptual dimensionality if it is to have cultural existence. These simultaneous aspects are thus inevitably related in each symbolic object. It is their unique, humanly performed synthesis that forms the object's (or another cultural event’s) particular value.

This combination does not simply join a coded expression with a physical form, but produces a positive newness. This occurs as the explicitly symbolic and manifest elements of an object mutually inform and thereby affect the experienced cultural reality of one another. This is a situated, momentary occurrence. Certainly a person brings to her experience (and understanding) of a symbolic object knowledge of cultural conventions, including symbolic subcodes, as well as memories and previous associations. Yet in each particular object she also encounters realities (material attributes, contextual associations, etc.) that are not predicted by a cultural code or prior association, but which nevertheless carry significance. Hence the knowledge and experience with which a person approaches a symbolic object are always transformed, in essence, in the new “present” context of their occurrence as an embodied material thing, where they merge with unforeseen attributes and circumstances. This actualized synthesis is the sensuous token object, constituted as it is experienced by a person in the lived world. In this way each token tells a story of its own, which is nevertheless significantly related—through recognized symbolic forms and associations—to other tokens’ stories.

As an example, consider the Christian cross. The cross is a central symbol of Christian iconography, replete with multifold moral and social connotations. Crosses appear in many different forms. Each token cross thus carries cultural information beyond that of its central conventionalized signification, born of its particular manifestation. Simply considering two crosses made of different materials makes this clear. When people interact with a cross fashioned of gold it certainly has the potential to influence their conception of the signified divine (as something with a sense of richness, loftiness, fineness), and at the same time it would also affect their cultural understanding of gold, by expanding its signified content to potentially include concepts of the sacred. Conversely, a cross roughly hewn of wood connotes a rather different conception of that divine and its mythology and also opens the signification of wood as a signifier of ideas of modest humbleness and unadorned piety. Likewise, the tactile differences between two such tokens would distinguish a person's experience of each. The smooth, sharp edges of a gold cross would feel quite different in a person's hands than the uneven texture and softer angles of a wooden piece, potentially conjuring different associations and ideas.

As this example demonstrates, each aspect of an object becomes an immediate and mutual influence on the positioning of the other within a cultural value sphere, thereby producing a total value for the object that was not foreseeable by either aspect taken alone but that emerges, instead, from their unique combination. In this way a symbolic object represents an instance of productive interaction, standing not merely as a tool within an interaction (which of course it could also be), but itself as the locus and outcome of a dialectic interaction between the different elements that comprise it and the situated human whose cultural perspective recognizes them.

In Human Hands: Symbolic Objects as Experienced Occurrences in the Lived World

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. The First Aspect of the Dialectic: The Object as a Coded Expression
  4. The Second Aspect of the Dialectic: The Object as a Physical Manifestation
  5. In Human Hands: Symbolic Objects as Experienced Occurrences in the Lived World
  6. An Example from the Glyptic Corpus of Bronze Age Crete
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

In an effort to better understand the character of the dialectic interaction at the core of the symbolic object, we can draw a useful analogy to the dynamics of the spoken utterance as discussed by Mikhail Bakhtin. Specifically, the relationship between linguistic expression and the intonation it receives as it is spoken parallel respectively the coded symbolic expression of a symbolic object and the particularities of its actual manifestations. As Bakhtin explains, “An actually pronounced word cannot avoid being intonated, for intonation follows from the very fact of its being pronounced” (Bakhtin 1999:32n). Likewise, a symbol, when realized in the physical world, cannot be without the sensuous dimensions of its particular material existence, for they are the means and consequence of its manifestation (cf. Lazzari 2005:129).

In both the intonated spoken utterance and the manifest symbolic object we have clear examples of the dialectic relationship existing between conventionalized code and actualized existence. Bakhtin uses the Russian term postupok to refer to the latter, representing the world of the “once-occurrent event of Being” (Bakhtin 1999:esp. 3, 81 n. 10; literally, “a performed act/deed”; see also Bakhtin 1999:xii, xix). As a part of the larger notion of postupok, Bakhtin does not limit the phenomenon of intonation to the spoken word but sees it more broadly as the unique form that any event or thing takes when it is realized in the lived, historical world, thus affecting “everything that is actually experienced” (Bakhtin 1999:33).

As is argued here specifically for the material symbolic object, Bakhtin stresses that, in assessing an “actual and affirmed” value (Bakhtin 1999:33) for any act, a human considers neither its objective semantic content nor its realized (and thus intonated) empirical form alone: both are considered together, their synthesis being the once-occurrent, unique value of that event:

An act of our activity, of our actual experiencing, is like a two-faced Janus. It looks in two opposite directions: it looks at the objective unity of a domain of culture and at the never-repeatable uniqueness of actually lived and experienced life. But there is no unitary and unique plane where both faces would mutually determine each other in relation to a single unique unity. It is only the once-occurrent event of Being in the process of actualization that can constitute this unique unity.[Bakhtin 1999:2, emphasis added]

And further:

The actually performed act—not from the aspect of its content, but in its very performance—somehow knows, somehow possesses the unitary and once-occurrent being of life; it orients itself within that being, and it does so, moreover, in its entirety—both in its content-aspect and in its actual, unique factuality.[Bakhtin 1999:28, emphasis added]

For Bakhtin, an act is “answerable” with relation to the lived context in which it occurs. This means that the act, performed by a person, is responsive to its surrounding sociocultural particularities, including other acts, and hence is always situated (and in turn, other acts are responsive to this act) (see Bakhtin 1990, 1999; Holquist 1990). The unique answerability of an occurrent act thus brings it into “dialogue” with the realities of its manifestation. The role of the human is critical to Bakhtin's understanding of answerability. It is the historically grounded person who brings into being the dialogic act, through a consciousness that unavoidably makes the act a matter of the momentary experienced material world in which it is performed, as a part of that world. The human alone unifies the act and its manifestation. The passage quoted above thus continues:

This answerability of the actually performed act is the taking-into-account in it of all the factors—a taking-into-account of its sense-validity as well as of its factual performance in all of its concrete historicity and individuality. [Bakhtin 1999:28, emphasis added]

This “taking-into-account,” the charge of the human, clearly works at various levels. For certain discussions, such as Bakhtin's own consideration of morality, it is necessary to consider the human knowledge and perspective behind such a judgment at the scale of the individual social actor. However, concerning archaeological approaches to symbolic objects, our subject is often defined at the level of hypothetical members of a culture or subculture. We thus depend upon patterned data to suggest past group-level instances of valuation (the grouping usually pertaining to the parameters of a given context, which could be sub-site, regional, etc.). In these hypothetical instances, a situated person encountering a symbolic object would have merged knowledge of cultural symbolic codes with her experience of the object's particular realized manifestation (a token). In this way the human constituted the situated object.

The situated experience of that particular object would become, in turn, part of the corpus of knowledge and prior experience that that person brought to future interactions with other symbolic objects. Thus a chain or web of embodied interactions would be at play (Figure 11.1): every manifest symbolic object—understood as a momentary interaction between conventionalized symbolic elements, elements born of its manifestation, and a person who experienced both together—would be both the product of and a contributing force in the constitution of other symbolic objects (this schema in some senses coincides with both the perpetuated responsiveness of Bakhtin's notion of answerability and Peirce's understanding of infinite semiosis; Peirce 1984:207–208).

image

Figure 11.1. The momentary interaction constituting the intonated symbolic object, in which a situated person synthesizes conventionalized cultural knowledge (e.g., of symbolic codes) and prior experience with the present experienced materiality of a particular object; this interaction, in turn, contributes to the person's experience of other objects.

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In order to further build an understanding of the symbolic object as an interaction occurring in a particular momentary cultural context, it will be useful to borrow from Michael Schiffer's theory of material communication (Schiffer 1999). With his reconsideration of human communication, Schiffer posits the need to broaden conceptions of communication beyond what he sees as a social-science bias for the interpersonal (Schiffer 1999:11–12). To do so, he demonstrates the central role of objects, not merely as communication tools but even as “primary interactors” communicating information to humans (Schiffer 1999:26). He thus places new focus upon the potentiality of objects to interact with each other and with humans, stressing that communication, as an integral aspect of the process of interaction, in fact stems, through inference, “from all kinds of interactors in the material realm” (Schiffer 1999:9).

In Schiffer's paradigm, an object is seen to directly communicate with a receiver who is capable of inferring certain information from its performance. Schiffer further stresses the multiplicity of interactors that can simultaneously act to create a communicative moment, in what he terms a “complex interaction” (Schiffer 1999:15–16). In such situations, the receiver infers information from many interactors at the same time, as they add to and shape the message received through their unique combination. I wish to highlight that in this scenario, the nature of the message communicated is dependent upon the receiver who extracts or recognizes certain information provided by a given object. Moreover, as the receiver is in fact one of the interactors in a complex interaction, it is possible to assert that in this context it is positioned as the defining interactor. For the purposes of the present discussion, I would prefer to replace the terminology of “communication” with the notion of “being in dialogue with,” thus tacking back into Bakhtin's work (see Holquist 1990). In this light, a complex interaction would be seen as multiple objects being in interactive dialogue with each other and a human receiver.

Schiffer's attention to the role of the material world in processes of mutually informative interaction is highly useful for our discussion of symbolic objects. Specifically, I believe we can effectively draw from Schiffer's analysis in order to further develop an understanding of how each object stands as an interaction in itself. This opens the symbolic object for analysis by (1) providing terms through which to consider the dialectic interaction between a conventionally coded expression and the realized aspects of the object's manifestation as a token and (2) recognizing anew the role of a situated, culturally informed human perspective that synthesizes these different aspects of the object, and which is thus itself a part of the object's interactive constitution.

Translating this into Schiffer's terms, the symbolic object is understood to have the dynamic form of a complex interaction. As such, it involves both symbolic and material component interactors, which are synthesized by a situated human receiver. In this way a person is seen to participate in the dialogic event of the object. It is the person who identifies certain component interactors with a coded symbolic expression based on the cultural knowledge and experience that she brings to the moment of her engagement with the object. It is also, simultaneously, from this person's perspective that the symbolic component interactors are seen to be involved in a mutually informing dialogue with other component interactors that characterize the object's particular material manifestation. In this way the symbolic component interactors are effectively intonated by those pertaining to the object's situated materiality, so that we can refer to the latter as “intonative component interactors.” Through this interaction the symbolic object acquires its actual, momentary, intonated form, as a once-occurrent event.

There are two primary benefits for the archaeologist in adopting an understanding of the symbolic object as an interaction along these lines. First, it emphasizes the object as an event that occurs in the particular times and spaces of a cultural (or subcultural) group, recognizing that the object's value would fundamentally change if removed from these contexts. Second, it provides for the person, as a member of the cultural group, to be considered within the interactive fabric of an object, poised as the deciding force within its very definition. The person hence is positioned as the third, synthesizing component of the object's defining dialectic. By systematically recognizing this human element at such a fundamental, embedded level within our understanding of material culture, the archaeologist can newly problematize interconnections between objects and specific aspects of human experience. For example, the model opens a new way to consider topics such as identity and human agency and their role in the constitution of material culture connected to particular aspects of cultural experience, such as ritual.

An Example from the Glyptic Corpus of Bronze Age Crete

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. The First Aspect of the Dialectic: The Object as a Coded Expression
  4. The Second Aspect of the Dialectic: The Object as a Physical Manifestation
  5. In Human Hands: Symbolic Objects as Experienced Occurrences in the Lived World
  6. An Example from the Glyptic Corpus of Bronze Age Crete
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

At the transition from the Early to Middle Bronze Age, at the turn of the second millennium B.C.E., a distinctive group of engraved stamp seals was produced on Crete. These seals were typically carved of rare imported hippopotamus ivory, and they carried motifs rendered in an iconography that frequently involved lions—a beast not native to Crete. The “Parading Lions” seals (as the group is usually referred to; see Sbonias 1995; Yule 1981) stand as the first transregional stylistic and iconographic glyptic group on the island. The emergence of the seals as a transregional phenomenon is especially interesting given that it immediately precedes the appearance of the first “palaces” on the island, traditionally dated to the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age. Considering these objects through the model of the intonated object sheds greater light on their unique and dynamic position in the sociocultural sphere of this transformative phase on Crete.

During the Bronze Age, stamp seals were used on Crete to make impressed marks of identification. In order to be used as a stamp, a flat surface on the seal was engraved with a motif of some sort, which would be reproduced in the impressions made by that seal. Seal impressions were usually rendered in lumps of moist clay that could be attached to objects, often over points of closure. These sealed objects could be moved away from the human sealer (perhaps transferred to another site) while still carrying the mark of the seal. In the earliest glyptic phases on the island, seals were rendered in widely available materials such as soft stones and bone and were engraved with very simple motifs, usually made up of crossed lines or scratches. Yet toward the end of the Early Bronze Age seals began to carry more elaborate, distinctive intaglio motifs. It was at this time that ivory seals engraved with motifs of the Parading Lions group began to appear at sites around the island.

The seals constituting the Parading Lions group were remarkable for their unprecedented participation in a transregional stylistic glyptic movement. While all known Parading Lions seals were carved with motifs unique in their particular details, each of these differentiated motifs nevertheless was clearly and consciously rendered within the effective stylistic and iconographic parameters of the broader group. Persons carving or commissioning these seals were deliberately participating in a symbolic phenomenon that extended beyond themselves, beyond their local villages and regions, and that embraced persons living and acting in regions across the island (Figure 11.2).

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Figure 11.2. Sites on Crete at which Parading Lions material has been found (created with Google Maps).

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The symbolic expression of transregional sharedness embodied in the Parading Lions seals is clear, bold, and extremely important. The seals were typically carved in the same stamp-cylinder form, rendered of rare hippopotamus ivory, and carried similar motifs involving lions, often arranged in a rotating composition. Variations naturally existed—sometimes other creatures were depicted or the figures were incorporated into another compositional scheme—but all examples clearly belonged to the group. This was the first time that seals around the island were being produced in an elaborated, deliberately common style, employing a shared iconography. One can imagine different types of motivation, organization, and control that might have been at play concerning the production and ownership of these seals. Perhaps the Parading Lions style was a “fashion” of sorts, popularly valued for its aesthetic appeal and consequently widely and freely reproduced (although access to the imported ivory used for the seals would almost certainly have been limited). Conversely, possession of a Parading Lions seal may conceivably have signified a particular social status, or membership in a certain group or office (e.g., religious figures or community leaders). In any case, the widespread forging and reproduction of this stylistic movement seems to evidence a new type of transregional sociocultural consciousness on Crete. For the first time, persons were carefully crafting their seals—objects intimately related to social identity—so as to be similar to those of people who were situated in disparate regions, and of whom they potentially had little if any personal knowledge. Thus a new variety of symbol-based social knowledge was apparently taking form, in which the distant social other was deliberately rendered comparable to the social self, and vice-versa.4

But layers of complication subtended the explicit sameness signified through the shared style and iconography of the seals. If we treat each Parading Lions seal as a dialogic event, we can see that the differing material and contextual aspects of each would have rendered it a distinct symbolic object, significantly linkable to other Parading Lions seals but nevertheless having a unique existence in the lived sociocultural world. As such, each seal's form, as well as its perceived meaning, arose from particular circumstances in which it incorporated different component interactors into its constitutive fabric. As a person engaged with a seal as receiver, each of these components (contextual, material, symbolic, intonative) would have been influenced by the others. Hence not only was each seal unique, but each component incorporated therein—including the shared symbolic style and iconography—would have had a particularized existence given the context of each dialogic object. This approach to the Parading Lions seals permits us to problematize the organic life of the objects in the lived social landscape of later Pre-palatial Crete. From this perspective, each seal had the potential to act on simultaneous and interrelated levels, both as part of a collective (the broader Parading Lions stylistic movement) and as a unique, individual piece.

The transregionality of the Parading Lions stylistic/symbolic phenomenon was realized through the individual lives of the numerous seals and impressions. These objects can be seen as actors in the reconfiguration of the lived landscape of Crete, in which a new social landscape was being created in part through the objects’ movements and interactions with and between persons and places. The seals and impressions generated new positive streams of social relations, embodying connections between the people making, using, and interacting with the objects. The active and living result was a heterogeneous material social space, engaging human bodies, unified through moving bonds and fluid boundaries. Marisa Lazzari describes how such active spaces can come into being:

Thus circulating people and things also have the capacity to expand and/or compress “inter-subjective space-time,” the experience of space and time that is both constitutive and constituted by social relations. Traveling objects link people to places thereby building a landscape that is a dynamic, tense, collective creation, and thus, a large-scale social space. Circulating things and people refer to places and people that are not immediately present in everyday life, thus concretizing in material form the presence of other people and places. They render visible in daily life what is invisible to face-to-face interaction. Circulation thus reveals the entangled nature of social life, the “infinite reciprocity” between spheres of social practice (Simmel 1990:56). Through circulation and exchange, the landscape is woven as a sense object itself, which cannot be alienated from the bodies—humans, animals, plants, things—that dwell in it. As a dynamic collective creation, the landscape is a component of the lifeworld in perpetual exchange with other components. [Lazzari 2005:131]

Objects like the Parading Lions seals were occurrences taking place in and simultaneously creating such a dynamic land/social-scape on late Pre-palatial Crete. At a time of dramatic social change, the seals, and other symbolic objects, were part of a new mode of interactive experience (cf. Haggis 2007; Knappett 1999), which affected how people understood space, geography, and things to relate to themselves, and even how they themselves related to other people. Given this situation, querying the particular details of these object-occurrences stands as a promising means for considering how social change was in fact realized throughout this developing landscape.

A reconsideration of the Parading Lions seals through the model of the intonated object demonstrates the potential for such an approach. In particular, a close analysis of the objects’ physical attributes and consideration of their contextual factors reveals crucial intonative dimensions of the pieces that permit a more complex understanding of their role as symbolic objects. This is true despite the fact that depositional information for the Parading Lions objects is often inconveniently imprecise (in large part because many were found in unstratified communal tombs).

Fine-scale analysis of the extant Parading Lions material permits one to recognize a stylistic and technical heterogeneity underlying the group's remarkable transregional consistency.5 This heterogeneity was manifest on two interrelated levels. First, specific compositional types and organizational principles are shared between seals found at certain sites (but not at others), suggesting interactions between seal carvers (and perhaps also between seal users) at different locales. These interactions could have taken place either directly, face-to-face, or indirectly, through the objects (e.g., a seal carver observing another craftsperson's design at one site may have incorporated it into his own work at another; or a craftsperson [or his consumer] may have sought to replicate aspects of a seal obtained from another site for particular sociocultural reasons; or perhaps seals of certain compositional types were simply in circulation between interacting sealing communities at different sites, exposing carvers and users to particular themes and organizational principles; etc.). Second, evidence of particular stylistic techniques and devices, ranging from the conventions used for rendering lions’ manes to the depth in which figures were engraved, suggests that distinct microstyles were practiced at certain sites (style understood as a technical and aesthetic phenomenon, cf. Muller 1977; Wiessner 1984, 1985). A range of possible social scenarios could account for observable microstylistic links between sites (e.g., a seal engraver from one site may have been trained at another; or a seal user may have received a seal from a person at another site; etc.). The variable features linked to different subgroups each stand as distinct component interactors characterizing particular seals, and potentially linking them to others.

The Parading Lions group is well represented in the Mesara Plain in south-central Crete. Numerous round tholos tombs used in the Pre-palatial period (many also remaining in use into the Palatial periods) are located in this area, and many of the known ivory seals were found within these tombs. At least seven sites in the Mesara have produced Parading Lions seals, and more could easily emerge with future survey and excavation work. Among these sites, Platanos, located in the central portion of the Mesara, holds an exceptional prominence. Seven of the 10 subgroups of the Parading Lions macrostyle are represented at Platanos, more than at any other site on the island. Microstylistic peculiarities (technical and morphological component interactors) intonate objects found and potentially produced at different sites within the Mesara. However, in some cases, for example at Marathokephalo, links to Platanos also exist at this fine level of craft technique. This suggests the possibility that seal carvers working at a site like Marathokephalo may have been trained at Platanos.

It is clear that Platanos was a prominent hub in terms of the sociocultural interactions involved in Parading Lions seal production or consumption, or both, in the Mesara. While we do not yet have detailed information on the specific trajectories of foreign materials coming to and being moved around Crete during this period (although see Carter 1998), the dynamics of supply and exchange relationships between persons at different sites with access to hippopotamus ivory could account in part for Platanos’ position as a central node in the Parading Lions production.

Looking beyond the Mesara, the site of Archanes in central Crete also holds an outstanding position in terms of the occurrence of Parading Lions material. Most striking is Archanes’ apparent position as a gateway for the group's style and iconography. On the one hand, Archanes has strong links to the Mesara in terms of the subgroups represented at the site. In this direction, Archanes seems to have an especially strong relationship with Platanos. In fact, one subgroup, involving highly stylized compositions of rotating lions, consists entirely of pieces found at these two sites (Figure 11.3). While microstylistic differences bring a distinct local character to the examples from either Archanes or Platanos (e.g., the particular poses used to attain the rotational dynamics of the stylized rings of lions), the correspondence between the seals of the subgroup from the sites is remarkable.

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Figure 11.3. An ivory stamp seal from Platanos belonging to the Stylized subgroup of the Parading Lions group. Clockwise from lower left: drawing of impressed motif, seal impression, seal face with intaglio motif, stamp seal (CMS II1.250; Platon 1969).

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On the other hand, however, Archanes has equally strong links through the Parading Lions material to sites beyond the Mesara. Subgroups represented at sites from eastern, northern, and western Crete (e.g., Palaikastro, Knossos, Chamaleuri) are also found at Archanes. Meanwhile, pieces belonging to these particular subgroups have few if any direct links—in the way of fine-level stylistic or technical attributes—to seals from sites within the Mesara. Differences are clear, for example, if we compare the rendering of the bodies of lions and other creatures engraved as part of the seal motifs. On many pieces from the western, northern, and eastern segments of the island, and on some from Archanes, the bodies tend to be more deeply cut and rounded, and the features of the figures more indistinct than on the Mesara seals. These intonative distinctions suggest divergent technical and stylistic practices.

Given Archanes’ unique position, with significant ties to the Parading Lions traditions in both the Mesara and multiple regions beyond, it seems likely that persons designing, producing, or at least using seals at the site were interacting with seal-related communities in both “directions.” It is possible that design principles and technical practices in a sense traveled through Archanes, transforming in their finer points as they reached different communities. For example, the general tenets of the Parading Lions seal style and iconography may have been carried out of the Mesara to Archanes, whence they were in turn introduced to and intonated in the hands of persons coming from other sites, in other regions (although without better chronological data for the seals it is impossible to assert with certainty which subgroups, in which regions, emerged first). Archanes’ likely location along a major north–south route (Sakellarakis and Sapouna-Sakellaraki 1997:71–74) would support the possibility of its having been a point of passage and interaction for the Parading Lions group's stylistic and iconographic elements. Likewise, the hippopotamus ivory used for the seals may have also traveled along this route, perhaps in the other direction, coming from a port in the north and making its way to seal carvers in the Mesara. If this were the case, the strong links between Archanes and Platanos might reflect the social and perhaps economic interaction of two major craft communities. Further, links in craft could have potentially coincided with the sociopolitical status of these communities.

Working with the concept of intonated objects, we can see how the Parading Lions seals, as artifacts, convey the dynamics of a powerful tension that would have characterized their past sociocultural position on Bronze Age Crete. On the one hand, the deliberate transregionality of the shared glyptic style and iconography acted as a symbolic expression linking persons across the island as it was reproduced in numerous communities. This importantly suggests that a new type of extralocal interest was motivating the island's population. On the other hand, this symbolic expression was intonated by the real, grounded experiences of persons living in these different communities. These people obtained and worked the ivory in distinct ways, involving particular social connections realized through interactions in specific places, under specific circumstances. We can hypothesize that the content of the transregionality signified by the Parading Lions group would have been conditioned for particular communities, at a minimum, in accordance with the social relations exhibited by the subgroups and microstyles of each specific seal. In other words, people's notion of transregionality, symbolized in the Parading Lions seals, would to some degree have been shaped by the actual human and material interactions that they experienced, in which they obtained ivory through specific social networks linking certain communities, learned how to render lions in a particular manner via certain devices and conventions, designed a particular motif perhaps in discussion with another person, utilized specific tools employing specific microstylistic techniques to penetrate the object's smooth surface, and so on. Thus as the various Parading Lions subgroups and microstyles demonstrate the fluidity of the seals’ defining stylistic principles between different lived contexts, they also indicate how the symbolized notion of transregionality could likewise have fluctuated from context to context.

The sociocultural significance of the Parading Lions group arose from neither the seals’ symbolic nor empirical aspects alone. Instead, as treating the artifacts through the lens of intonation makes clear, it was the dialogic interaction between the seals’ symbolic sharedness and realized multiplicity that characterized their active role across the changing landscape. The objects suggest that a heterogeneously conceived, imaginary transregional community emerged on the island prior to formalized sociopolitical networks achieving the same extensive scope. The materials and practices that embodied the Parading Lions style still depended on localized social dynamics, which brought marked intonative distinctions to the seals and their signification of transregionality. This relatively quiet corpus of symbolic objects thus powerfully indicates that changes in cultural practices and materials in fact may have led the dramatic sociopolitical transformations of the later Pre-palatial and subsequent Palatial period (see Haggis 2002, 2007; Knappett 1999; Schoep 2006 for related discussions). It is by treating them as intonated objects that the tension residing within the Parading Lions objects becomes apparent, thereby reflecting their nuanced position within Crete's dynamic lived landscape.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. The First Aspect of the Dialectic: The Object as a Coded Expression
  4. The Second Aspect of the Dialectic: The Object as a Physical Manifestation
  5. In Human Hands: Symbolic Objects as Experienced Occurrences in the Lived World
  6. An Example from the Glyptic Corpus of Bronze Age Crete
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

The approach to material culture outlined here envisions the conceptual and material aspects of objects as engaged in unique dialogues with each other and people. Hence, given that the object is in fact seen to be constituted by that unique moment of dialogue, a division between concept and materiality cannot maintain, the object instead being a dialogic synthesis involving both inseparably. My discussion has focused on symbolic artifacts, taken as those objects that an archaeologist identifies as having been explicit acts of cultural coding. These objects were selected in part because it is often easier to isolate and distinguish the coded from the intonative aspects within symbolic objects than within other material culture. This being said, the dialectic core and intonative nature that I have posited here for the symbolic object could certainly be seen to extend to all objects recognized by a culture. Future discussion could explore and refine a more generalized approach to objects in these terms.

Notes
  • 1

    See Robert Preucel's Archaeological Semiotics (2006); other notable volumes on the subject include Gardin and Peebles 1992, Hodder 1982, and Hodder 1991, to name but a few.

  • 2

    This basic semiotic relationship has been discussed by numerous social scientists, to varied interpretive ends. Notably, Clifford Geertz describes the human process of producing and using signs in this way as the interplay of “models of” and “models for,” through which humans can both produce signs to represent other ideas and things and also understand signs as such representations (Geertz 1973:92–94). Despite the theoretical distance existing between his ideas of culture and those of Geertz, Ward Goodenough also points to this fundamental semiotic relationship, but through a structural linguistic-based notion of “iconic” and “non-iconic” signs: “any material object, event, or act to which people respond is necessarily an icon signifying a conceptual form of some kind,” and, continuing, “for a sign to be non-iconic, then, it must be other than material. While non-iconic signs signify conceptual forms, they are themselves conceptual forms, which are in turn signified by iconic signs” (Goodenough 1964:37–38). Goodenough's distinction between iconic and non-iconic is in many ways enveloped by Eco's two possible relationships between a sign-type and a token example of it, namely ratio facilis and ratio difficilis (Eco 1979:183ff.).

  • 3

    Alison Wylie (1982) suggests, however, that the signification performed by objects is less precise than that of other social and cultural codes, such as language.

  • 4

    I discuss this topic in far greater detail in my dissertation, “With Distance Made Near: The Changing Position of Identity in Early–Middle Minoan Crete as Reflected in Seals,” Yale University, 2009.

  • 5

    I conducted microscopic analyses on casts of the Parading Lions seals at the Corpus der Minoischen und Mykenischen Siegel (CMS) in Marburg, Germany, between 2006 and 2008. I am extremely grateful to Walter Müller and Ingo Pini for their assistance and support of my research in Marburg and their generous permission to reproduce images from the CMS publications in the present publication.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. The First Aspect of the Dialectic: The Object as a Coded Expression
  4. The Second Aspect of the Dialectic: The Object as a Physical Manifestation
  5. In Human Hands: Symbolic Objects as Experienced Occurrences in the Lived World
  6. An Example from the Glyptic Corpus of Bronze Age Crete
  7. Conclusion
  8. References
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