K. The archaeology of imagery: Exploring the theoretical frameworks of archeological interpretations of symbols, iconic features and visual culture

Organizers: Alexander Andreeff and Ylva Sjöstrand

Saturday, May 7th
1:30 – 5:00
Robert Sproul Room

That iconic features can be studied in order to achieve knowledge of the
social context in which they were produced must be considered as one of
the major axioms within archaeology. If images should be included in the
archaeological record this assumption is necessary, but still it’s
theoretical basis needs to be examined.  The emergence of such a task
relies on the fact that archaeologists tend to comprehend motifs and
meanings as synchronic entities. In short, a picture from the past tends
to be comprehended as a picture of the past. By identifying what an image
is depicting, we usually believe ourselves to know the content it is
The problem with such an approach is, of course, that the images’
connotative and metaphorical content becomes reduced. Just the slightest
look at images in our present world, such as commercial ads, logotypes, or
not least, all the iconic features that can be categorized under the
multifaceted concept of art, tells us that images mean other things than
they depict. When we see an image of an apple on a computer cover, we
don’t perceive it as a fruit. These kinds of examples are not exceptional,
in plenty of cases iconic understanding is based on association, and not
just on identification.
This session welcomes papers that address issues about the limitations and
possibilities of archeological understanding of iconic features and visual
culture. The discussion can be based on theoretical lines of argument or
empirical case studies.


From Description to Interpretation: On the Concept of Meaning in Rock Art Research

Ylva Sjöstrand, Stockholm University, ylva.sjostrand@ark.su.se

The concept of “meaning” has achieved its philosophical prominence from a row of well known thinkers. The topic’s pedigree makes the attempt to even slightly scratch its surface a complicated task. The questions that arise are both ontological, “what is meaning?” and epistemological, “how does meaning operate?” But even if these problems are impossible to solve once and for all, it is crucial that they become articulated and discussed. The reason is that all disciplines dealing with expressions of the human mind are dependent on a meaning-theoretical framework. This is certainly the case for archeology, and especially in the field of research dealing with visual culture from the past.  Our interpretations of, for example, a rock art composition, are in fact attempts to establish what this object means. For example, we might say that a zig-zag line “means” that shamanism has been actively performed during the Upper Paleolithic. But, which theories of meaning become reproduced in these kinds of interpretations? Which ideas of “the meaning of meaning” lie underneath? In my presentation I will outline and problematize what I believe is the “hidden theory of meaning” in rock art research. I will also present an alternative approach, based on an important distinction put forward by the American philosopher Susanne K Langer.

Seeing What is There – Cave Art, Perception, Doxa

Mats Rosengren, Södertörn University, mats.rosengren@sh.se

The discovery of Palaeolithic cave art in the late 19th century entailed many perceptual problems. Presenting the rhetorical take on knowledge and knowing— doxology— as an approach to epistemic and perceptual questions, this paper draws on the problematics of cave art and cognitive science to discuss the process of perception —what it takes to see what one sees— in caves (and elsewhere). Both our physical and our conceptual resources —the light of the sun as well as the light of the mind— are needed. The light of the mind is always inextricably linked to doxa.

Cybermaps and Iconic Interpretations in Archaeology

Maurizio Forte, University of California, Merced, mforte@ucmerced.edu

The analysis of iconic information in archaeology depends substantially on the re- contextualization of the original code. The gaps of time, space, and context prevent a correct interpretation. This paper aims to explore the possibility of interpreting iconographies throughout the creation of digital cybermaps and affordances: symbolic spaces constructed through abstract codes and simplified geometries representing a network of semiotic systems. Cybermaps are constructed around 3D key concepts linking metadata and affordances. Specific case studies concerning wall paintings will be discussed in order to study narrative iconographic sequences throughout 3D connections.

Prehistoric Lifestyles and Visual Culture as a Theoretical Model

Lolita Nikolova, International Institute of Anthropology, lnikol@iianthropology.org

The prehistoric visual culture embedded syncretic social-psychological components that had implanted in the prehistoric lifestyles the image – writing dichotomy known from later periods in a specific way.  I will utilize a cross-cultural comparison from perspectives of synchronic and diachronic development of prehistoric cultures in the context of integrative multi-disciplinary approach to the archaeological past.  I aim to show that the prehistoric imaginary was limited by norms, beliefs, and cognitive abilities of visual expression. Reproduction of the visual culture as a style may have been related to health strategies of orderly social life that also limited practicing of non-regulated imaginary, connected usually to the individual artists.

Images as Texts? Remarks on the History of Narrative Representation and Writing in Ancient Greece

Nikolas Papadimitriou, Princeton University, npapadim@princeton.edu

It is always easier for archaeologists to explore the symbolic connotations of narrative scenes than those of isolated, abstract images. This is because narratives reflect clearly their underlying cognitive structures, which are thought to derive from verbal forms of communication, namely oral tradition. However, in ancient Greece, narrative representation seems to have enjoyed closer relations with another tradition, i.e. writing: they appeared simultaneously, disappeared together for a long period, and reappeared within very similar social contexts. This paper explores the implications of those chronological and contextual coincidences for the character of ancient imagery and for our understanding of past representational systems.

Depicting Devotion: The Iconography of Piety and Personal Religious Practice in Ancient Egypt

Eric Wells, University of California, Los Angeles, ewells@humnet.ucla.edu

In the field of Egyptology relatively little attention has been paid to the iconography of Egyptian votive stelae, with most scholars focusing only on texts. However, stelae iconography itself is a visual language. Like a spoken language, iconography was a passively received social product. This being the case, individuals choosing to depict themselves in ritual acts were forced to do so within the confines of an established system. My study reveals the rules, or grammar, of such a system. Therefore allowing a better understanding of the social setting of religious and ritual performance in ancient Egypt.

Erotic themes on Grave Vases from Attic Cemeteries

Anthi Dipla, Open University of Cyprus, anthidipla@yahoo.co.uk

Although we can rarely verify patrons or intended audiences for Greek vases, we may nevertheless be able to specify “clients’” choices, based on particular themes recurring in certain contexts. This study explores the popularity of erotic vases chosen for a specific use (burial), based on evidence from closed archaeological contexts, such as graves of 5th century cemeteries in Attica, assessed on criteria of age and sex. Beyond reflecting the Athenian construction of gender roles, it is argued that this choice may have had a symbolic meaning, as to the presumed activities, expectations, or fantasies of the dead about their love lives.

Image and Identity: Being cool in Transylvania (Romania) during the Bronze Age

Andre Gonciar, SUNY Buffalo, agonciar@buffalo.edu

During the Middle Bronze Age (MBA), the warrior image in Central Europe becomes somewhat standardized: the warrior is in full gear, with a distinctly decorated shield, most likely representing group affiliation. Although the Transylvanian MBA lacks any explicit warrior iconography, the shield symbols present in the West reappear only on highly decorated pottery. The warrior’s external identity marker —his “crest” —has been transferred to a civilian symbolic environment, morphing a military symbol into a civilian luxury/status reference. The geospatial distribution of the civilian forms of the military imagery creates distinct regions, most likely illustrating different expressions of identity and/or social positioning.

Gotlandic Picture Stones: Image Transformations from Man to Beast, from Men to Women,

Alexander Andreeff, University of Gothenburg, alexander.andreeff@archaeology.gu.se

This paper deals with iconographic representations of human and animal figures on 8th -9th century Picture Stones from the island of Gotland, Sweden. There is a strict convention regarding how to depict female and male figures on the Picture Stones. Though, there also seems to be a third gender category, which blends female and male features that occur in scenes with a ritual character, where figures that mix human and animal features also emerge. Some birds have anthropomorphic heads and limbs and some human figures wear clothes resembling wings. It has been suggested that these figures might represent shamans with transgender and transhuman qualities. These iconic and conceptual themes probably reflect central elements in the narratives, cosmology, and rituals of the Late Iron Age Gotlandic society.  Remains of charcoal, artifacts, animal and human bones found at Picture Stone sites indicate that ritual depositions also were performed at the sites.