Symbolism

The topic of Middle Palaeolithic symbolism has generated a large and lively literature over the past few years (Chase & Dibble 1987, 1992; Chase 1991; Dibble & Chase 1990; Dibble 1989; Lindly & Clark 1990; Marshack 1972, 1981, 1989, 1990; Byers 1994). The first and most basic question is one of terminology: what exactly do we mean by symbolism? The most widely accepted definition of a symbol is anything, be it object, sign, gesture or vocal expression which in some way refers to or represents something beyond itself (Chase 1991; Hodder 1982). This leads to the fundamental distinction between the symbol itself (the 'signifier') and the object or idea signified (the 'referrent' or 'signified'). Most workers go on to make distinctions between different forms of symbols, at increasing levels of abstraction between the symbol and the referrent. Thus Chase (1991: 195) differentiates between what he refers to as 'iconic' symbols, which relate in a very direct and obvious way between the symbol and the referrent (as a road sign of a jumping deer might refer to the presence of wild game in the vicinity), 'index' symbols (which might use, say, the symbol of smoke to indicate the notion of fire) and totally abstract or arbitrary symbols which have no obvious relationship to the idea being symbolized beyond that attached arbitrarily by the individuals sharing this particular pattern of symbolic expression. The classic illustrations of the latter are most words, which can only be related to the objects or ideas being symbolized in essentially abstract, arbitrary ways.

Most discussions of symbolism go on to make direct connections between the existence of explicit symbolic expression and at least rudimentary forms of language (e.g. Holloway 1969, 1983; Falk 1987; Dibble 1989; Davidson & Noble 1989,1993). Whether these correlations are as direct and obvious as many authors seem to assume (in the sense of necessarily implying the existence of lan guage) is clearly debatable. Even so, no one would question that the whole of present-day culture and behaviour is highly symbolic in character, and that the heavily symbol-laden nature of culture is ultimately fundamental not only to modern language patterns but to effectively all other aspects of society, technology, communication etc. (Gellner 1989; Alexander 1989; Binford 1987,1989). There is also widespread agreement that the same patterns of complex symbolic, and probably-linguistic, expression can be traced back to the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic sequence and arguably provide the most dramatic contrast with behaviour and organization of preceding Middle Palaeolithic communities (Pfeiffer 1982; Chase & Dibble 1987, 1992; White 1989; Binford 1987,1989; Mellars 1989a, b, 1991; Davidson & Noble 1989).

When viewed in these terms the existence and character of symbolic behaviour among Middle Palaeolithic communities must be seen as central to any understanding of both the mentality and cognition of these groups and to the nature and significance of the documented behavioural contrasts between the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic. In the following sections I will review the principal areas where the existence of symbolic expression in Middle Palaeolithic/Neanderthal contexts has often been claimed and then assess what significance can be attached to this evidence.

Use of pigments

The occurrence of what are almost certainly colouring materials in Middle Palaeolithic contexts is now beyond dispute (Bordes 1952, 1972; Wreschner 1980; Marshack 1982; Demars 1993). The evidence comes in two main forms: first fragments of iron oxide or red ochre which, depending on the source, can provide a range of colours from yellow to deep maroon or red-brown; and black manganese dioxide. Fragments of ochre have now been recorded from at least a dozen different

Figure 12.2 Fragments of manganese dioxide apparently used as pigments, from the MTA levels ofPech de VAze L The pieces show traces of either facets or smoothing (suggesting their applicaton to a smooth surface) or scraping of the surface to produce powder. After Bordes 1972.

Figure 12.2 Fragments of manganese dioxide apparently used as pigments, from the MTA levels ofPech de VAze L The pieces show traces of either facets or smoothing (suggesting their applicaton to a smooth surface) or scraping of the surface to produce powder. After Bordes 1972.

Middle Palaeolithic sites in southwestern France, while the occurence of manganese dioxide is even more frequent (Bordes 1952; Demars 1992). Evidence that the materials were used as pigments seems difficult to dispute. Many individual fragments show either clear signs of scraping (presumably to yield a powder) or well developed facets on one or more surfaces which suggest that they were applied directly to a hard or soft surface (see Fig. 12.2: Bordes 1952, 1972). Significantly, both minerals are known to have been used extensively as pigments for the production of cave art throughout the European Upper Palaeolithic sequence. Whilst the possibility of other uses has occasionally been suggested, such as the use of ochre in tanning hides, the status of both ochre and manganese dioxide as colouring pigments in many Middle Palaeolithic contexts seems undeniable.

The critical issue here is whether the simple use of colouring materials can be regarded as an explicitly symbolic act. What is conspicuously lacking from the Middle Pal aeolithic is any indication of exactly how these colours were employed. There are a number of reports of fragments of stone apparently stained with ochre, and traces of ochre smeared on either stone tools or occasional fragments of bone or bone artefacts (e.g. Marshack 1988, 1990). But in none of these cases is there any evidence that the pigments were used to produce designs or other identifiable markings. Thus, the possibility remains that colour was employed in Middle Palaeolithic contexts purely to change the surface appearance of things, much as one might paint a piece of furniture or dye clothing. Captive chimpanzees have been taught to use paint and in many cases obviously enjoy - or at least are intrigued by - the visual effects of the paint on the canvas or other objects provided. It therefore remains highly debatable whether the mere existence and use of pigments in Neanderthal contexts need reflect anything more than natural curiosity about transforming the appearance of objects, or at best perhaps a rudimentary form of aesthetic appreciation

Spooky Moon
Figure 12.3 Imported fossils of sea shells and other marine organisms recovered from the Mousterian levels of Chez-Pourrez (Corrèze: no. 1) and the Grotte de l'Hyène (Arcy-sur-Cure, Yonne: nos. 2-4). After Lhomme & Freneix 1993; Poplin 1988.

(Chase & Dibble 1987). The same kind of curiosity may perhaps be reflected in the occasional specimens of fossil shells recovered from Mousterian sites (e.g. Fig. 12.3). Whether the pigments were applied to human skin, or other items such as skin clothing, wooden artefacts etc. remains equally enigmatic from the archaeological evidence.

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