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The Interpretation of Ancient Symbols Author(s): Terence Grieder Source: American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 77,
The Interpretation of Ancient Symbols Author(s): Terence Grieder Source: American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 77,

The Interpretation of Ancient Symbols Author(s): Terence Grieder Source: American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 77, No. 4 (Dec., 1975), pp. 849-855 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/674792

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TheInterpretationof AncientSymbolsl

TERENCEGRIEDER Universityof Texas,Austin

Two methods of interpreting ancient pictorial symbols are in use: Kubler's "configurational"method of describinginternalrelationshipsof images within a style; and the widely used "ethnological"method seeking comparableexpressions in verbalform in ethnographicand historicaldocuments.Ethnologicalanalogymay offer only comparisons,but ethnology can also define one end of a traditionof symbolic meaningand can be used to generatepremisesfor deductive reasoning. Disjunction of form from meaningdoes not invalidateethnographicanalogy, as arguedby Kubler,but is a culturalphenomenon whichcan be studiedarchaeologi- cally. A ceramic sequence, for example, can reveal a disjunction of form from meaning.Configurationalanalysisof styles in sequencerevealschangesof form and of some fundamental kinds of meaning. Ethnological evidence of traditionsof meaning within a culture gives some basis for verbalizingthe meaningof earlier symbols. The interpretation of ancient symbols requires the use of both configurationalanalysisof styles and ethnologicalanalysisof traditionsof meaning.

AMONGTHE TRADITIONSof every society is one of symbolismexpressedin material products. Products made mainly as vehicles of s^rmbolismpresent special problems of interpretationto archaeologistsand cultural historians.Two methods for interpretingthe symbolism of ancient cultures are currently in use. They differ principally in what is consideredacceptable evidence of a traditionof symbolism:the "configurational"school, representedby George Kubler,holding that interpretationmust confine itself to "icono- graphicclusters" within single periods to avoid disjunctionof meaningfrom form (Kubler 1970:142); and the "ethnological"school arguingthat formsmay be assumedto retaintheir symbolic meaningsif the culturecan be shown to be essentiallyunchangedin otherrespects. The use of ethnological analogy in the explanation of symbols has been the targetof Kubler'scriticism.Kubler(1967:11-12) has rolled out the big gun of Panofsky's(1960:84) "principleof disjunction"against the use of ethnologicalanalogyin the interpretationof symbols from prehistoriccontexts. He arguesthat "we may expect to observedisjunctions of form and meaningmore often than markedcontinuityin theirassociation"when dealing with "successive cultures spanning a duration on the order of magnitudeof about one thousandyears in the same region"(Kubler1967:12). He proposesinsteadthat the student of the past "considerthe total visualconfigurationof an ancientsite or groupof sites as the primarysource of information.Such studies are concernedmorewith iconographicclusters than with pottery types and chronology. As long as entire configurationsof evidence are understudy, the fragmentationof analogizingis minimized"(Kubler1970:142). Analogy shares with all historical generalizationan inductivemethod of reasoning,and like all inductivemethods,its validityincreaseswith the numberof traitsor examplesknown relative to the total number.Genuineanalogicalargumentis convincingonly when a great many traitsareknown on both sidesof the equation,as for examplein Shaw'sanalysisof his excavationsat Igbo Ukwuin Nigeria(Shaw1970:269-270).


for publication

March 18,



for publication

May 13,





Analogies,however, also have the capacity to generatepremisesfrom which deductions can be made. For example, Furst (1968:148) examinedethnographicsourceswhich share

the jaguartheme with Olmec art to arriveat a "fact" which could be stated as a premise:

that in

each is at the same time the other." The conclusion, that jaguarsrepresentedin Olmecart representshamans,is a deduction which is open to attack only throughthe premise.Furst does not say: (1) recent indigenousgroupsuse jaguarsymbolsandhavesuch andsuch other known cultural traits; (2) the ancient Olmecs also used jaguarsymbols and had the same culturaltraits;(3) therefore,the meaningof the Olmecjaguarsymbolsis the sameas that of recent jaguar symbols. The deductive method is the stronger method, but it has the difficulty that a single negative instance disproves the premise. Furst (1968:145-148) analyzessome seeminglynegativeinstancesto defend the premise.The use of ethnography as a source of principlesfrom which deductive conclusionscan be drawnfor testing is at least as valuableto archaeologistsas its use as a sourceof materialfor analogicalcomparison. The two methods, the configurationaland the ethnological,make use of very different forms of evidence. The configurationalrelies on materialevidence in the form of designs, pictures, and sculptures. This is what Kubler (1962:26) calls iconography,but only the graphicis given;the iconic meaning,even to the namingof objects,is inferential.Translation from the graphicto the verbalmediumis done by the moderninterpreter,with the inclusion

of the requisitenumberof "probably"s.The ethnolcogicalmethod in Americanarchaeology accepts the written accounts of the four centuriessince the Conquestas the verbalevidence. In ethnography, the informant, who is closer to his materialthan is the configurational analyst to ancient things, makes the translationfromthe materialor graphicto verbalform. In both methods the ultimate problemis to find a verbaltranslationfor a pictorialsymbol which may neverhavehad a specificor adequateverbalequivalent. The controversialpoint is the validity of assumingtraditions of meaningor use which have great antiquity. Assumingthat the informantrepresentsa people historicallyassociated


havingendured from very ancient times? Manyof the indigenousAmericanoral traditions

are in the form of myths, which, Vansina(1965:157) asserts,"areveryvaluablesourcesfor

the history of beliefs

care." Yet no standardfor rate of changein myths, or in oraltraditionsgenerally,has been

widely accepted (cf. Kroeber1948:564-568). It is noteworthythat the study of the modern Maya of Zinacantanindicatesmore ready acceptanceof change in materialculturethan in cosmology and religiousattitudes (Vogt 1969:610-612). If the Zinacantanstudy reflects a widespread situation, then archaeological records based on material culture give an exaggeratedpicture of the rate of change within a culture as a whole andmyths areamong the slowest changingof the elementsof a culture.

The configurationaland ethnological approachesare based on configurational approach is based on the view that the rate of

unpredictable,difficult to discover,and presumablyfairly rapid.The ethnologicalapproach is based on the view that a culture in isolation would changeslowly and that the factors which cause changemost efficiently can be identifiedin an archaeologicalrecord.It assumes that form and meaningwill remainjoined in a periodof culturalstabilityand that instability sufficientto disjointhem will be discoverablein the materialremains. Social and environmentalchangesand external contacts, for example, are evident in the archaeologicalrecords of ancient societies, especially in the form of changes in pottery, which immediately reflects changes that affect the members of a society. Contrary to Kubler's(1970:132) assertion of the uselessnessof pottery sequences for the buildingof cultural history, it is hard to find a materialproduct in any period that providesmore immediate and exact information about the state of a society than does pottery. The

indigenousAmericansocieties "shamansand jaguarsare not merely equivalent,but

the region,can we expect him to have any traditionswhich we can reliablyidentify as

because of their religious character,myths are transmittedwith

contrary premises.The change in a culture is




extinction of handmadekitchenwaresin the UnitedStates andthe recentriseof artpottery

lot about our culture. In Gifford's (1965:342-343) readingof BartonRamie'shistory

show us the relativetime and suggestthe regionalsource of "the

influx of peoples." The

from pottery, new styles

tell a

study of pottery allows one only rarelyto discoverthe biographies

of indinduals-one of the preoccupationsof traditionalarthistory-but one can learna good

deal about the cultural history of whole

societies. The recognition of Teotihuacanstyle



of historical events on the society

Cook 1960:261-270,


in a pottery sequence.

divorcemeaningsfrom theirtraditionalformsmay be expected to show up

in tombs at Tikalis anotherof the innumerableexamplesof culturalhistory revealed

pottery (Coe 1965:35); and wherewrittenrecordsareavailable,we canjudgethe impact

by their effects on pottery, as in ancient Greece (e.g.,

251: "The technical decline of the fourth

"). A change


form can be traced by constructingchronologicalsequences of forms in

pottery, or in anotherart or craft, whichshow no changeor for whichgradualuninterrupted


receivedverbally,translatedfrom the

which used the form or symbol.

beginning phase of such

American monuments. Antonio Guzman's

description of Desana symbolism Perhapsa convincingtraditionof

Sahagunto the recent studies Yucatanand in a few regionsin

least in general themes, and widespread

400 year period suggests remarkablestability, at

verbalstyles which

When the symbols historical documents

organizeand describethem. The configurationalmethod fills this need. Studentsof ancient

Mexico, which is especiallyrich in ethnographicsources, have been among the most ardent

practitionersof the ethnologicalmethod. Kubler'sresponsehas been to point out that forms

and meaningswhich are joined

would be betterstudiedby a method that is independentof verbal

American styles

be demonstrated.The use or meaningcan be verbalizedconfidently only when

materialor pictorialform by a memberof the culture

The writingsof Bernardinode Sahagun(1950) markthe

records in the Americas,coinciding with the extinction of the



destruction of

is a useful recent example (Reichel-Dolmatoff1968).

content could be built in CentralMexico extendingfrom

of Mercedes Olivera de Vazquez (1969), and perhapsin

the Andeanhighlands.The evidence we have coveringthis

shareelementsof content (e.g., Levi-Strauss1969).

cannot be linked reasonably to a verbal explanation survivingin

or obtained by ethnology, some other method must be used to

duringone periodmay disjoinin another,and that the more

remote symbolic systems recordsmade much later

between tradition and style

culture, without the

ethnological method. A style is thus defined as a synchronic unit, which is to say that

until a new style is defined. The cluster of

traditions,of material,use, designand

changes in it will be regardedas negligible

constant comparison back and forth in time required by the

in order to work entirely within the expressionof an ancient

or by people culturallyunrelated.He hassharpenedthe distinction

technique, and meaning,whichmakeup the style of

the object are of variousages and have varioushistories,but the period duringwhich they

are united

be ignored.

is regardedas a style period, meaningthat for the purposesof analysistime may

If one

can obtain a full catalogueof the imageryof an ancientculture,one may be able to

"decode" some of its meaningsor describe its organization.In his study of Teotihuacan

imagery,Kubler,in the absenceof

function, whether noun, adjective, or verb," and interpretedthe art as a form of picture

relationshipsof the forms in this '4linguisticmodel" are

self-evidentsignsand the

writing (Kubler 1967:5ff).

statementof theirfunctionalrelationshipsis objective.A subjective

element enters into the namingof

of cult objects to isolated nominativecompounds(Kubler1967:6-7). Namingsubjectsmust

alwaysbe regardedas

than such cautious designationsas "Motif A" that I think the risk is better baken."Rain

writtenrecords,examinedeach form "for its grammatical

the formsand the assignmentof signiElcance,such as that


an exercise in creativity,but a plausibleguessis so much moreuseful


God" set down beside"MaizePlant"givesriseto considerationswhich will neverbe aroused by "MotifA" with "MotifB." The configurationalmethod has been useful in the descriptionof the imageryfound at the site of Pashashin the PerunanAndes.Stone reliefsand tenonedheadsin collections,but assignableto the site, provideda set of symbolic imagesfor which no culturalcontext was known. Excavations produced Recuay ceramics bearing the same symbols and added

more images. The excavations showed that Pashashwas abandonedby about the

century, and no reasonableconnection could be made with any historicallyknownculture. But by laying out all of the symbols and studying their relationshipssome things can be

learned. For example, a hierarchyfrom complex to simple images can be seen, with the simple designs appearingas subsidiaryparts or attributesof the complex ones. Among the

conclusionsthat one can draw from this hierarchyis that feline imagesrankbelow those of

frontal crowned men.

to be represented,but the method does not permitconclusionsin narrativeform. The configurationalmethod has been a usefulway to startthe study of Pashashimagery, and it is still possible to dismemberthe style into its elements and trace each one in time. The catalogue of imagesis useful for makingcomparisonswhich have shown how little of Chavinsymbolismwas retainedat Pashashand how much wassharedwith the laterChimu. With ethnographyand historical documentation availablefor the Chimu, there arises the possibility of applying ethnological analogy to the interpretationof Pashashsymbolism.

How valid would it be to stretch Chimu accounts 900 years back in time and across a culturalbarrierto aid in the explanationof Pashashsymbols? Kubler'sTeotihuacanstudy concentrates on style and disregardstime, except to deny that forms may be assumed to retain their early meaningsin much later times (Kubler 1967:12). Recent studies by Doris Heyden (1975) on the meanings of fire and water symbols in CentralMexico confirm Kubler'sargumentthat designschangein meaning,and

especially in

barriers.But some formscan be found in CentralMexicanimagerywhichhaveretainedtheir basic meaningsthroughoutseveralperiods,for example, the "goggle-eyes"found in Central Mexican art from Teotihuacan through Aztec times. Kubler (1967:6) refers to the goggle-eyesas "havingto do with the raingod"at Teotihuacan,judgingby the associated forms. He thus associatedthe form with a meaning.In Aztec artwe areagainpresentedwith goggle-eyeson the rain god, the identificationdependingmainly on imageryin the Codex Borbonicus and the descriptions of Sahagun (1950:I, Ch. IV; II, Ch. XXV). Despite abundant evidence of social disruption during this long interval, the form and its basic meaningappearto haveremainedjoined. Whetherwe referto the raingod by an Aztec name or call him "raingod"in Englishis not signiElcant,for the meaningremainsthe same. To generalizefrom this case would be unjustiEled,but to insist upon discontinuityratherthan

continuity in old Americantraditions weights the argumentagainstthe evidence. Neither disjunctionnor continuity can be safely assumed. On the other hand, there are good reasonsto believe that the "principleof disjunction"


It would be reassuringto be able to inferthe ancientmyths that seem

the secondary extensions of meaning, over time and over cultural and class

us reconstruct ancient symbolic meanings.The Paez Indiansof Colombiahave


San Agustin (Bernal Villa 1953; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1972, esp. p.

bibliography). The configurational school reminds us that the similarities are merely intriguingand that the, perhaps,millenium and a half between the two manifestationsis replete with disjunctionsof which we have only the beginningsof an archaeologicalrecord.

The ethnologicalschool arguesthat archaeologycan discoverevidenceof the circumstances

which produceddisjunctionsand, moreover,that severalfactors suggestthat some parts of

the myths reflect traditionswhich may be as old

Paez myths to those of surroundingpeoples and to myths which are reportedfrom distant

can help

that contain elements which remindone of forms in the ancientsculptureof nearby

152, note

15 for

as San Agustinor older. The similarityof




the common elements are old traditions. Christianelements in Paez

regionssuggests that



amountof new materialabsorbedduring400 years of Christiancontact. Quantificationof

old and new elements is beyond this writer'sstatisticalskill, but the obviouslyChristianor

recent elements appear in far

causedso little change,it is easy to believethat thereareelementsin

the myths which area thousandyearsold. Moreover,earlierdisjunctionsweremorelikely to

have been

mythologywith the ancestorsof the Paez.

people of Americanoriginwho shareda measureof

Christiancontact have

easily accounted for by one well-understoodforeigncontact whichproduced

can be identified, they give a rough measureof the

less than half of the recorded material. If 400 years of

produced by contact with

These considerations, along

with the relative isolation of the region and the general

evidence of the stability of

speculationabout the meaningsof

doubt will elude us forever,but speculativecases can be made and it is the businessof the

culturalhistorianto make them. The phenomenonof disjunctionhelps explain the current situation in which we have Paez myths as the end of a tradition of content, without

the conventional symbolism has

been lost. Disjunctionof meaningfrom

and archaeologicalrecords. The

traditionalideas dangerousat the same time that control of land and labor passedout of

Paez hands. The myths at least

the traditionsof the culturalhistory of of the styles and

Agustinand the SpanishConquest.

The permutationsof forms and

both style and tradition. An understandingof


the relationshipsof forms within a style is

their meaningscan be traced only by givingattentionto

traditions of its material culture during the long period between San

the region awaitsdescriptionby archaeologyandconfigurationalanalysis

Americantraditions, suggest that Paez myths can be used for

San Agustinsculpturalforms. Proof beyond reasonable

sculpturalform, and San Agustin monuments for which

form is what one would expect from the historical

introduction of Christianitymade materialexpression of

give verbalexpressionto ideas,some of which may preserve

ancient sculptorsor of people with a comparableculturaltradition.A

their description;the configurationalmethod is an attempt to formulate

history of a culturerequiresa descriptionof

its relationshipsto

verbalnarrativeis still lacking.

verbalnarrativetraditonsmay be broughtto bear on

of the claimfor analogyis worthpointingout: it merelystatesa

ways of describingthese internalrelationships.Althoughthe analysisof a style, independent

of time, is the first step, the

other cultures in which particulartraditions of form are traced throughtime. Except for

naming,these descriptionsareobjective,but

Analogy is the method by which

ancientforms.The modesty

comparison.Usuallythe possible materialform,

imaginea possible narrative.The coincidence of the imaginedform with the extant one, or

the imaginednarrativewith the observerto show that

more than mere comparisonis valid. But the analogistcan take the extinction of one tradition does not imply the extinction of

each of which depends upon particularcircumstances.Disjunctionis a

because it identifies a cultural phenomenon, but rather than denying us

access to ancient meanings, it clariElesthe method by which they may be studied.

useful concept

other traditions,

couragefrom the fact

observerhas a narrativetraditionfor which he can only imaginea

and a set of ancient symbolsin materialform for which he can only

the preservedone, is the basisof comparison.The onus restson


Disjunctionis the result of

can be determinedby archaeologyand history.

particularsocial or environmentalevents or circumstanceswhich

Realistic expectations for the recovery

and interpretationof ancient cultures must lie

"total culturalcontext" requiredby Proskouriakoff(1950:182) for

somewherebetween the

understandingof the developmentof art, and the purelypictorialmaterialson which Kubler

pins his hopes. Wecan scarcelydefine the total culturalcontext of a living person,yet we

traditionsin which he participates.Witha full catalogueof

archaeologicalrecord, includingceramics,with an awarenessof evidenceof

can define the majorstyles and

images,with the



disjunction, and with historical and ethnographic records to provide one end of the


traditions of content, we can attain reasonably good descriptions of the more recent prehistoric cultures, and at least increase the evidential base for speculation about the remoteones.


l I am gratefulto GeorgeKublerfor his helpfulcommentson a draftof this paper.




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