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The Archaeology of Symbols

John E. Robb
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 27 (1998), pp. 329-346
Published by: Annual Reviews
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/223374
Page Count: 18
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The Archaeology of Symbols
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Abstract

Why should archaeologists deal with symbols and how can they do so? This article outlines three major traditions archaeologists have followed in conceptualizing symbols, each with its own preferred topics of study, understanding of power and social relations, and epistemology. These include the processual view of symbols as tokens that represent reality, the structuralist view of symbols as mental girders framing a cultural reality, and the post-modern view of symbols as arbitrary fragments incorporated into phenomenological experience. The primary conclusions are that (a) any serious consideration of ancient society requires us to deal with its symbols; (b) human symbolism is so diverse (it includes cognitive structures; ritual icons; identities such as gender, prestige, and ethnicity; technological knowledge; and political ideologies) that multiple approaches are needed to deal adequately with it; and (c) a major problem in the archaeology of symbols is understanding how varied kinds of symbols relate to each other.

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