Signs and Symbols
The use of symbols and signs is an integral part of cultural behaviour. The term “symbol” denotes any kind of communication to which cultural tradition has given a meaning that is not natural or self-evident. Symbols are expressions to which we have arbitrarily assigned meaning; therefore, to understand the symbolism of a particular society, individuals must be taught through the process of enculteration. Signs, on the other hand, are expressions which are universally understood. This unit explores the evidence for the use of symbolic communication in the past, and the inferences that can be made about cultures from their use of symbols.
After completing this unit, you should be able to
- define “symbolic communication,” and explain why it is unique to humans.
- distinguish between a sign and a symbol, and provide an example of each.
- describe the three functions served by symbolic systems.
- identify and describe four types of writing systems.
- describe five types of symbolic systems, and relate each of them to the
- summarize the infrastructural, structural, and superstructural functions
- describe how the historical accounts left behind by ancient cultures are likely to be biased.
- compare how status symbols operate in egalitarian and in hierarchical societies.
- define the term “ritual,” and explain the purposes of ritual.
- explain some of the problems in interpreting Maya script, and describe how Proskouriakoff approached the investigation of the meaning of Maya symbols at Copán.
- describe the principles on which Maya writing was based, and explain the purposes for which it was used.
- explain why the Maya are considered to be a prehistoric culture although they had a writing system.
After completing the viewing assignment for this unit, you should be able to
- describe our view of Maya society prior to 1960, and explain how the burial under the Temples of Inscriptions at Palenque helped change this view.
- discuss the importance of evaluating symbolic elements in their larger archaeological contexts, illustrating your comments with an example from the program.