The Treasure Chest

The Life and Death of Signs

By Paul Bouissac

Archaeology is a natural domain of exploration for semiotics. Forensics and taphonomy are semiotic endeavors par excellence. But the whole archaeological enterprise that ultimately confronts what is left of signs after the semiosis of which they were a part has evaporated is a daunting challenge for semioticians. Whether we attempt to infer virtual signifiés from material remnants that have the formal properties we can expect to characterize signifiants, or we engage in the open-ended dynamic of interpretation, the ashes of time are construed as signs of past meaningful activities from which we try to learn something about our past and ultimately about ourselves.

The interface between archaeology and semiotics has been directly addressed in earlier works by Jean-Claude Gardin (1980), Christopher Tilley (1991) and, more recently, Robert Preucel (2006). There has also been a special issue of Semiotica (Volume 100) on “Prehistoric Signs” (1994) in which both semioticians and archaeologists contributed articles. Representations in Archaeology (1992) should also be mentioned in this context. It is a collection of articles edited by Jean-Claude Gardin and Christopher Peebles to honor the memory of André Leroi-Gourhan. Many of the chapters explicitly deal with various semiotic approaches to archaeology. Also of note in this respect  is Christopher Tilley's A Phenomenology of Landscape, Places, Paths, and Monuments (1994).

The three works cursorily reviewed in this issue of SemiotiX contribute more or less directly to a semiotic reflection on archaeology and should be of interest both to archaeologists and semioticians.

The Archaeology of Semiotics and the Social Order of Things, edited by George Nash and George Children, BAR International Series 1833 (2008).

Instead of the expected “Semiotics of Archaeology”, the editors have chosen to emphasize in their title the extent to which archaeologists strive to reconstruct the semiotic processes that gave meaning to the environments of long-gone populations. Most of the papers that were selected for this collection foreground landscapes, a dimension of human experience that involves the synthesis of all the sensorial sources of information, not only the material resources that can be exploited but also their semiotic affordances. Geomorphic and vegetal features are indeed forms that beg for meanings: ranges of hills, beacons, ridges, outcrops, rocks and boulders, alignments that frame vast expanses of land toward receding horizons, caves and pits, lakes and rivers, and all the intriguing patterns created by erosion. Often, these landscapes have been transformed by human industry: carvings, stone stacks, cairns, dolmens, megaliths, tumuli. Successive populations have added features, imagined mythical narratives which account for particular aspects of such palimpsests. The archaeology of semiotics aims at understanding this relentless endowing of landscapes with meaning.

Most of the articles bear witness to what could be called the landscape turn, a movement dating from the 1990s that consisted of shifting away from an approach focused almost exclusively on measurable artifacts toward a holistic appreciation of the landscape conceived as the meaningful, multi-sensorial niche of a population intimately connected with its territory, its past, its destiny that can be read in the signs emitted by the land and the sky, in brief, its cosmology. This does not mean of course that the archaeological study of landscapes cannot be guided by rigorous methods of investigation that constrain the range of plausible interpretations. Current archaeological knowledge necessarily leaves many questions unanswered.

The fifteen chapters, all written by specialists, cover mainly European data with some incursions into North American and Australian material. By asking “what can landscape grammar offer?” and answering this question through detailed summaries and reviews of the book’s chapters, the editors provide the reader with an insightful and useful roadmap for the intellectual landscape they have daringly explored.

The Disappearance of Writing Systems: Perspectives on Literacy and Communication, edited by John Baines, John Bennet, and Stephen Houston, Equinox Publishing (2008).

While semiotics has been concerned since its inception with the “life of signs”, that is, the ways in which sign processes operate among living organisms, little attention has been paid to the “death of signs”. One may ask, of course: what are dead signs good for and why worry about them? Except that the way they die might teach us a lot about what they are and what it takes to keep them alive. Writing systems are artifacts which are among the most challenging problems for both semioticians and archaeologists. Their decipherment can be construed as a pertinent metaphor for the whole archaeological enterprise.

This volume developed from a conference held at Oxford in March 2004. It focuses on systems that have been deciphered for the most part and it raises the question of why these systems disappeared as functional sign systems able to record and selectively transmit information. Semioticians would greatly benefit from taking a careful look at these autopsies and dissections by specialists of scripts such as hieroglyphs, cuneiforms, Etruscan and Maya writings, Kharosthi, Meroitic, and Manchu. Each of the sixteen chapters forms a self-contained unit that provides sufficient information for a non-specialist to appreciate the state of the art and the particular issues involved in the obsolescence of the script concerned. Interestingly, the authors do not indulge in lamenting the passing of time and the disappearance of writing systems but they squarely address the causes and circumstances of their sudden or progressive demise.

Although the discussions are not generally cast in explicitly semiotic terminology, the problems raised in this volume will make much sense to semioticians. This book brings into focus the interesting question of the sustainability of signs, even including those signs that are supported by a strong iconic basis. It opens a window on a perpetually moving landscape that reflects the essential instability and lability of all human languages, whether spoken or written, and, naturally of all semiotic systems whether biological (species go extinct) or cultural (as archaeologists know too well). In this respect, R.M.W. Dixon’s monograph on The Rise and Fall of Languages (Cambridge University Press, 1997) offers an interesting counterpoint to this work

Le sombre abîme du temps: Mémoire et archéologie, Laurent Olivier. Seuil (2008).

Readers of French will undoubtedly enjoy Olivier’s meditation on the meaning of archaeology. Notwithstanding the romantic gloom of its title [The Somber Abyss of Time], a phrase that is curiously borrowed from the eighteenth century philosopher and naturalist Buffon (p. 190), Laurent Olivier offers in this book a provocative assessment of the history of archaeology and outlines a program toward the reinvention of this problematic discipline in light of an existential philosophy of time. The gist of this approach is captured by his advocacy of an “archaeology of the present”.

This 300 page volume is a fundamental reflection on archaeology which the author considers to be a discipline in search of a theory. Laurent Olivier is himself an eminent archaeologist, specialist of the Iron Age and Curator of the “département d’archéologie celtique et gauloise” at the Musée d’archéologie nationale de Saint-Germain-en-Laye (France). This profound meditation is articulated into nine chapters which are grounded in the personal experience of the author. In order to confront the idea that archaeology is a form of the present rather than an “objective” reconstruction of the past, he does not shy away from autobiographical “confessions” such as the excruciating experience of disposing of his mother’s treasured family souvenirs, mostly old photos and trivial artifacts, after her death (p. 22-36). This leads to more general considerations in the following chapters through which a theoretical and existential approach to archaeology as a form of the present is elaborated in dialogue with poets and philosophers such as George Perec, René Char, Walter Benjamin, Charles Darwin, Aby Warburg, Hanna Arendt, and Paul Ricoeur, to mention only the ones he persistently engages. But Proust, Bergson, and Freud stand also in the wings, prompting and guiding the author along his anguished path. Olivier’s reflexive meanderings uncover memory layers entangled with artifacts whose meaning is an ever receding grail.

The background of the text is an intimate knowledge of the history of archaeology from the Romantics to the present. This discourse is methodically deconstructed, at times with a touch of nostalgia, as it is construed as a grand fallacy that always pertains to the present rather than the past. The titles of the chapters (approximately translated into English) enunciate the successive stages of the reflection: “In the beginning”; “Once upon a time”; “Like a beautiful page of dirt”; “Archaeology of the present”; “A field of ruins”; “Ragmen of the past”; “Palimpsests and memory-objects”; “Biology of forms”; “What does remain”. By many aspects, these essays bear witness to the contemporary epistemological crisis, principally in Europe, that drives many researchers to oscillate between despondency and hope.