Chapter 9 - Signs and Symbols

Symbols are significant in all societies. They usually hold extensive meaning that goes beyond the material characteristics of the object. Unfortunately, this meaning is almost always lost when the culture that used the object becomes extinct.

What kinds of symbols are there?

Writing is perhaps the most important use of symbols, both to the cultures that wrote them as well as to archaeologists. Writing is important because it is one way that humans use to communicate extensive information through time and space. Occasionally, it may still be useful even after thousands of years. Even if the original meanings of the written language are lost, they can often be decoded based on the organization of the symbols.


Mesopotamia: market trade and taxes led to symbolic tokens. In Sumer, tokens were sealed inside clay envelopes. Impressions of the tokens were made on the outside of the envelope to show what was inside. This evolved into simply drawing the tokens on the outside. Eventually, abstract symbols for larger units were used (pg. 295). Finally, symbols depicting what was being counted developed. From this evolved cuneiform which was based on abstract pictures constructed of wedges but with words constructed of syllables based on their spoken language. It was eventually decoded using what were, in effect, dictionaries.

Astronomy and Mathematics: While astronomy and mathematics are both considered to be more analytical and quantitative than magic and religion, both are also part of a society's system of beliefs. (note: difference between astronomy (study of the sky and stars) and astrology (study with the idea that human lives are manipulated or predicted by such knowledge)). In addition, both astronomy and mathematics are usually found in a ceremonial context...differentiation between science and religion is largely unique to western industrialized societies.

Mayan Mathematics: While math probably has its roots in simple counting, this soon led to record keeping, numerical calculations, and to finding patterns in the world. This soon developed into geometry (pyramid = ) and to recording and predicting the movement in the cosmos. The Mesoamericans, such as Copan, seemed particularly fascinated by the passage of time. The basic unit was the day (no units smaller, such as hours). They developed a 260-day and 360 + 5 day cycles which ran concurrently and reset every 52 years.

Astronomy: what was there to do in a world without MTV? Watch something else like Gilligan's Island. How 'bout before electronics and when literacy was only the domain of elite individuals? Right! Watching the sky provided great inexpensive entertainment! And from doing this night after night, year after year, they noticed that:

1.) things moved up there

2.) They moved in a patterned way

Thus, like modern scientists, they deduced that if there was a pattern, then behavior (in this case, of stars and such) could be predicted. While this was useful on a day-to-day level with the sun rising, setting, and rising again, it was also useful on a seasonal level: spring was a good time to plant crops. Thus, by observing the stars, past cultures were able to predict when the days would start getting longer, and when warmer or wetter(seasonal) weather would approach. Due to a very high prehistoric boredom factor, these observations were probably rather basic to all societies (except ones where it was always cloudy :-) And it makes perfect sense that these cultures would make physical markers and alignments as quick and easy reminders on where to look for these events. Yet, archeologists always seem amazed at the technology and calculations that must have gone into such creations. I think it's more a product of having too much time, and not enough to do once it got dark. Anyways, archeologist love to make a big thing out of alignments (i.e. Stonehenge). However, it is easy to over do it. To show this, one of my professors when I was an undergrad found a whole series of alignments around his house! Was the building contractor an astronomer who carefully laid out everything in accordance to the summer solstice? Naw, it was just a matter of coincidence. But some alignments are so basic that they are everywhere. Often, doorways in residences will point towards the rising or setting sun. In our own culture, our coordinate system of cardinal directions was originally based on the location of Polaris, the north star. Anyways, once one can predict the times of year in an accurate manner, one can develop a calendric system. (Maya)

Writing played different roles in societies of different complexities:

Mesopotamia: scribes were bureaucrats in this state-level society

Copan: scribes were elite craftsmen...literacy was a symbol of status


Codices (codex): folded bark books

Codices that still exist are almanacs that traced and predicted astronomical events to the accuracy of days. Because only dates and numbers were understood, the Maya were seen as peaceful priest/astronomers. Discovery (in the late 1940's) of the tomb of Pacal at Palenque showed that these individuals, whoever they were, could be very powerful. Then, in 1960, Tatiana Prouskouriakoff noticed that the differences between two dates never exceeded a human life-span. She hypothesized that the stelae at Piedras Negras depicted the ascent of kings rather than deities.

The study of the modern Maya, combined with Archbishop Landa's notes, aided the decipherment of most other syllables and glyphs.

Archaeologists concluded that the codices, like the Old Farmers Almanac, guided planting, but also showed when the best times for combat were, also.

However, because writing among the Maya was a skill monopolized by the elites, only their side of the story was put forward. Also, anything written on a monument could be more for propaganda than shouldn't believe everything you read! A ruler who talk writes that he is great and powerful might only be trying to convince his followers that he is still great and powerful. After the king of Copan, "18-Rabbit", was captured and executed, architectural evidence suggests that the ruling dynasty lost power that was subsumed by the lesser nobles. To help maintain what power he had, the last king of Copan repeatedly made enormous carved monuments (hieroglyphic stairway) to remind his nobles of his illustrious ancestry.

This is further seen by the "Community House" at Copan with roof patterns thought to symbolize mats (power) separated by name glyphs. These Courtier Glyphs are important because they show that people other than the king were being written about after the fall of 18-Rabbit's reign.