Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 27: 329-346 (Volume publication date October 1998)
John E. Robb
The publishers share an abstract here.

My dearest Simone,

In a previous post, I implied that study for a job or as part of a dispassionate continuation of a previous path of study might be wrong reasons to study. At the moment, these are not the main reasons that drive me, but I don’t think that they are wrong reasons.

I had hoped reading this article that I might find a point of view on the archaeology of symbols with which I identified. I did not. I felt an upsurge of some of my general uncomfortableness with anthropology/archaeology. There often seems to be a disingenuous relationship between theory and data; there’s this sense that if a certain theoretical perspective only has round holes, then only round pegs matter and all other shapes of pegs are ignored. The starting/middle point doesn’t seem to be which theory can explain the most data, but rather which theory and data go together to make the tidiest package. Let the cherry picking begin. These issues exists in every discipline, but my impression is that they are a more pernicious problem in anthropology.

Robb presents three approaches to symbols in archaeology. They are symbols as tokens, symbols as girders, and symbols as tesserae. Looking at the first and taking note that the author says it remained unquestioned and unamended for a long time I see an example of my thinking that anthropologists often blur the line between “this is what we can say” and “this is all there is to say.” On symbols as totems, Robb writes, “According to many archaeologists symbols serve primarily as instruments of communication … As one recent discussion puts it, ‘Symbols including icons, rituals, monuments, and written test all convey and transmit information and meaning to their viewers…’ Thus a sumptuous headdress signals a special status, an exotic artifact boasts about long-range connections, a monument represents a capacity to command labor.” I find it easy to believe when Robb writes that “this approach has long since proved its value in archaeology.” I can almost hear the meeting discussing the fact that those who fund research like clear ideologies that render easily quantifiable findings. Though I found this view of symbols shallow and expedient, I don’t necessarily agree whole-heartedly with the reaction from “Marxists and interpretive archaeologists, who argued that symbols do not merely represent and disguise power relations but actually constitute them…”

About symbols as girders, Robb writes, “In contrast to the information transmission view, many archaeologists have explored how symbols constituted and structured the mental and social world of ancient people … humans orient themselves in the world, think and act through learned culturally specific structures that recur wherever they organize themselves and their material productions.” I do find this a better starting point than the former view of symbols as totems. It reads like a more genuine attempt at saying something more real though less tangible. Of course, I’ve always had rationalist leanings. Robb mentions that “without strong Durkheimian assumptions about elementary social structures, Levi-Straussian assumptions about elementary mental structures, or Marxist assumptions about hegemony, identifying cultural structures alone usually does not satisfy social-minded archaeologists.” He goes on to write that many have combined structuralists approaches with other approaches to form a more workable model.

On symbols as tesserae, Rob writes, “Meaning does not reside in artifacts or in people but in the moment of interaction between the two… symbols’ meanings do not exist outside of the moment in which people apprehend them and assemble them into meaningful formations … Because symbols’ meaning is not fixed but contestable, social life involves continual struggle over alternative interpretations of important symbols.” This view seems overly narrow to me in part the way Robb cites in that “all of symbolic life becomes superficial, without historical or psychological roots – a transitory juxtaposition of images on a screen.” Thoughts come to mind of how many advertising strategies rely on the fact that symbols’ meaning do exist outside of the moment in which people apprehend them.

Reading this article I feel that my need to read a book that has a comprehensive overview of anthropological theories and the views of the major players becomes more pressing. Here’s one person’s anthropological timeline that includes links to Wikipedia articles on people who shaped the development of anthropological thought: History of Anthropology Timeline.

Yours truly,