A Taphonomy of Palaeoart

By Bednarik, Robert G. | Antiquity, March 1994 | Go to article overview

A Taphonomy of Palaeoart


Bednarik, Robert G., Antiquity


As one digs back through the archaeological record, art and other evidence of symbolic behaviour becomes scarcer, so it is much disputed just when human marking behaviour and human language began. Is the fading away a real fact of prehistory, or a distorting effect of selective survival?

The term taphonomy is a recent introduction to archaeology, referring to the transformations experienced by those materials which archaeologists consider to form the archaeological record (Bahn 1992: 489). As well as 'primary taphonomy', such as that related to preservation and deposition, selective recovery and even selective reporting also determine the way in which the 'archaeological record' has become distorted over time.

The complexity of the issue is perhaps best illustrated by example. We could consider the many factors that contribute to the relative overrepresentation of, say, gold objects in the archaeological record. Apart from the obvious advantage in preservation of a noble metal, gold objects are far more likely to be collected, noticed, salvaged, recorded or sought with detectors than other remains. Moreover, they are more likely to occur in select places -- tumuli, shipwrecks, pyramids or hoards -- especially likely to attract the interest of archaeologists, who prefer not to dig in places without promise. Even the preoccupations of archaeologists become taphonomic factors, and are decisive in determining what we innocently call the 'archaeological record'. Once found, a gold object is more likely to be mentioned in a publication than, say, a bone object. The observation that there are x times more bone objects than gold objects in the 'archaeological record', without further qualification, is meaningless.

Studying evidence of symbolic behaviour

The symbolic productions of human beings are almost without exception extremely ephemeral: language, gesture, mimetic behaviour, ritual, or indeed any symbolic creation has only the tiniest chance of surviving even for a short period -- a few days, years or decades -- such as symbolic productions on paper, textiles, bark or dwelling walls, to name just a few. Nevertheless, a few of these manage to survive for centuries, even millennia. But for a symbolic product to have any real prospect of surviving for millennia, it needs to be of a durable material such as stone, ivory, bone, antler, egg shell, metal or ceramic.

The study of early symbolic behaviour should be based on a taphonomy of symbolic production. Yet most studies of palaeoart have been exercises in naive empiricism. Pre-historic corpora of art are described quantitatively and assessed statistically (Bednarik 1990/91), when all they can do is to define a taphonomic remnant. The 'archaeological record' is no accurate reflection of an early tradition: many extant cultural traditions produce no graphic art at all, while others make no use of media that would survive into an archaeological record. The distorting effect of taphonomic processes is more potent in respect of symbolic production of the Pleistocene, than in any other 'cultural' evidence of such antiquity. Nearly all symbolic production is eliminated; the minute remainder is so distorted by numerous factors that it is ludicrous to interpret its quantifiable characteristics without extensive recourse to taphonomic logic. However, most interpretations of palaeoart have been conducted with an implicit assumption that the surviving remnants are a representative sample of the culture or period they are believed to belong to. Although this is almost certainly untrue in all cases of pre-historic art, entire artistic 'styles' have been created, and geographical or chronological distributions interpreted as of cultural significance. Palaeoart has been generally interpreted in terms of distributional, compositional and statistical indices, which are largely taphonomic characteristics of the evidence.

The 'archaeological record' of palaeoart is inherently distorted by further sources of subjectivity, among them personal bias, jingoism, and limitations of observer's relevant knowledge or perception. …

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