SEMIOTICS AND THE DESCRIPTION OF STONE TOOLS IN ARCHAEOLOGY
(Paper presented for the 66th. Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology; Symposium "Artifacts as Signs: Approaches to the Study of Meaning". New Orleans, April 18-22, 2001)
The contribution of this communication
The contribution that I brought here, and which consists in some results I obtained in the ellaboration of a usage dictionary for lithic analysis terminology, is referred either to the lack of explicit definitions in that terminology, or to the differences I have found among explicit or implicit definitions of the same terms in a number of utterances. This situation is the origin of variability in the semantic content of terms used in archaeology.
These variations can be related with the descriptive character of most of the terms of this language. Being such terms the vehicles of inferences about the actions and processes that are critical to archaeological knowledge, this variability has a negative effect on the coherence of this language. It would be desirable to avoid ambiguities in order to achive better grounded inferences. I consider that the variations and the corresponding ambiguities arised from some lack of concern about the homogenous usage of archaeological terminology.
The usage dictinary
This usage dictionary is based on archaeological usage rather than archaeological notions normatively imposed. It has to recover the effective usage of the terms from a corpus of constructed utterances. Core operations for its production are discourse analysis and some terminological resources as applied to a corpus of archaeological writings pertaining to Latin American spanish speaking countries. This dictionary is intended to show not only the generally accepted usages, but also the variability, being regional, local, or individual. The basic elements of the research are the simple or compound terminological unit and the utterance. The utterance is the minimal sintactic and semantic unit, where the terms are related contextually and it is the place from where its sense can be drawn.
Three kinds of discourses
From this analitical perspective it is possible -at least as regards to this communication- account for three kinds of discourses which converge in the language of lithic analysis. Each of these discourses constructs a different aspect of the archaeological knowledge of this field.
First, the archaeological discourse has a heavy interdisciplinary component because it takes terms and concepts from other disciplines. It needs terms from geology to speak about rock types or to describe the different raw materials; geometry, to describe the objects shapes. From botanics, zoology and anatomy, and other sciences, it takes a number of metaphors in the same or different senses. From physics, it takes some terms for the description of attributes concerning the efficiency of projectile points. And so on. The terms which archaeology borrows from other sciences could be already defined in those sciences, where they could even pertain to a formal system of definitions. In their new archaeological usage, their meaning can or cannot change. The term can loose its distinctiveness or the non-ambiguous character of his previous meaning because it is now out of its technical context, and it is placed in a new one, in a closer way to the general usage, closer to the everyday communication. In its new field, it could loose coherence and efficacy.
Second, there is another type of discourse which constructs the description of the lithic knapped objects. There is a need to describe for the sake of communication. We don’t compare objects but descriptions; we need to describe in order to compare, to make inferences, to explain. We need a language, that is already available in the dissemination of a variety of texts. Each archaeologist adds to that dissemination his own text, and these added terms and concepts can be arranged in different places of a continuum between the natural and the social sciences, or between a rigorous technical language and its dangerous general usage in social sciences. The latter offers the risk of transferring ambiguity and indefinitedness. We describe objects as individual, as a class, and in its relations with other objects. To give account of a perception means to describe; the language configures what is being seen. There is no possibility of describing the objects out of the limits of a terminology. Each field of the archaeological description has its own terminology (ceramics, lithics, textiles) and it could be considered as a subset of archaeological language. Hence the importance of its accuracy.
Third, this descriptive language can be distinguished from the more abstract and more logic language of inferences. Inferential language allows accounting for events, activities, actions, behaviors, cultures, and more complex synthesis, which are not directly perceived.
As regards to my work, if there are no precise description of the object being described, it will be impossible to make inferences; moreover, it won’t be possible to perceive the object as a subject of archaeological knowledge. The mere recognition of a knapped stone needs an initial inference (for instance, the characteristics of conchoidal fracture, as seen in the so called ventral face); more complex descriptions are needed to infer, for instance, technological characteristics or traces of use. All these descriptions will be applied to the reconstruction of the diverse past scenarios in which the objects worked; that is to say, to the reconstruction of the archaeological possible worlds of cultures. But in this work, I will devote myself to the descriptions, which I consider the frame of any subsequent reasoning.
These three kinds of discourses are generally present in each archaeological writing, in its different utterances. The analysis of those archaeological writings can differentiate them and contribute to clarify some facts of this language. It doesn’t imply a return to the theoretical texts, in which rejection I agree with Hodder, but an accurate observation of the materiality of the data, in which encouragement I also agree with him (1996: 211).
But, why should be given such salient significance to the language and the discourse? I consider, together with Foucault (1969: 91-93), that there are no topic nor discipline, but there are only discoursive strategies which constitute both of them as such. Archaeology has not a metaphysical existence, but consists of a particular way of describing certain objects. A geologist and an archaeologist, while facing the same stone, will have different approaching strategies. This difference in relation to other strategies, constructs the archaeological discourse. Archaeology is textuality, be it writings or images. The non-contradictory utterance system -or in Foucault’s words, "formations discursives"- represents the coherence with which every archaeologist gives account of archaeological matters. Gardin, in his theoretical archaeology (1979), in his argumentation about the text types which through a number of steps construct archaeology, focuses specifically on the discoursive processes or archaeological constructs by means of which he goes from one step to the next one (descriptions, inferences, or explanations, etc.).
And, why is the dictionary as important as the language and the discourse? Because, as we will see, it gives account of the usage the archaeologists make of their language. If there were differences in the usage, how many archaeologies could we speak about?
The production of a scientific writing implies the generation of a set of utterances, which, according to Foucault (1969: 42-43) can be defined as a specific set of regularities, that is to say, a constancy in the usage of each term. Depending on how a term is placed in its contextual relations, that term can take different senses. The whole set of its senses constitutes its meaning. When it acquires different meaning, it will become difficult to include it in the same system, terminological or conceptual and this multiplication of senses will generate different perceptions of the same object, that is to say, different references (Jackendoff, 1993: 56). If the constancy of the meaning is broken, the coherent system of utterances will also be broken, and together with it, the coherence and rationality of that writing. These reflections, made from the conflictive point of view of lithic analysis knowledge, are trying to show the difficulties of coordinating the terms in a global system, coherent and logical or relatively coherent and relatively logical, that will permit a univocal description of the lithic object being perceived. This coordination requires to study the matter itself of discourse: the terms and its contextual relations in the utterance.
I have chosen some examples in order to show the different usages, and the type of problems that could arise when there is variability in the meaning of terms. I restrict myself here to comment the more general differences, without refering to authors, texts, or countries, where the utterances belong to.
This selection includes five terms that, depending on its context, are related to: a) actions that could be considered technical, or functional, or accidental (astillamiento, lascado); b) the morphological effects of modifying the object (astillamiento, lascado), and, c) the objects detached from the piece (astilla, esquirla, lasca), both, b and c, observable. Terms related with actions imply inferences; terms that designate attributes and detached elements of the piece, imply observation, but these elements can be inferred from each other.
Foucault, M. (1969) L’Archéologie du savoir, Paris: Gallimard.
Gardin, J.-C. (1979) Une archéologie théorique, Paris: Hachette.
Hodder, I. (1996) Theory and Practice in Archaeology, London: Routledge.
Jackendoff, R. (1993) Languages of the Mind. Essays on Mental Representation, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT