REMINDERS OF HOME: A survey of the semiotic signs related to human dwelling-places

Abstract Introduction Early Shelter Color Pattern Meaning in Language Archetypes
Parts of Shelters Semiotics and meaning Modern Usage Conclusions References Webliography Links

Early Shelter and Related Symbols

Humans have a long history of creating visual images on the walls of sheltering caves. The meaning within these ancient images has yet to be conclusively defined, although the recurring stencil of the human hand leads researchers to suggest these markings were probably meant to communicate more than mere hunting statistics.

Cave art empahising human hands Rock art from the oldest caves was created either by applying pigment to the surface or by removing part of the stone, producing two dimensional depictions on vertical or horizontal surfaces and sometimes incorporating unusual natural configurations such as protrusions, hollows and cracks. Pictographs are generally drawings done on various supports in addition to rock, such as animal skins, wood and bone. Petroglyphs usually involve removal of part of a rock face to make figures. Scholars distinguish between rupestral rock art and portable art: rupestral art occurs on immovable rock surfaces, while portable art is that found on small stones or utilitarian objects made of materials which can easily be carried or moved about (Sieveking 203).

Archeologists further distinguish between parietal art (underground, intentionally made human painting/engraving on cave walls, created in and maintained in the subterranean dark) and general rock art, which usually occurs on shelter walls with some exposure to sunlight (Hill 21). Evidence for at least one of each art types occurs on every habitable continent on earth. New World Pleistocene rock art includes hundreds of decorated caves and rock-shelters in southern Peru and Patagonia. A painted fragment from the rock-shelter of Pedra Furada in Brazil, has been dated to 17,000 years ago. African rock-shelters in the Tsodilo Hills near Zimbabwe contain over 500 individual sites charting thousands of years of human habitation within fragments of painted stone which are known to be from layers dated to between 13,000 and 40,000 years old. Intricately painted rock shelters in Bhinbetka, India, contain hundreds of examples of parietal art, which may date from the Upper Paleolithic era (Gron 40).

Everywhere human culture has taken root, our ancestors have left their marks.

Careful examination of these earliest communication signs suggest that devices such as human hands painted on cave walls probably contain more than one layer of cultural meaning. The urge to recreate both the sights of the physical world and the insights of the spiritual realm has long roots in the human psyche. This ability to create meaning through visual markers, and the recurring drive to leave such signs on shelter walls, is a powerful demonstration of the human need for self-expression as well as supporting evidence for the human value placed on sheltering walls as a welcome if not sacred place.

Aside from specific shelter-related projects like ceremonial structures, the signs related to human dwelling places often contain particular patterns and colors, intentionally selected by a given group to convey unusually powerful messages about the shelters they decorate and protect.

Read more about patterns and colors here: Patterns Colors


(C) 2004 Tami Sutcliffe
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of Master of Arts in Art History
in the Graduate School of California State University,
Dominguez Hills, Fall 2004

"Seaside Souvenirs" by Marney Johnson: 32" x 34" - Oil on Masonite
"An Indian Corn Morning" by Marney Johnson: 32" x 48" - Oil on Masonite
"Japanese Juniper" by Marney Johnson: [central triptych panel] 34" x 36" - Oil on Masonite
All images courtesy of Marnie Johnson: Visit her work here:

Last updated 07.15.04