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


Home can be a geographic location on a map, a song from childhood, familiar scents of food being prepared, even the tactile experience of gripping an old wooden banister. Home is where journeys begin and end. Home is where birth and death have traditionally taken place. Home can become a source of replenishment, a sanctuary from the hostile outer world or a storage vault used to contain and display treasures, both private and public.

While cultural symbols of home are frequently based on a permanent location, other aspects of home can become portable, allowing the residents to retain safety and comfort without necessarily remaining in a single physical location.

How humans choose to communicate their dreams of “a safe place” reveals much about the values of a given society. Over time, structures which have become human homes have acquired unique graphic symbols. This study of semiotic signs (and the role of such signs in marking and defining human dwelling places) highlights the connection between a specific kind of cultural meaning (“This is my home”) and the way this meaning is shared through the use of semiotic signs and visual symbols.

Practical lore and spiritual myths surround human homes. Special graphical designations for dwelling places have been assimilated into almost every human society. However, physical shelter itself, by definition, is merely a protective barrier from the elements: images of one's home can become both more abstract and more intensely beloved than any mere architectural elements, decorative devices or graphic symbols might suggest.

So many aspects of human cultural development are woven into an understanding of home that removing this background element from human society is almost unthinkable. Aside from the literal characteristics based on “where you come from” which provide the mental constructs of nationality, territoriality and even basic humanity, many of the most important creative and spiritual aspects of human beings are defined and supported by the comfort and safety (or lack thereof) provided by their dwelling places.

The act of returning home or being at home crystallizes many aspects of human creativity and identity. The variety and similarity of the earliest signs related to human dwelling places is revealed in the rock shelters of ancient peoples. Over time, specific parts of human shelters have become signs themselves, amplifying and revealing the identity of a culture by assigning specific meaning to particular aspects of residential architecture. Sacred powers seem to have been combined with the essence of holy places to produce additional protective signs for human dwelling places. Certain styles of roofs, entrances and windows have gradually acquired symbolic meaning and represent more than just stylistic whims when observed in cultural context. Even signs separate from the shelter itself, such as alphabetic characters or abstract visual symbols used to convey the meaning of habitation, can contribute to the human concept of home as an essential place of safety and revival.

Certain materials, colors and decorative patterns have also gradually evolved into semiotic signs when applied to human shelter, producing meanings specific to the human groups residing in these dwellings. The way shelters are built or decorated by an individual resident reveals the way each householder perceives himself as an individual and identifies each as a member of the larger community.

Modern dwelling places continue to transmit and store cultural meaning. It is possible for one house to become a point of origin, a place of spiritual retreat, an ongoing source of identity and a concrete form of cultural expression. Semiotic signs including architectural elements, decorative devices and protective symbols which reveal cultural information about contemporary residents, their superstitions and their expectations.

Even the lack of a symbol for home within a human group seems to highlight a tragic difference within such a group: all other communicating definitions must be adjusted when there is no permanent “home” to reference. Some concepts, such as temporal shelter or traditional burial grounds, can only be defined against the backdrop of a permanent home.

A rich collection of both semiotic and graphical resources are available online, and in addition to the required printed paper, the final results of this project will include an archived web site detailing the results of this work. The web site draft currently resides here:


(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, July 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
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Last updated 07.15.04