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

Australian artists Historically, Australian rock shelter art is particularly intriguing, because it is not based on figurative depictions of animals: the majority of Australian rock shelter art is abstract and geometrical, highly patterned and probably originally colored.

The Early Man Caves at Queensland, composed of large and intricate engravings of circles, grids and intertwined lines which eventually “disappear” into an archaeological layer, have been dated back 13,000 years. Circles are particularly prominent, sometimes forming groups of several dozen, randomly interspersed with internal vertical parallel lines, lozenge patterns or central pits. These works are on such a large scale and cover so immense an area that intentional message-making seems implicit.

In the Koonalda caves, finger-marked geometric lines cover several thousand square feet of cave surface. Such lines, called meanders, apparently were created in repeated visits and date back 19,000 to 20,000 years  (Homepage of the Australian Rock Art Research Association, Inc). Ballawine Cave and Judd's Cavern in Tasmania are famous for “red hand” stencils dating back 14,000 years. In 1988, a new series of 22 decorated caves containing non-figurative marks made by humans on the walls and ceilings was discovered in South Australia, near Mount Gambier (Jones 34).

These are obviously graphic designs intentionally planned and created for some purpose - not merely straightforward reproductions of the natural world as we know it. These are organized efforts, producing signs with more complex meaning than simply recording a successful hunting expedition.

Experts have not conclusively determined whether all sites marked with signs were permanent settlements. Some evidence suggests continuous residents did actually live near or in the extensive cave systems of Australia, although these findings are far from conclusive. Even if these remarkably ornate sites were not literally dwelling places, they were deeply embedded within the often migratory life styles of the aboriginal peoples and were considered “home” by the local inhabitants in ways sometimes more complex than sites permanently populated by the more sedentary groups of Asia, Europe and Africa. The rock shelter art found in some Australian sites are signs of home which involve an entire transient population, delivering messages to many members rather than focusing on the identity of individual householders.

linked figures In contrast to the Australian caves so far discovered, the large majority of forms in European parietal art are based on animals. But in European caves, there are mysteriously “linked” animal beings, combination figures which include both animal forms and large geometric shapes. In France, Paleolithic decorated caves have been analyzed in over 150 sites, the oldest dating from approximately 30,000 BCE. Although more than 90 percent of analyzed sites seem to be based around animal forms, the French caves also include colorful human hand paintings (Farley 39).

Since anthropologists have discovered this style of hand painting in caves all over the world, in sites created hundreds of miles and thousands of years apart, some scholars consider hand paintings to be the first universal "iconic" form of world communication, a personalized marker left in a sheltered place, wordless but unmistakably human (Bednarik 218). The form of the human hand itself becomes the carrier of the message: “I was here.”
A large number of researchers have concluded that the circle is “the grapheme of the first order for humankind” (Arhneim 20). The simple mark of a circle establishes identity, with radiating circles emanating outward as markers of protection and containment. Historically, this configuration, (a dot surrounded by one or more circles) would indeed appear to be the most ancient and perennial of all human symbols. From Neolithic cult symbols unearthed in Northern Spain dated from 3000 BCE to modern graffiti mandalas spray painted on 21st century urbanscapes, circles represent the many layers of human consciousness and occur in every culture as “inclusive and encompassing signs of human response” (Biedermann 43).

One intriguing interpretation of circles as a primal human sign involves the human recognition of duality: the human tendency to experience reality as states of black and white, on and off, ying and yang, male and female, good and evil. The circle allows these divisions and supplies graphic representation of separate states while maintaining a unified surface. Ultimately, fusing these separate states is a basis for many other signs. The caduceus, the ying/yang sign, and the star of intertwined triangles are all ancient attempts to combine the symbols of the dark side with the light (Brothwell 144).

Igbo wall plates hex signs Magical circular designs can be intentionally produced to protect a shelter against specific evils as well. The Nigerian Igbo tribe is renowned for the beautiful graphic effects created on the walls of their houses by embedding plates.

Pennsylvania Dutch “hex” art has roots in medieval craft painting, which had distinct and extensive vocabulary of protective symbols: “The designs are a way of representing energy, lines of force or will, the collaboration between the painter and Deity. The artist did not just put the compass on the paper or wood upon which she worked, but placed the point with deliberation. With the point set, she then set the radius of the circle, paused, and always inscribed the first circle with careful deliberation” (Helfman 62). Hex signs were quickly explained away as purely decorative art in the US, since any intimation of old folk magic was seen as a direct confrontation with prevailing Christian doctrines (Henry 18).

Spiral carved in rocks Spirals, sometimes found in the form of labyrinths, are also very old and widely distributed signs based on the power of the circle. Intertwining spirals appear on gravesites, in rock art and within textiles throughout Great Britain and Europe as well as North and South America. The labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral was placed over the ancient shrine to the earth goddess Belthane. As complex manifestations of the basic circle, the spiral is frequently a symbol both of the unconscious and the inward journey, as well as the underworld. Circles within circles, spirals within spirals, remain one of the ultimate human signs and are found adorning shelter exteriors and interiors in almost every culture.

Other shapes have evolved with specific references to the family house as a symbol of protection, security and spirituality. The African symbol of fihankra depicts the open courtyard within the house which serves as the center of activities in the household and is shared by all members of the extended family. Therefore, the concept of fihankra reinforces the idea of close family ties and unity and has become a political symbol as well as an architectural rendering. In environments where solid walls can be a disadvantage, some houses are built around open courtyards. This design choice is not only well ventilated, it is flexible and can withstand the wear of storms, rainfall and hot weather. Graphic symbols have evolved to designate this type of house, including the African Akan sign for mframadan: “ well ventilated” or “breezy” house.

Signs based on invented abstract shapes, with no direct correspondence to natural forms, were historically used to protect and identify shelters evolved in the colder climates of Scandinavia. Rune has been variously translated to mean speech, song, writing or knowledge. Researchers disagree over the history of the runes: one theory suggests Norwegian runes are identical to those used in Semitic language areas such as Trojan Asia Minor and Canaan (Palestine) as early as 2000 BCE while other writers argue that the runes were introduced to Scandinavia during the same period that the well known spiral-ornaments were introduced from Crete in approximately 1800-400 BCE.

Rune stoneIn any case, the two most powerful domestic runes were probably raido, the rune of journeys both physical and spiritual and algiz, the rune of protective sanctuary. Although the precise meaning of each rune is debated as fiercely as the precise meanings in many other ancient sacred scriptures, most researchers agree that these two signs have traditionally been invoked to provide the ability to defend oneself, to protect that which is most personally valuable and to mark a place of safety and sanctuary. Runic art using these symbols was used on grave markers, tapestries and most probably appeared on a wide selection of now-vanished domestic implements such as blankets and pottery. Leaving such a mark on a traveler's cloak or near the hearth fire before departure would protect and strengthen both the traveler and those left behind (Blockmans 51). Runes were used to mark both buildings and belongings as protected and cherished.

Discovering or re-inventing a connection between the physical world and the invisible powers beyond our control can be an effective way to face life, with or without technology. And it is important to know how to rebuild safe shelter again, without offending the environment or the gods. Recognizing the magical signs of human dwelling places is central to examining the powers assigned by Homo sapiens to their gods. Creating and reading these signs is what makes us human.

Read more about colors here: 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
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Last updated 07.15.04