In This Chapter

Bookmark and Share

Chapter Summary

  • Cognitive archaeology is the study of past ways of thought through material remains. Humans are distinguished from other life forms by their use of symbols; all intelligent speech and thought are based on these symbols. The meaning ascribed to a symbol is specific to a particular cultural tradition and depictions as well as material objects do not directly disclose their meaning to archaeologists.
  • The origins of self-consciousness and the development of a cognitive map are hotly debated but there is little archaeological evidence to clarify the matter. Tool manufacturing and the deliberate burial of the dead are two of many ways we may investigate the cognitive behavior of early humans. The act of burial itself implies feelings for the dead. In addition, archaeologists recognize that grave-goods in a burial are chosen to give a representation of the identity of the deceased.
  • The existence of writing implies a major extension of the cognitive map as written symbols are the most effective way that humans can describe the world around them and communicate with others.
  • Material symbols are put to a variety of uses. They can establish place by marking territory, organize the natural world into units of time and distance, serve as instruments of planning, regulate relations between people through use of material constructs such as money, bring people closer to the supernatural or transcendent, and even describe the world itself through artistic representation. All of these material symbols can be seen in various ways in the archaeological record.
  • New developments in areas such as the study of early musical behavior and cognitive science indicate fresh pathways for cognitive archaeology.

Key Concepts


Cognitive archaeology, p.391

Theory and Method

Cognitive map, p.392

Investigating How Human Symbolizing Faculties Evolved

Language development, p.393
The food-sharing hypothesis, p.394
Deliberate burial of human remains, p.395
Representations, pp.395, 400

Paleolithic Art

Cave art, pp.398–99
Portable art, pp.398–99

Working with Symbols

The basic use of symbols, p.400

From Written Source to Cognitive Map

Literacy restriction, p.401
Greek literacy, pp.401, 403

Establishing Place

Domus, p.403
Landscape archaeology, pp.404–05

Measuring the World

Units of time, p.405
Units of length, p.408
Units of weight, pp.408–09

Symbols of Organization and Power

Money, p.411
Intrinsic value, p.412

Symbols for the Otherworld: The Archaeology of Religion

Archaeology of cult, p.415
Focusing of attention, p.415

Identifying the Supernatural Powers

Iconography, p.417

Depiction: Art and Representation

Fertility goddess, p.422
Symmetry analysis, p.424
Individual artists, pp.424–25
Mythic thought, pp.424, 428
Aesthetics, p.428

Music and Cognition

Defining music, p.430

Mind and Material Engagement

Embodied cognition, p.430

Cognition and Neuroscience

The learning process, p.431