Signs of Life: Engraved Stone Artefacts from Neolithic South India

Cambridge Archaeological Journal 01/2006; DOI: 10.1017/S0959774306000102
Source: OAI

ABSTRACT While exceedingly rare on any given archaeological site, engraved stone artefacts have nonetheless been reported from sites covering a range of periods and regions across the world. Attempts to interpret such engravings have often focused on potential representational or communicative functions, including their role in notational systems, symbolic depiction, and the development of early forms of writing. Contextual and microscopic investigation of a number of engraved artefacts discovered in a large assemblage of dolerite artefacts excavated from a Neolithic hilltop habitation and stone-tool production site in south India suggests, however, that an alternative interpretation of engraved stone artefacts is possible. Drawing on ethnographic evidence concerning the perception of stone, and particularly natural markings on stone, this article argues that the stone pieces on which the marks were engraved were more than just passive surfaces for the creation of unrelated signs. Instead, engravings appear to draw on natural features within and upon the surface of the dolerite, and to suggest an appreciation for the patterns of nature, as well as a lack of distinction between anthropogenic and natural markings. It is argued that the engravings may have been a response to a perceived ‘life-force’ within the dolerite. The fact that they were produced and then broken apart by knapping suggests that they may have been made to accentuate or attenuate a power that was perceived as either somehow beneficial or in need of careful control.

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