An oﬀprint from
DEVELOPMENT OF PRESTATE
COMMUNITIES IN THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST
Diane Bolger and Louise C. Maguire
© Oxbow Books 2010
UNDERSTANDING SYMBOLS: PUTTING MEANING
INTO THE PAINTED POTTERY OF PREHISTORIC
Like several other contributors to this volume, some of
the ﬁ rst classes I took as an undergraduate were taught by
Eddie Peltenburg and, again in common with many others,
I have worked on projects with him in both Cyprus and
Syria over many years since then. It would be difﬁ cult to
either quantify or overestimate the extent to which I have
been inﬂ uenced by him. It is both a pleasure and an honour
to make a contribution to this volume.
The painted ceramics of the late Neolithic in northern
Mesopotamia are some of the most elaborate and attractive
decorated pottery in prehistory. The overwhelming majority
of the decoration is geometric, sometimes with what seems
like an endless parade of motifs and subtle variations. Rare
examples stand out as very different, with much more
naturalistic decoration depicting people, animals, structures
and artifacts in scenes whose power and signiﬁ cance seems
to us to be much more immediately recognisable. This
paper argues that much of this decoration, both abstract and
ﬁ gurative, carried meaning and that these meanings endowed
the ceramics with a social agency of their own (cf Gell
1998). Understanding the ways in which the agency could be
exercised can provide a key to understanding how society of
late Neolithic northern Mesopotamia was constituted.
Over a period from just before 6000 cal BC to a little
after 5000 cal BC, the pottery of north Mesopotamia is
characterised by extensive and sometimes elaborate painted
decoration. Although it has traditionally been divided
into different cultures or phases, the Samarran, Halaf and
Ubaid, it may be more proﬁ table to think of it as a broad
ceramic phase characterised by that domination of painted
decoration, reﬂ ecting both a stylistic expression that came
into use c. 6200 cal BC and declined c. 4,750 cal BC, “l’ère
de la céramique peinte” (Huot 1994, 63) and the social
milieu within which it had meaning and signiﬁ cance.
In the past, the painted decoration of this general phase
has primarily been analysed and interpreted typologically
and chronologically. Decoration has been used to deﬁ ne
cultural or chronological groupings, and it has been
sub-divided into many individual motifs which have
been examined for their symmetry. Similarity in motif
assemblages has explicitly or implicitly been used to look
at group identity and differentiation. Little attention has
been paid, however, to what was actually meant by the
symbolism of individual motifs or combinations of motifs
and the degree of sophistication or convention in the
messages that the decoration could convey, although this
is key to understanding how decoration was both used and
adopted. In other words, form has been prioritised at the
expense of meaning.
Although it will remain impossible to comprehend fully
exact meanings from prehistoric material, it is perhaps
possible to gain insights into the types of meaning that
were present and something of how they functioned within
a wider system of symbolic communication. The contrasts
and links between the predominant abstract, geometric
decoration and the much rarer, naturalistic decoration can
act as a powerful tool to gain conceptual leverage on this
Throughout the period, most of the decoration on the
painted pottery is geometric and abstract (e.g. Fig. 18.1).
Here I wish to explore one possible way of understanding
the choices, combination and meanings of the geometrical
and apparently abstract motifs as symbols that, at times at
least, had explicit meanings, both individually and in groups.
The much rarer examples of decoration with depictions of
naturalistic scenes contrast strongly with this predominant
geometric decoration. In archaeological publications, the
two categories of decoration have generally been considered
separately, with the more naturalistic depictions often
separated out from the rest of the ceramics as prize ﬁ nds. I
wish instead to explore the way in which the two types of
decoration may be understood as different aspects of the
same system of communication with a complementary role
in pre-urban social interaction and integration.
Although it is certainly true that there may have been
considerable variations in both time and space, for simplicity
I will make little effort here to incorporate regional or
chronological subtleties. Most of my examples come from
the pottery manufactured and decorated in the Halaf style.
This is largely due to convenience.
There have, of course, been other approaches to this
challenge. Mallowan famously outlined a sequence of
development for the bucrania motif, running from natural-
istic to highly abstract, and argued that a similar process
of stylisation may have occurred with other motifs as well
(Mallowan and Cruickshank Rose 1935, 154–165). Where
the complete process of schematisation is not attested, this
is difﬁ cult to demonstrate for many motifs and, in any case,
need not correlate with signiﬁ cance or meaning. Even where
motifs represent abstractions of what was once naturalistic,
they need not have deeply symbolic meanings; for example,
the suggestion that has been made many times that cross-
hatching may originate as an attempt to depict basketry
(e.g. Mallowan and Cruickshank Rose 1935, 153; Wengrow
2001). If this suggestion has merit, the link might be deeply
meaningful or it might be relatively trivial – or it might point
to meanings that were shared between different media.
There was probably not a simple way that meaning was
communicated. Decoration on pots doubtless conveyed
information in different ways and at multiple levels.
Different aspects of the decoration might possess very
different signiﬁ cance. Thus, not only have various an-
alytical approaches been taken; they may also help us to
reconstruct different types of meaning. Hole, Bernbeck
and Nieuwenhuyse have explored the signiﬁ cance of the
structure of the decorative scheme (Hole 1984; Bernbeck
1994; 1999; Nieuwenhuyse 2007). Elements of composition,
such as symmetry and repetition, may have been important
(e.g. von Wickede 1986; Melville 2005). The analysis of
individual motifs themselves has a particularly detailed
history of study (e.g. LeBlanc and Watson 1973; Davidson
1977; Campbell 1992; Irving 2001). Each approach may
be seen as complementary to the others by focussing on
different aspects of the design. However, all of these studies
have emphasised typologies and generalised structure.
Although meaning has been considered, it has been treated
as a rather general concept, often in a manner drawing
implicitly or explicitly on similar approaches to the analysis
of style (Conkey and Hastorf 1990). These approaches can
certainly help us understand both aspects of identity and
the ways in which a potter conceptualised and executed
a design. They tell us less about what meanings these
elements may have carried. Although they have shed
light on important aspects of the decoration of pottery in
northern Mesopotamia, they have not generally been part
of an effort to construct a general theory of what decoration
meant and how it functioned as a mechanism of social
Fig. 18.1 Typical Halaf vessels from Arpachiyah decorated with geometric motifs (after Mallowan and Cruickshank Rose 1935, ﬁ g. 60,
no. 5 and ﬁ g. 61, no. 2).
18. Understanding symbols: Putting meaning into painted pottery 149
Schmandt-Besserat has recently suggested that com-
positions of pre-4th millennium painted pottery focussed
on ﬁ lling space according to rules of aesthetics, whether
the compositions used geometric or naturalistic decoration
(2007, 5–22). Although she acknowledges that prehistoric
decoration carried meaning, she suggests that it was
generalised rather than something which could be complex
and dynamic. She draws on parallels with language,
especially written language, to suggest that scenes are only
explicitly narrative in the 4th and 3rd millennia. Thus “...
preliterate pottery composition formed an all-over pattern
meant to be apprehended as a whole, or globally, those of
the literate period were to be viewed analytically” (2007,
24) and “Preliterate pottery paintings could only evoke an
idea” (2007, 25). In contrast, I would argue that it is not
that Neolithic decoration could not support a narrative but
that the narrative needed to be deciphered and explained;
that the process of extracting and recreating meaning would
have been a process of social interaction.
Nieuwenhuyse has recently proposed such a theory (2007,
206–212). His interpretation emphasises structured sets
of oppositions between bounded-unbounded, naturalistic-
abstract, repetitive-discontinuous designs. Designs with
bounded, continuous and geometrical attributes are suggested
to have had an ‘outward’ social orientation while the
unbounded, discontinuous and ‘figurative’ styles were
directed ‘inward’ at local and domestic activities and
meanings. While there is much to embrace in this proposal,
it should also perhaps be noted that the interpretation of
painted, naturalistic decoration on pottery depends heavily
on the interpretation of representational depictions on other
media, such as wall paintings, seals, ﬁ gurines and applied
decoration on pots (Nieuwenhuyse 2007, 210). Comparisons
across media have been neglected in the past, so this
inclusive approach is very welcome. It does not necessarily
follow, however, that the same rules and audiences were
observed in all cases; painted pottery may have had different
considerations. However, the discussion presented here is not
incompatible with Nieuwenhuyse’s proposals.
In the rare cases where naturalistic or ﬁ gurative decor-
ation is present on the late Neolithic pottery of north
Mesopotamia, it has often been interpreted in isolation. A
range of interpretations have been put forward for different
examples. In contrast to the geometric decoration, it has
usually been assumed that ﬁ gurative designs did carry
important social meanings. Thus representational designs
have been identiﬁ ed as carrying ritual meaning, including
the depiction of deities and supernatural beings (Ippolitoni-
Strika 1990; 1996; Breniquet 1992; Forest 1996; Cauvin
2000). In a stimulating analysis, Garﬁ nkel interpreted a
series of human ﬁ gures as dancers (2003).
Despite their immediate impact on the observer, it is
probably a mistake to treat the naturalistic designs as
completely separate from the more general geometric
motifs. Some types of decoration, such as bucrania, can
be considered in both categories as it is used along a
spectrum from naturalistic to stylised. Furthermore, there
is little evidence that the prehistoric potters maintained a
rigid division. Almost all pots with representational designs
also have elements of geometric decoration, sometimes
used to frame naturalistic scenes but perhaps often used to
reinforce the fact that the pot remains a pot by retaining the
most typical geometric elements, such as a band around the
vessel rim. It may be proﬁ table to explore a more integrated
approach where naturalistic and geometric decorations are
not seen as completely separate.
“Visual representation refers both to the act of portraying,
symbolizing or presenting the likeness of something, and
to the use of the resultant image “to ‘re-present’, imagine,
describe, define, understand, fix, construct, organise,
regulate and even transform the world as we perceive it”
(Skeates 2007, 199). Given an appropriate social context,
both geometric and naturalistic motifs can function in
this way. The difference between the abstract image
and the naturalistic example can be one of degree – the
representation in the former case may be more formalised,
more embedded in convention and also potentially hidden.
The key constituent of the abstract image may not be
obvious, with less meaningful elaboration hiding the more
significant core that delivers the real meaning. These
meanings can be overt, but they can also be obscured and
elaborated by the addition of further elements. This places
a great deal of emphasis on the social context in which
decoration was created and displayed.
The range of meanings encoded in the decoration of a
vessel was undoubtedly complex, and its comprehension
was equally certainly dependent on the observer. More
broadly, the meaning would have been created by the
setting – the occasion of consumption of food and drink,
the participants and their interaction. The meanings would
have emerged from social discourse (cf Bernbeck 1999),
both spoken and unspoken. Some elements of the meaning
would certainly have operated on the level of familiarity
and identiﬁ cation, simply on the level of ‘is my pottery
like your pottery?’. Other meanings might well have been
associated with function, both of the vessel and the way it
was used, and were possibly reinforced by variables such
as types of food and cooking methods.
However, it is possible to argue that the combination of
vessel shape, structure of the decoration and the particular
motifs might carry more explicit meanings, perhaps assoc-
iated with speciﬁ c concepts and narratives. The clearest
indication of this comes from the exceptional vessel/ﬁ gurine
from the Halaf levels of Yarim Tepe II (Fig. 18.2). This
ﬁ gurine was found in a pit, broken in pieces and associated
with burning (Merpert and Munchaev 1987). It seems
possible that it had actually been treated in a way that is
analogous to human funerary treatment, which also some-
times has elements of burial, fragmentation and burning
(Campbell 2008). The removable head was not found with
the rest of the pot, perhaps because it was made of organic
material or perhaps because it was deliberately separated
from the body, a practice which could also parallel the
occasional special treatment given to human skulls. It does
not seem contentious to argue that it was a ﬁ gurine with high
symbolic value, which had a use in speciﬁ c rituals in which
presumably both the ability to ﬁ ll the ﬁ gurine/vessel with
liquid and its removable head would have had a signiﬁ cant
role. It is probable that it represented a speciﬁ c mythical or
supernatural being who would have ﬁ gured in narratives of
importance in systems of society and belief.
Assuming the ﬁ gurine/vessel did have an important
status, it follows that the decoration on this vessel is not
random but had been selected for very speciﬁ c reasons that
may have ampliﬁ ed the meanings attached to the person
or being represented. Some of the decoration is broadly
naturalistic, such as the hair and possible armlets, and may
be associated with the woman depicted in the vessel or the
role that she performed. The elements of the ﬁ gurine/vessel
that are particularly relevant here are the ones that aren’t
obviously naturalistic although it is possible that they were
associated with body paint or tattooing. These are motifs
which had been added with particular purpose and to add
particular meanings to the ﬁ gure. They were both relevant to
the person represented and conveyed additional information
that was probably quite explicit in intent and meaning. In
particular, the signiﬁ cant motifs are the rosette or ﬂ ower
depicted in the navel and the dotting that ﬁ lls the exaggerated
pubic area. Furthermore, although the overall artefact is very
naturalistic, there are no feet or legs. This is not simply a
technical requirement as a roughly contemporary ﬁ gurine/
vessel at Domuztepe has very well modelled legs and feet
(Campbell 2004). On the Yarim Tepe II ﬁ gurine, instead of
feet, there is a ﬂ ange with a row of upturned triangle motifs
running around it.
These non-naturalistic elements are particularly inter-
esting because they also occur in the geometric decoration
on pots that otherwise would not appear particularly unusual.
Although all the elements do occur in isolation, they are
used in the same combinations with surprising frequency.
Rosettes probably occur most frequently on Halaf pottery
in association with areas ﬁ lled with dots, either in alternate
panels or chequer board patterns. This repeats the association
of the rosette or ﬂ ower with dots in the pubic triangle of
the ﬁ gurine/vessel at Yarim Tepe II. Strikingly, one of the
main vessel types that often has alternating panels of rosettes
Fig. 18.2 Vessel ﬁ gurine from Yarim Tepe II (after Munchaev and Merpert 1981, ﬁ g. 98).
18. Understanding symbols: Putting meaning into painted pottery 151
and dots along the interior of the rim also has a ﬂ anged
base which can be decorated with up-turned triangle motifs
(Fig. 18.3). Examples can be cited from both Yarim Tepe II
and Umm Qseir in north-east Syria (Tsuneki and Miyake
1998, ﬁ g. 26, nos 1, 9). I would suggest that the pots with
the same combination of motifs that we see on the Yarim
Tepe II ﬁ gurine/vessel may either draw on precisely the
same meanings or even represent the same woman, whether
supernatural or mythological, in a much more abstract form.
The decoration needs to be understood as partaking in the
same mythologies or narratives as the being represented
by the ﬁ gurine.
While this example is outstanding, there are other
indications that some motifs may carry speciﬁ c meanings.
The most obvious is the well known bucrania (Mallowan and
Cruickshank Rose 1935, 154–165). Although the bulls’ horns
are often highly schematic, they still appear on a very wide
range of Halaf pottery in a form recognisable to us, almost
always embedded in otherwise geometric decoration (Fig.
18.4). Although they have received less attention, a similar
spectrum running from naturalistic to stylised can be observed
in other motifs such as mouﬂ on horns and birds which are also
most commonly integrated with abstract motifs. Similarly,
the distinctive motifs that appear round the interior rims of
both Samarran and early Halaf pottery and are generally
known as ‘dancing ladies’ are often seen in various stages
of stylisation (Fig. 18.5). It is possible that the ultimate level
of stylisation of this motif is the simple swags that are the
most frequent decoration on the same part of the vessel on
late Halaf pottery (e.g. Fig. 18.1, a). While meaning might
have been replaced by convention during the long process of
abstraction and schematisation, I would suggest that it is more
likely that the meaning was retained but no longer required
the full form to be depicted or perhaps even understood.
The process of abstraction may well have taken other more
naturalistic depictions and hidden them in geometric motifs
whose symbolism cannot be accessed by archaeologists but
may have been no less potent by being obscured.
This pattern of encoded meanings can possibly be
extended further. Some of the classic Halaf patterns are
Fig. 18.3 Bowls with ﬂ anged bases, rosettes and dots from Umm Qseir (after Tsuneki and Miyake 1998, ﬁ g. 26, nos 1 and 9).
Fig. 18.4 Bukrania motifs on Halaf pottery from Arpachiyah (after Mallowan and Cruickshank Rose 1935, ﬁ g. 76, nos 2 and 4).
Fig. 18.5 The ‘dancing ladies’ motif on the interior rim of bowls from Khirbet Garsour (original illustration by the author).
made up of dots (see the rather different discussion in
Nieuwenhuyse 2007, 207). Dots, however, tend to occur
only in particular places, sometimes in combination with
other geometric motifs but particularly in association with
depictions of animals and humans (e.g. Figs 18.4, 18.6
and 18.7, a). The appearance of dots on the Yarim Tepe
II ﬁ gurine/vessel is again relevant. In all these cases, the
dots appear as a secondary or background element. They
may be adding meaning or value to the primary element,
perhaps a concept of animation or drawing attention to it as
a major actor in some otherwise hidden narrative. Abstract
but meaningful decoration need not always derive from a
Although there are hints that suggest the signiﬁ cance of
some motifs, most of the meanings must inevitably escape
archaeologists. Nonetheless, based on the examples cited,
it seems possible that much of the apparently abstract,
geometric decoration may have had more or less complex
meanings. On one level, pottery decoration may simply
have been about the familiar (i.e. isochrestic meanings; see
Sackett 1990). On another level, explicit meanings could be
decoded and used to convey social narratives – discourses
that could link events and episodes in socially signiﬁ cant
ways, and that encapsulated ways of understanding the
world, society and the place of the individual or group
within it. These narratives might embody folklore, dreams
and the everyday experience of the world; frequently they
might have mythological or supernatural elements.
Because of the degree of abstraction in most of the
decoration, meaning may often have been relatively ﬁ xed,
imposing a high level of convention, so that it might have
been best used to relate established themes. Elements might
also be juxtaposed to challenge existing narratives and
create new variants, but this understanding might only be
possible when there was also a personal narrative to explain
what might otherwise have been simply odd. Certainly
the use of conventional elements would have constrained
the introduction of novel subjects and limited the scope
for new narratives to be introduced. Abstract, geometric
motifs therefore may have functioned to reinforce or modify
social conventions, not to initiate new understandings of
Fig. 18.6 Motifs showing animals on Halaf pottery at Arpachiyah (after Mallowan and Cruickshank Rose 1935, ﬁ g. 77: 1, 9 and 16).
Fig. 18.7 Naturalistic scenes on Halaf pottery from (a) Tell Halaf (after von Oppenheim 1943); and (b) Domuztepe (photo by the
18. Understanding symbols: Putting meaning into painted pottery 153
A possibly similar context of use can be seen in the
highly decorated chichi beer bowls in Ecuadorian Amazon,
the creation and decoration of which are critical aspects of
a wife’s role (Bowser 2000). The abstract decoration on the
vessels represents features of mythology, including spirits,
animals, plants and stars, as well as family relationships
and the connection between a woman and her dream world.
“The key symbols of female identity in Achuar and Quichua
belief systems – manioc, pottery clay, garden soil, and the
garden spirit – are linked through language, myth, and song
. . . On a daily basis, a woman’s act of serving chicha in a
pottery bowl to her husband or brother makes reference to
this cluster of key symbols” (Bowser 2000, 228). Within
this framework, designs are deeply personal and individual.
Innovations and interpretation of designs are an active topic
of discussion by both men and women.
In the prehistoric pottery of Mesopotamia, extensive
naturalistic decoration is unusual. As already discussed, it is
most often absorbed into the geometric patterns on vessels.
The more striking examples of naturalistic decoration are
very different. Not only is the design more obviously
representational, but the structure is usually much more
open (e.g. Fig. 18.7). Large areas of the vessel can be ﬁ lled
and different naturalistic elements are usually combined to
create scenes, such as the combination of houses, birds and
trees in Fig. 18.8.
While some of this might simply be style relating to an
individual potter, perhaps demonstrating technical ability,
I propose that more often its function may have been to
introduce new types of meanings and new narratives which
could not be created using the more stylised geometric
motifs. Because these narratives were new, they had to be
made much more explicit. Naturalistic decoration therefore
may have functioned to introduce new social narratives,
and to replace and extend existing social conventions. The
depiction of naturalistic scenes, including people, animals
and places, might have been associated with control.
Representational images can be powerful and dangerous,
and the vessels carrying these depictions may have been
highly active social agents in themselves.
In time, as the new narratives themselves became
conventional, the naturalistic depictions had the potential to
become more abstract and perhaps eventually be absorbed
in the much larger and more common category of abstract,
stylised or geometric designs.
The power of innovation may have been signiﬁ cant. Not
only may the depiction of naturalistic scenes have created
powerful objects, but it could also have been a direct
challenge to conventional social narratives. As a powerful
mechanism through which convention could be challenged,
it might have constituted a threat to established cosmologies
and social order. Consequently, its use might only have been
open to certain individuals acting in particular contexts.
While naturalistic motifs are generally very rare
throughout the period, there is one substantial context at
Domuztepe where they are remarkably common. This is the
‘Ditch’, which is not in fact a single feature as the name
suggests but a long series of linear cuts and re-cuts along an
axis of c. 30 m. Although the activity may have continued
for well over 100 years, most of the pottery in the refuse
that made up the ﬁ ll of the ‘Ditch’ seems to be Halaf Ia
in date. What is remarkable is the quantity of naturalistic
decoration, to the extent that it actually dominates the pottery
assemblage. While examples occur with apparently headless
bodies (Campbell 2004), dancing ladies (Campbell 2008, ﬁ g.
2, no. 4), animals and many other motifs, it is the depictions
Fig. 18.8 Depiction of houses on a Halaf pot from Domuztepe (photo by the author; decoration is partially reconstructed based on
that show houses with trees standing between them and
usually birds perched on the roofs (Fig. 18.8) that are the
most common, with perhaps 20 or more vessels carrying
variants of this scene.
We need to excavate more extensively to fully understand
the contemporary pottery at Domuztepe. However, it seems
probable that the pottery in the ‘Ditch’ represents a speciﬁ c
context of use, the refuse from which was disposed of in one
location, perhaps because it was in some way ‘dangerous’
or ‘powerful’ and needed to be controlled after its use and
breakage. This may suggest a particular domain within
which new social narratives were being advanced or an
authority which was using pottery decoration as an active
agent of change.
If the interpretation proposed above is correct, we can see
the painted decoration on the pottery of the late Neolithic
in north Mesopotamia from a new perspective, as part of
a system of communication where vessels gained agency
that was created and deciphered through social narratives.
This gives the ceramics a signiﬁ cant and active role in the
way in which society functioned and the ways that social
conventions were conveyed and enforced. Although both
abstract, geometric decoration and representational designs
functioned in ways that were closely related, they may have
represented opposite ends of the same system, with the
ability to convey different types of meanings (Table 18.1).
By being more standardised and representing accepted
cosmologies, the stylised, geometric motifs may have been
meaningful over much wider regions. While this correlates
with the wide spread of certain motif combinations, such
as the association of ﬂ owers and dots or the appearance of
‘dancing ladies’, it also poses the question of the extent
to which stylistic similarities in pottery decoration reﬂ ect
shared social narratives and mythologies. If the more
naturalistic decoration was used to convey new narratives, it
may have been much more local in impact, perhaps requiring
more verbal interpretation, and possibly reﬂ ecting the intent
of individuals or small corporate groups to introduce new
ways of understanding the world.
Bernbeck, R. 1994. Die Auﬂ ösung der Häuslichen Produktions-
weise: das Beispiel Mesopotamiens. Berlin, Dietrich Reimer.
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Tell Arpachiyah. Iraq 54, 69–78.
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Common Very rare and exceptional.
Used in social contexts with active set of meanings
that could relate to personal histories, storytelling
Used in social contexts with active set of meanings that
could relate to personal histories, storytelling and/or
Encoding of meanings is inflexible and with a
framework of convention.
Draws on pre-existing encoding of meanings by use of
some geometric decoration but not constrained by it.
Can be used to modify or challenge old narratives
through innovative juxtaposition but within existing
Potential to create completely new narratives and
Reinforces existing framework. Potential to challenge and transform existing framework.
May suggest common cosmologies and shared social
narratives within area of use, which is sometimes very
Understanding may be very contextual and local to
particular regions in which new narratives appear.
Table 18.1 Roles of geometric and naturalistic decoration in conveying meaning.
18. Understanding symbols: Putting meaning into painted pottery 155
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