Signs of Life: Engraved Stone Artefacts from Neolithic South India

Department of Archaeology, University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Cambridge Archaeological Journal 06/2006; 16(2). DOI: 10.1017/S0959774306000102
Source: OAI


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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    • "In terms of manufacture, many of the chert incised stones from Gault appear to have been engraved and then subsequently knapped which helps account for their small size and fragmented designs. This behavior is also found elsewhere outside of North America (e.g., Mesolithic Sweden, Althin 1950; Neolithic South India, Brumm et al. 2006; "
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    • "In both the habitation and factory stages a number of engraved dolerite artefacts were recovered. Cupules were pecked into the granite boulders of Feature 1 during its use-life, and pieces of lustrous red ochre, fragments of ceramic figurines and occasional copper beads recovered from Feature 1, suggests that it was an area of symbolic importance (Brumm, 2006). A parallel may be drawn with the late Neolithic site of Liangchengzhen in China, where the secondary stages in axe production were likewise carried out (Bennett, 2007). "
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