Material culture as texts

According to Ian Hodder (1989) material culture texts are different from written text in three aspects. In written texts, the words are always largely arbitrary, since they are written in specific social contexts. This is called the arbitrariness principle. The second is called the linearity principle for the reason that written texts are read in a linear fashion, while there is no certain sequence by which to read material surroundings. The third is called the sensory principle due to the fact that written texts are only read using two senses, sight and hearing, while reading of material culture texts involves smell, touch and taste. Hodder hereby correctly identifies differences between material culture as texts and written texts. According to him it is the applicability of semiotics where the problem lies. Robert Preucel and Alexander Bauer (2001) have noted that it is not that much the application of semiotics but that of the Saussurean view of sign that is ”outmoded”. They then go on to suggest the use of the Peircean model for the semiotic study of material culture.

The pragmatistic approach is especially suitable for the archaeological study of material culture. Archaeology is interested in the long-term meanings of objects, and that is one of the central differences between material culture as text and linguistic texts. Written and spoken texts are to a great extent material and their full meaning extends beyond their semantic meanings. The material has, however, a different kind of ability to transform or maintain its meaning over time.

These are the main reasons why the semiological theory of signs is not as suitable as the pragmatistic approach. Peirce’s theory of knowledge as historical is particularly well suited for the semiotic study of material culture.

  • Hodder, Ian 1989. This is not an article about material culture as text. Journal of anthropological archaeology 8: 250-269.
  • Preucel, Robert&Bauer, Alexander 2001. Archaeological pragmatics. Norwegian archaeological review 34: 85-96.
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