Neolithic communities and symbolic meaning perceptions and expressions of symbolic and social structures at Late Neolithic Dimini, Thessaly

Stella Souvatzi 
Athens, Greece
Evangelia Skafida
Archaeological Museum of Volos, Volos, Greece

In prehistoric archaeology long use of the ‘prestige’ or ‘ritual’ goods model has ignored both the way in which material culture gains prestige or symbolic value and the idea that symbolic expressions and social values are contextually defined. Traditionally the understanding of ideological life has been sought out in ‘prestige’ or ‘ritual’ items, and largely outside of the context of finding and use of these items. This exclusion has created an artificial and unproductive dichotomy between function and meaning, economy and ideology, and utilitarian and non-utilitarian objects, which is often and most unfortunately, reflected in the domestic/public separation. Thus it has impeded among other things the recognition of the fundamental significance of the village-community and the household for understanding symbolism and ideology, and has often led prehistoric archaeology to project back onto past cultures concepts and perceptions pertinent to cultural and political ideals of modern Western societies.
     These arguments are especially true of the Neolithic of Greece, as well of the wider Southeast Europe context, where the archaeological data are not only impressively rich, but are derived almost in their entirety from domestic contexts of one kind or another (e.g. houses, courtyards, settlements), clearly implying where social and symbolic significance should be placed. However, while there is increasing interest in symbolical and ideological questions, there has been little systematic effort to look at the community or the house level for answers.
     The aim of the paper is a double one: the first is to demonstrate some of the many ways in which Neolithic communities and symbolic meaning are closely related with each other: perceptions of individual and collective identity cosmological perceptions; conceptual directions and themes; people’s routes and movement; social reproduction practices; and generally socio-cultural perceptions and their symbolic expressions are the themes upon which the paper focuses. The other, and more general aim is to argue that prehistoric life is composed of both function and meaning, utility and symbolism, economy and ideology in a rich dialectic, and that archaeology should not treat these ideas as opposites.
Neither practices and objects nor contexts are in themselves and ‘objectively’ functional or meaningful; rather, they acquire their symbolic significance only in relation to each other. Hence symbolic expression should not be treated as a foregone conclusion, but should be the subject of definition, explanation and interpretation for each of the societies we study. Empirically, we use evidence from the Late Neolithic (first half of the fifth millennium BC) settlement of Dimini in Thessaly, Greece. Dimini is a good example of the stereotypes outlined above. Its sufficient horizontal exposure and the large volume of spatial and material information offer a good basis for the understanding of ideological organisation of Neolithic communities. However, previous researchers have always devoted greater attention to the general architectural typology of the settlement, while inadequate attention has been paid to the spatial and material representation of symbolic expression.
     Employing a contextual approach and bringing together various lines of data (spatial/architectural and material) we offer an example of the multitude of ways in which symbolic and social factors are reflected materially, and of how these can serve, at the same time, as symbolic communication systems both within the site and between sites. We show that the functional and the symbolic are inseparably linked together through a series of common patterns, that various organisational principles and symbolic elements were involved in domestic architecture, linking social order with natural order, movement of people and objects with construction of socio-cultural space, space with material culture, community activity and aesthetics, and collective with individual identity.

Another summary by Evangelia Skafida
2002 © European Science Foundation
2002 © Prehistory Foundation & Reports of Prehistoric Research Projects
2002 ©The Authors
Editor: Lolita Nikolova
All rights reserved. Published: 12/21/02
Since 12/21/02
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