Terminology: What do archaeologists mean by “symbol”?

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

Some of the best-known artifacts had immense symbolism to the peoples who made and used them. Consider the Etowah mounds, the Constitution of the United States of America, and royal crowns. These all had or have tremendous symbolism.

The dictionary definition of symbolism is the use of symbols to represent ideas or facts. So, what are symbols? Symbols are things that represent or stand for something else, often something abstract. If the symbols are not part of your culture, you probably won’t know what they meant to the people of the culture who developed or used them.

Here’s a modern story of a symbol, the @ sign.

ITC American Typewriter Medium.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York City has acquired the “at symbol” for its collection. On their website, MoMA notes:

Some linguists believe that @ dates back to the sixth or seventh century, a ligature meant to fuse the Latin preposition ad—meaning “at”, “to,” or “toward”—into a unique pen stroke.

The text goes on:

The @ symbol was known as the ‘”commercial ‘a’” when it appeared on the keyboard of the American Underwood typewriter in 1885, and it was defined as such, for the first time, in the American Dictionary of Printing & Bookmaking in 1894.

So, how did the @ symbol end up with its very important use today: in email addresses? MoMA notes:

In 1967, American electrical engineer Ray Tomlinson joined the technology company of Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), where he created the world’s first e-mail system a few years later, in 1971, using a Model KSR 33 Teletype device. BBN had a contract from the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense to help in the development of ARPAnet, an early network from which the Internet later emerged. Working with Douglas Engelbart on the whole program, Tomlinson was in particular responsible for the development of the sub-program that can send messages between computers on this network. It was the first system able to send mail between users on different hosts connected to the ARPAnet, while previously mail could be sent only to hosts that used the same computer.

In January 1971, @ was an underused jargon symbol lingering on the keyboard and marred by a very limited register. By October, Tomlinson had rediscovered and appropriated it, imbuing it with new meaning and elevating it to defining symbol of the computer age. He chose the @ for his first e-mail because of its strong locative sense—an individual, identified by a username, is @ this institution/computer/server, and also because…it was already there, on the keyboard, and nobody ever used it.

MoMA reflects on Tomlinson’s use of the @ symbol:

Without any need to redesign keyboards or discard old ones, Tomlinson gave the @ symbol a completely new function that is nonetheless in keeping with its origins, with its penchant for building relationships between entities and establishing links based on objective and measurable rules—a characteristic echoed by the function @ now embodies in computer programming language. Tomlinson then sent an email about the @ sign and how it should be used in the future. He therefore consciously, and from the very start, established new rules and a new meaning for this symbol.

So, the @ symbol is now commonly used all over the world. Can you think of another symbol that is equally ubiquitous? Are you familiar with any symbols from a by-gone age that we no longer use? Have you seen a display of archaeological artifacts, either in a museum or a book, that you think included symbolic objects or decorations that were symbols? What were they?