The Communication and Interpretation of Signs


Brian Stross                  ANT 393                        Fall 2011



Unique # 31213           Wed  4-7  SAC  5.118




Office Hours  W 1-3



Course Description

Of the three kinds of signs (icon, index, symbol), the symbol most clearly separates humans from other

animals, but other sign types are important in worldview, culture construction and communication. 

Through metaphor, symboling, observational logic, cultural logic, and scientific logic we construct our

social and natural worlds.  How and why this construction process occurs is the overarching thematic

question of the course, but it must be approached indirectly.  This course intends to investigate more directly,

and in seminar mode, the symbolic languages of the body (its parts, products, ornaments, clothes, gestures,

and postures, and housing), as well as the languages of space, time, sound, and script).  These topics will be

discussed particularly as they are interwoven into the major related human concerns of cosmology, religion,

and power.  The language(s) of iconography, dealing with graphic representations of things and ideas by

non-script means, will be dealt with as a parallel concern that can convey information of historical import and

that augments and/or substitutes for the use of writing.  With respect to interpreting and understanding

symbolism, iconography, and worldview spoken language provides much of the data as well as much of the

evidence for both, and will be so employed through much of the course.  Notions of relativism, universality,

indexicality, iconization, norming and context in the interpretation of signs and iconography will be interrogated

through specific examples. 




  1) Class preparation and appropriate class participation (including reading articles,chapters, and or books;

and being class facilitator for 1 or more class assignment discussions, depending on the size of the class)


  2) Three short papers based on projects assigned during the semester; deadlines to be

                found on the syllabus (7-10 pages each)


Textbooks - “packet” of readings to be distributed on Blackboard or elsewhere online

     Recommended supplementary reading:  

                William Lessa and Evon Vogt, Reader in Comparative Religion (3rd edition)

                Raymond Firth,  Symbols: Public and Private

                Francis Huxley,  The Way of the Sacred

                A. Berger,   Signs in Contemporary Culture



Week 1.  8/26   Introduction  (semiotics; symbols, icons, and indexes - methods

for investigating symbolism, iconography, worldview- what is worldview

symbolism, metaphor, representation, iconography?)

Homework -  J.G. Frazer, Sympathetic Magic, from The Golden Bough [packet]

E.R. Leach, Magical Hair.  The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol.88(2): 147-164.

C. R. Hallpike, Social Hair, Man, New Series, 4(2):256-264  (Jun., 1969)

Alice V. M. Samson and Bridget M. Waller,  Not Growling but Smiling.  Current Anthropology

Volume 51, Number 3, June 2010

                B. Stross,  The Mesoamerican Sacrum Bone: Doorway to the Other World.

FAMSI Journal of the Ancient Americas

                Optional  Jeanette Marie Mageo, Hairdos and Don'ts: Hair Symbolism and Sexual History in

Samoa, Man, New Series, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Jun., 1994), pp. 407-432

                P. Hershman, Hair, Sex, and Dirt.  Man, New Series, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Jun., 1974), pp. 274-298

                Carol Delaney,  Untangling the Meanings of Hair in Turkish Society.  Anthropological Quarterly,

Vol. 67, No. 4 (Oct., 1994), pp. 159-172

                Cecilia Klein, Teocitlatl, “Divine Excrement…” Art Journal (1993) 52(3):20-27

Thomas J. Csordas  Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology Ethos 18(1): pp. 5-47 (1990)

Constance Classen,  Inca Cosmology and the Human Body


Weeks 2 & 3.  8/31 & 9/7 Body  Stature, Parts, Products, Physiology       NADYA 3

(basis for explaining and describing things and their operations that are

body-external, & for manipulating such socially constructed

things and operations as societal divisions, laws, warfare,

planting, hunting, eating, etc.-- is there a body "language"?;

what are the boundaries and boundary markers of the body? What

about gender?)  seeing the other in body ritual ,

Phenomenology of Embodiment.   Observational logic.

Homework:  Adam Kendon, Gesture.  Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 26 (1997), pp. 109-128.

B. Stross, The Armadillo Stool

J. Sherzer, The Pointed Lip Gesture.  Language in Society, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Apr., 1973), pp. 117-131

G. Hewes, World Distribution of Certain Postural Habits, American Anthropologist, 57(2)(Pt I):231-244

                Suggested Reading

                Judith Hanna, To Dance is Human.

                Alan and Barbara Pease,  The Definitive Book of Body Language.

Erving Goffman,  Behavior in Public Places. 

Erving Goffman, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Annette B. Weiner and Jane Schneider, Cloth and Human Experience.

Patricia Anawalt,  Indian Clothing Before Cortez.

Paul Oliver, Dwellings

B. Stross, Crayfish [packet]

B. Stross, Crayfarm [ packet]


Weeks 4 & 5.   9/14 & 9/21  Body Augmentation: Gesture, Posture, Clothing, Furniture, Housing)    SUSAN 4  ,   CARISSA 5

                (types of gesture, kinds of meanings conveyed -- are gestures

                made actually part of the body, or are they simply

                meaning-conveying manipulations of the body.--is there a

                gestural "language"?, a "language" of clothes,

                a "language" of housing; what are the boundaries of gesture,

                posture, clothing, housing? -- What about gender?)

                Homework – 

Clark Cunningham, Order in the Atoni House [packet]. 

                Sahi (pp. 4O, 75-79, 126-133) [packet], 

Abbot,  Flatland 

Watch this Video: Garbage Warrior (note the symbols and the

                meaning of symbols in building & in governance)

                Suggested Reading:  E.T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension.

Amos Rapoport, House Form and Culture 

Roxana Waterson, The Living House.

B. Stross,  Some Observations on T585 (Quincunx) of the Maya Script." 

                Anthropological Linguistics  28: 283‑311


                1st paper due at end of 5th week’s class


Week 6 & 7.    9/28 & 10/5   Space  (housing, town planning, geography, direction) –    EMILY 6,  BETHANY 7

Is there a "language" of space?; what are the boundaries of spatial

                divisions?; what are the major directions?; what are the

                major divisions/partitions of space?  How do we name kinds of

                spaces (e.g. corners, middles, ends, etc.?; - What about gender?)  

                Homework - Leach, Edmund (1961) 'Two essays concerning the symbolic representation of time, IN

                                Rethinking anthropology.  (google books w/ “two essays” )

M. Eliade The Sacred and The Profane: the Nature of Religion. (google books it w/ ‘time’)

Gary Gossen,  Temporal and Spatial Equivalents in Chamula Ritual Symbolism. IN Lessa & Vogt,

                Reader in Comparative Religion.

R. Scaglion, Cycles and Timeless Time in Melanesia. Ethnology 38(3):211-225.

C. Coggins, The Shape of Time, American Antiquity, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Oct., 1980), pp. 727-739.

                Suggested Reading

JW. Dunne, An Experiment With Time

E.T. Hall,  The Dance of Life

David Stuart, The Order of Days


Week 8.   10/12   Time  (dating, calendars, cyclic activities, measurement of time,    CHRISTIN 8

                synchrony in interaction, age and aging - venerability, sacred

                time, dream time, waiting, time and relationships, evolution and

                time, symbols for the passage of time [e.g. river of time,

                thought and time] -- Is there a "language" of time? - how much

                is "time" dependant on "memory";- what are the boundaries of

                time? - what are the divisions of time?  How do we name kinds of

                time?; what are the major directions of time?; - What about



                Rodney Needham, Percussion and Transition.  Man 2(4):606-614.

                John Blacking, Percussion and Transition  Man 3(2):313-315.

                E.Z. Vogt, On the Symbolic Meaning of Percussion in Zinacanteco Ritual. Journal of Anthropological

                                Research 33(3):231-244.

                Anthony Jackson, Sound and Ritual.  Man, New Series, 3(2):293-299

                Bo Lawergren, The Origin of Musical Instruments and Sounds.  Anthropos 83(3):31-45.

J. Nuckolls, The Case for Sound Symbolism.  Annual Review of Anthropology 28:225-252.

B. Stross, Falsetto [ packet]

                Suggested Reading: Steven Feld , Sound and Sentiment: Birds: Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli


                W.E.H. Stanner, The Dreaming.  [packet]


Week 9.     1019   Sound  (sound symbolism in language, sound and sentiment, sound              BETHANY 9

                and space [intervals, harmonics, scales], sound and time, the sound of

music -- Is there a "language" of sound?; what are the boundaries of

                sounds?; what are the divisions of sounds?; how do we name kinds

                of sounds? - What about gender and sound?. Age?  Infirmities?

                Where does music fit in?

                Homework  - Alison Kennedy,  Ecce Bufo: The Toad in Nature and in Olmec Iconography  Current


                E.Z. Vogt, Structural and Conceptual Replication in Zinacantan Culture.  American Anthropologist


                B. Stross, Representation, Memory, and Power: Pre-Columbian Landscapes of Creation and Origin. 

in Pre-Columbian Landscapes of Creation and Origin,  John E Staller (ed),  New York:  Springer. 

pp. 357-378 [packet]

                R. Bunzel, The Nature of Katcinas.  

Heyden [packet],

Duncan Earle – Quiché day… [packet],

Stocker et al, Crocodilians & Olmecs,  American Antiquity, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Oct., 1980), pp. 740-758.

                Suggested Reading:  de Santillana & von Dechend, Hamlet’s Mill.

Peter Roe, The Cosmic Zygote. 

E.C. Krupp, Echoes of the Ancient Skies.

Robert L. Hall, An Archaeology of the Soul.

B. Stross, The Deer as Western Sun.  U-Mut Maya 5: 237‑246.

                B. Stross, Maize and Blood:  Mesoamerican Symbolism on an Olmec Vase and a

                Maya Plate.  Res:  Anthropology and Aesthetics  22: 82‑107


Week 10.    10/26   Cosmology    (the Sacred Landscape--plants, animals, geographic               SARAH 10

                features, colors, sizes, time periods, divination, numbers, altars, idols,

                amulets, souls, witches, founding a town, supporters of the

                earth, (nature) deities -  Is there a "language" of cosmology?--

                how do boundaries function in cosmology?; how do categories

                function in cosmology?; - What about gender? )          

                Homework Leach  View from Bridge   [packet],

B. Stross, Food, Foam & Fermentation [packet].

V. Turner, Betwixt and Between:  The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage.   The Proceedings of the

 American Ethnological Society (1964)

                Mary Douglas, Pollution [ packet]

                E.R. Leach, Anthropological Aspects of Language:  Animal Categories and Verbal Abuse. [packet]

Suggested Reading:

A. Van Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage.

Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion.

J.Frazer, The Golden Bough

B. Malinowski, The Role of Magic and Religion [packet]

J. Middleton, The Cult of the Dead:  Ancestors and Ghosts.

John Allegro, The Sacred Mushroom & the Cross

B. Stross,  Venus and Sirius, Some Unexpected Similarities.  Kronos  12 (1): 25‑42

                Underhill, Neuman, Graves, Campbell (Masks:Primitive; Mythic Image), Sejourne, E. Hunt, 

Didron, Ferguson, 


                2nd paper due at end of 10th week’s class


Week 11.   11/2   Religion      -  Worship and Sacrifice:  Birth, Initiation,                   EMILY 11

                Marriage, Health, Death, Rebirth --- war, slavery, gathering,

                hunting, planting, eating, "sports", "play", etc., -- Is there

                a "language" of Religion?; what are the boundaries of religious

                categories? ; - What about gender? Age?)

                Homework -  Alison Kennedy, Ecce Bufo, Current Anthropology 23:273-290.

                B. Stross,  Maize and Fish, Res:  Anthropology and Aesthetics  25: 10‑35 [packet]

                B. Stross,  Cosmic Portal..., Res:  Anthropology and Aesthetics  29/30:82‑101

                B. Stross, Maya Bloodletting and the Number Three.  Anthropological Linguistics  31: 209‑226 [packet]

                R. Cherry, Magical Insects [ packet] 

R. Rosaldo, Metaphors of Hierarchy in a Mayan Ritual.  American Anthropologist 70:524-436. (1968)

                Suggested Reading

                P. Furst, Fertility, vision quest…, [packet]

L Schele and M. Miller, The Blood of Kings

David Freidel and Linda Schele, Maya Cosmos,

E.C. Krupp, Skywatchers, Shamans & Kings:  Astronomy and the Archaeology of Power.  

Joralemon  Bloodletting [packet]                            


Week 12&13   11/9 & 11/16  Power    -  (Leadership, Rank, Authority, War –            SUSAN 12,  CREIGHTON 13


                kinship, continuity of leadership -- Is there a "language" of

                power?; how do boundaries function in the acquisition,

                maintenance, exercise, and flaunting of power? - What about

                gender? Age?)

                Homework – TBA and

                Keith Basso in Explorations in the Ethnography of Speaking.

                B. Stross, A Mayan Iconographic 'Literary' Convention.  U-Mut Maya 5: 21‑29.   

                B. Stross, Mesoamerican Writing at the Crossroads: The Late Formative.  Visible Language 29: 38‑62.

                B. Stross, The Burden of Office: a Reading."  Mexicon 10: 118‑121.

                B. Stross,  "Maya Hieroglyphic Writing and Mixe‑Zoquean."   Anthropological Linguistics 24

(l982): 73‑l34.

               B. Stross,  K'u: The Divine Monkey

                Suggested Reading:

Moran and Kelley,

                M. McLuhan, Gutenberg Galaxy,

M. McLuhan,  Understanding Media,

D. Diringer, The Alphabet.

Hans Jensen, Sign, Symbol, and Script


Week 14.  11/23  Writing - (symbol of a symbol of a symbol;  Is writing      CHRISTIN 14

                "language"? - What about gender? Age? )

Homework – Walter F. Morris (weaving and cosmology) [packet]

Guss (weaving and creation) [packet]

Suggested Reading   

Michael Kearney, World View Theory and Study.  Annual Review of Anthropology  4:247-270.  


Week 15   11/30  Worldview and Ideology  -  (individual vs cultural vs scientific)


                3rd paper due at end of week 15’s class


















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