Being Human # 4: Signs and Symbols

Today’s post is by Michelle from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum. We have a passionate interest in the museum and its objects, and each bring our own insight into Manchester Museum and its collections.

For more about Egyptology, please visit the Curator’s blogEgypt at the Manchester Museum, and for archaeology visit Ancient Worlds.

Being Human # 4: Signs and Symbols

Whether we realise it or not, we live in a symbolic world, and it is the ability and creativity of thought to be able to encode and decode a sign system of ideas that is one of the key elements to our being human.

When we walk through life, we don’t just see the world – we read it. From the clothes we choose, the conversations we have, to the money we spend, these are all part of the social language we use to transmit our thoughts and ideas relating to the world around us.

Being human then encompasses both the idea of making signs, and also understanding them. And the latter is a constant challenge for the archaeologist…


Manchester Museum’s current exhibition, Humans in Ancient Britain: Rediscovering Neanderthals, suggests that one of the reasons why modern humans survived the cooling climate in Ice Age Britain, whereas Neanderthals became extinct, may be that modern humans’ capability for symbolic thought allowed for visual communication – on the walls of caves and other surfaces – leading to the cooperation required for the exploitation of limited resources in an increasingly difficult climate.

Plaster casts of decorated bone and antler objects – archaeologists think that artwork of this kind evidences symbolic thinking. Rediscovering Neanderthals exhibition, Manchester Museum.

The warmer and wetter conditions following the last glacial maximum, around 20,000 years ago, saw agricultural subsistence strategies begin to compliment and eventually replace hunting and gathering. By the tenth millennium BC, sites like Göbekli Tepe evidence cultural and ritual changes, and mortuary activity had already seen humans burying their dead with beads and other symbolic objects. Artefacts at this time also indicate numeric capabilities – at least of tallying. This was the beginnings of humans being capable of storing huge amounts of information.

Ancient Egypt’s symbolic landscape

By the fourth millennium BC in Egypt material culture included markings that were decorative, but that were also becoming a retrievable storage of information. This is most clearly evidenced in pottery described as ‘D-ware’.

D-ware vessel, No.: 7755. Ancient Worlds, Manchester Museum

The term ‘D-ware’ or ‘Decorated ware’ was conceived by W.M.F. Petrie as part of a relative chronology as a way of understanding individual sites and as a mechanism for comparing geographically removed sites throughout the Nile Valley.

This ‘sequence dating’ or ‘seriation’ represented a real breakthrough in archaeological method. But to Petrie’s brilliance, should also be added a note of caution – Petrie’s findings reflect is own belief that there was a pattern to be found!

Scan from E negative collection held by Media Services Photography department.
Petrie’s Series Dating. Available from:

D-ware is characterised by the red ochre decoration applied to pale buff-coloured ‘marl’ pottery. The patterns and designs range include swirls, checks, spirals and wavy lines – presumably in imitation of natural materials such as basketry and stone, and elements that represent aspects of the landscape such as triangles for mountains, and wavy lines for water.

The most recognisable motifs are the stylised boats, figures, plants and animals that make up so-called Nilotic scenes.

D-ware. Nos.: 3113 & 3755 Ancient Worlds, Manchester Museum

Upon the boats (or maybe town enclosures with reed walls), there are cabins or shrines (perhaps concealing a god, or the dead), and on these structures, there is often a standard, with an emblem. Whether or not these emblems are some of the first hieroglyphic signs, this is almost certainly a storage of information about either the contents or the estate from which the contents originated, perhaps representing a local goddess.

Representation was becoming formalised, with the two-dimensional canvas of the pottery vessel becoming a constructed, symbolic landscape. The ancient Egyptians were encoding the world around them, something that we continue to do today, as part of the social connections that make us human.

Michelle Scott

Find out more:

Dee, M.W. et al. (2014) Radiocarbon dating and the Naqada relative chronology
Petrie, W.M.F. (1899) Sequences in Prehistoric Remains
University College, London
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
New York Times

For more about Egyptology, please visit the Curator’s blogEgypt at the Manchester Museum, and for archaeology visit Ancient Worlds.

Read more from the Being Human series:
Being Human # 1: Taung Child – The Missing Link
Being Human # 2: Reconstructing identity – a new look at the ancient dead
Being Human # 3: Experimental Archaeology – Egyptian Stone-working


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