design language practice and theory 


analysis of Neolithic signs

updated: april 2004
versione in Italiano

Marija Gimbutas has tried to penetrate the meaning of Neolithic symbols in her ‘The Language of the Goddess’ which I mentioned already elsewhere in this site. She classified them in four categories following the functional attributes of the Deity: 
  •     Dispenser of Life 
  •     The eternal renovating Earth 
  •     Death and Regeneration 
  •     Energy and Development 
More then 2000 items are illustrated in her book, some in the form of stone or clay sculptures, others as graffiti. It is evident that, categories ever overlapping, it is utterly impossible to find a satisfactory systematic key to this iconic material. 

So let me, for our purpose, try to approach this theme from another angle: how can we draw a sign? It can be three or two dimensional: either a sculpture or a scratch. Let's start from that scratch (in both senses). 

Let me start with the simplest of signs, a dot, the mark of a presence (now and here), a beginning or an end (e.g.. of a phrase), a center, a source of power (of radiation or emanation), the silent counterpart of a single sound (perhaps the beat of a drum). 
The continuation of that initial (initializing) sign is a line, a direction (towards and from). The line can be straight (horizontal, oblique or vertical) or curved (continuously as in a circle, or gradually as in a spiral). 
These dots or lines can be single or multiple evidencing repetition, alternation, rhythm, number. 

We will need now some type of classification of signs or forms. 

Rene Thom affirms that forms in their origin and evolution can be classified by means of topological models as wholes of points, in a given morphogenetic field, ever in search of stability in accordance with the second law of thermodynamics, with distinct sets of probabilities (at the limit of chaotic behavior) and he pursues his analysis applying complex topological formula (out of reach for ordinary designers). 

The morpho-genetic field is, in the case of signs, determined by the Formgiving Pulsion of man, motivated by his necessity to cope by means of assimilation or accommodation with (trying to dominate) the forces of nature and society. Once called into existence the different signs become instruments in recording and pursuing the quest of human destiny. Many have indicated the endeavor of early mankind to invent signs as the origin of both religion and science. The question for a useful classification of these signs becomes evidently more and more necessary. 

We, as designers, would be satisfied with a, less precise but more manageable classification than Thom's. I suggest that a relative simple classification of symbolic forms or signs can be proposed  applying the theory of symmetry. This is already, in a simplified version derived from mathematics (Jacob Steiner, 1836), biology (D'Arcy Wentworth  Thompson, 1917) and crystallography (Andreas Speiser, 1927, and before him in 1891, E.S.Fedorov) a common platform for courses in ‘basic design’ in many design schools. 
The most popular book on this topic is perhaps Hermann Weyl's (1885-1955) Symmetry, Princeton, U.S.A., 1952. Symmetry in this theory treats of the repetition of equal, similar or related 'motives' in totally or partially regular structures. These regularities are classified by means of the following'operations'

  • translation (T), 
  • rotation (R), 
  • mirror reflection (S) and 
  • dilatation (D) 
Reflection being a special case of rotation we can reduce the number of simple operations to three: T, R and D. These can also occur in many combinations (essentially 17 types for Fedorov and Weyl). 
The different operations are effected at regular 'intervals' such as a length delta d and direction (up/down, left/right) in the case of translation, and as an angle alpha a(clock- and counter-clockwise) in the case of rotation and as a variation lambda l(lengthening or shortening of the distance and or angle) in respect to its origin in the case of dilatation. 

My announced intuition concerning Ursign, conducts me at this point to the following questions: 

The basic operations, motives and intervals in the Theory of Symmetry coincide perhaps with relevant aspects of transcendental thought of neolithic, or even earlier, man? Could these signs have their origin in gestures, in the rhytm of ceremonial dances and even precede the spoken word?

Some simple motives (derived from the primordial  dot or  point) can effectively be semiotically explained as derived from symmetrical operations and understood as signs in the peircean notification in the following way: 

  • the straight line resulting from a T operation  represents an object, a presence in the sense of the peircian qualisign or sinsign. It is the documentation of the very concept of being and of this being, having a meaning, reveals a manifold; 
  • a curved line as the result from a R operation represents the division ‘me/other’, me being at the inside of the curve. It indicates moreover that communication between this world and the other world is possible. We can associate these signs with the peircian category of Legisign, being signs that are put in relation to other signs for some purpose.
  • an expanding form as a spiral exemplifies the D operation that represents a ‘dominion’, or influence and extension of a power. This is the superior level of signs, as symbols or arguments in the peircian classification. Symbolic or allegorical semiosis is the, only, way to penetrate the mystery of the Sacred. 
We can try to assign a function to simple operations as follows: 

T the Translation operation as multiplicity or manifold being e.g.. parallel lines (translation of the straight line motive) is a symbol of rain or a river meaning fertility; 
e.g. the four legged cross (rotation of the straight line motive) is a symbol of the ever rising sun meaning regeneration; 
e.g.. the V sign (rotation of the straight line motive) or its reinforced edition (obtained by translation as a chevron) is an emblem of the Bird Goddess in use since the Superior Paleolithic, derived from a triangle (pubic triangle, vulva), symbol of the White Goddess, that generates life, death and rebirth of all beings; (cfr. note 7)
R the Rotation operation as the connection between the earthly world and the Goddess
  • e.g. the curved line indicating giving (of offers) or receiving 
  • e.g.. the vulva, origin of life 
  • e.g. the serpentine line signifying the serpent or the eternal return 
  •  e.g.. multiple arcs of the passages to the other world, labyrinths (in combination with the operation of dilatation)
D the Dilatation operation of a central point and concentric circles as indicating a dominion and its growth, symbol of all encompassing divine power
  • e.g. the spiral, the labyrinth, the maze as symbols of the reign of the triple Goddess and the difficulties and dangers of  its access.
  • multiple arcs (dilatations of the simple arc) represents transustation, trance or delirium
A fourth operation consisting in the projection of a motive onto itself, called Identity, has only sense in the application of group theory in the Theory of Symmetry, and is of no importance for our actual presentation. 

 More complex operations explain further concepts, such as: 

the zig zag or M line (translation of the V sign) 
(from Gimbutas p.23)
the M line on a neolithic statuette

this sign also signifies  water and as such it was known in ancient Egypt as a Hieroglyph; 
(in greek m )
its meaning is dispenser of life. 

a spiral (consisting of a Dilatation and a Translation) signifying growth, life, energy of the Goddess 

image af a spiral

an undulating line (consisting of a Translation and a Rotation) 

 (fromCampbell , p.18)

a symbol of the serpent, meaning life and death, guardian of the source of life 

This votive tablet from Piraeus shows the serpent as the Ollympian Zeus Meilichios 

a lozenge (consisting of the Translative motive of a straight line and the fourfold 90° Rotation at a certain distance from the center 
image of a losange

the womb, uterus, multiplication of the species.


We can at this point suggest the construction of a credible and practical classification, each class referring to a different symmetrical operation. The 'operations', 'motives' and 'intervals' in this system represent symbolically the wealth of believes and knowledge of neolithic man, and especially his respect and terror of the White Goddess . This program must of course be completed with a less abstract class of iconic symbols representing animals, humans, artifacts or their parts. 

neolithic signs
back to the page about medieval signs
more about Ur-signs on the next page


note 1 Marija Gimbutas The Language of the Goddess Harper & Row, 1989  back  
see also J.J. Backofen Das Mutterrecht Stuttgart, 1861
note 2 René Thom Stabilité structurelle et Morphogénèse. Essai d’une théorie générale des modèles InterEditions, Paris, 1977 (1972)  back
note 3 Ambrogio Donnini Breve storia delle religioni Newton Compton, Roma, 1994 (1991, 1959) back
note 4 Bronislaw Malinowski Magic, Science and Religion Doubleday, New York, 1948 back  
note 5 Ernst Cassirer Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, die Sprache Oxford, 1923  back
note 6 E.Will Elements Orientaux  dans la réligion grecque ancienne Paris PUF, 1960 back
note 7 Robert Graves The White Goddess. A historical grammar of poetic myth Faber and Faber, London, 1961 (1948) back
note 8 Joseph Campbell The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology Pinguin, Arkana, 1991 (1964) back

   andries van onck