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Université de Bordeaux
LabEx LaScArBxCluster of Excellence
Cluster of excellence

Research Topic III. Expressions of the Symbolic and Spaces of Memory

The aim of this axis is to study a third means of appropriating space by ancient civilisations, which depends almost entirely on the cultural sphere and on what is commonly called « symbolic thought »: this consists in studying a number of (material and immaterial) spaces which have been invested by man with a memorial function, whether these « sites of memory » have been conceived and created as such by past societies or that they are perceived and valued as such by modern ones. The scientific perimeter of Labex, which associates prehistorians, historians and anthropologists, has brought this research to focus on three cases studies, which each contribute to the history of human memory.

1. Origins of symbolic thought

1.1. Emergence of modern man : a symbolic revolution?

One of the most debated questions today in the Prehistory community concerns the first signs or expressions of a “symbolic thought” which would make up one of the defining features of mankind in relation to other living beings. How can a constitutive element of the symbolic sphere be defined ? When, how and why did this symbolic “skill” materialise? How varied are its expressions ? Are there any permanent features common to all human groups?

Contemporary theories bring into play extremely varied members of the human race, from the Australopithecus (with the Jasperite cobble from Makapansgat) to anatomically modern humans (with sepulchres including offerings and the use of ochre in the Upper Palaeolithic), as well as the Homo erectus (with the symmetry and stone cutting of some acheulian biface tools that show far more than purely functional concerns). The main difficulty resides in the discontinuous and patchy character of the documentation which inevitably influences the interpretation; this is how for example the qualitative (complexity of productions) and quantitative (variety of materials) jump which characterises "symbolic" productions by the populations of the Upper Palaeolithic is still interpreted in terms of a "break" from all that had come before. However, a number of discoveries from recent years have questioned this long accepted model of a symbolic revolution that corresponds to the arrival of anatomically modern humans in Europe around 40,000 years ago. This research has shown that on the one hand, the presence of complex symbolic expressions in Africa and the Middle East 40-30,000 years before those of the first European modern humans, and on the other hand considerable and convincing proof of symbolic behaviour by Neanderthals in Europe or other archaic groups of Homo sapiens. One of Labex’s goals will therefore be to date the oldest archaeological traces of symbolic thought or activity and to find out which human populations are associated with them: their origins, their expressions, the conditions (particularly environmental ones) of their emergence and disappearance will be at the heart of this investigation. It will also be necessary to understand how these symbolic skills, once acquired, potentially transformed and structured prehistoric societies.

Participating in Labex is a logical step for the laboratories as they have played a fundamental role in the discovery of the oldest traces of symbolic thought and have developed analytical techniques and referential frames which place them at the cutting edge in this area of research. An example of this would be the discovery of the oldest abstract engravings in Africa dated back respectively 75,000 (Blombos) and 60,000 (Diepkloof) years, and the identification of the oldest known items of jewellery at several sites in Southern Africa, Northern Africa and the Middle East. In addition to this, we are now involved in some very dynamic research on the oldest pigments used by the Neanderthals in Europe and by modern humans in Africa and the Middle East. Finally, a ongoing European Research Council programme (Tracsymbols, see Appendix) has shown that the work developed in Bordeaux on these questions is widely recognised on an international level and will benefit from a genuine knock-on effect in the upcoming years.

1.2. Rupestrian art: a complex archaeological object, between symbolic expression and the physical world.

Rupestrian art brings to mind the names of masterpieces such as Lascaux, Altamira, Cussac, Cosquer or Chauvet. Over and beyond the fame of these important places for the History of Humanity, rupestrian art refers to numerous works spread throughout the world, whose number is estimated at over 400,000. Rock art gives us evidence of different cultures and ways of life, a symbolic and physical marker of space and of territories. It covers a vast period which stretches from the Palaeolithic for the oldest up until the modern era for the most recent.  In Europe the expansion of rupestrian art coincides with the emergence of modern humans over 35,000 years ago and in this field Chauvet (32,000 BP), Cussac (25,000 BP) and Lascaux (19,000 BP) are amongst the most significant.

The regional proximity of a great number of prehistoric rock art sites (certain of which are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites), the involvement of research teams working on this topic, their organisation both long-standing and unique on a national level alongside the services of the Ministry of Culture and Commmunication are assets which are fundamental to an integrated approach to these unique historical objects. This approach interests the geosciences (geology, karstology, archaeology, conservation and environmental studies…) as much as the humanities (symbolic expression, archaeology, spatial and territorial organisation, the granting of heritage status ‘patrimonialisation’…). Beyond the in-depth study of graphic works and their interpretation, it also entails taking on a more global vision from which the thematics are inseparable. The current approach to this complex objective which closely aligns the natural and cultural elements is comprised of the visualisation of studies in an integrated and interdisciplinary manner which concerns the following:

 -the processes of the formation and evolution of a physical medium (from the massif itself to the sides of it), structural and morphological studies, the processes of alteration (physical and chemical), animal activity, paleoenvironmental records, chronology as well as climatological, hydrogeological and microbiological studies…

 -the appearance of cave pictures, figurative or not, symbolic, artistic, cultural, the remainders left on the ground and the surrounding surfaces, funerary practices, the use of animals and the physical realm, the analysis of carotene, materials, relative and exact dating …

 -the heritage approaches to protection (financial, regulatory and legal) of conservation (environmental, preventative and adapted), to perpetuation of the information (scientific archiving), to mediation and valorisation.

Today, all of the domains comprise a mosaic of specialties applied to the archaeology of rock art and likewise, each one calls for technical procedures for scientific recording of adapted and occasionally specific information (readings, 3-D renderings, databases, etc .). Ausonius’s 3-D Technological Platform, specialised in the use of 3-D technology for patrimony and archaeology, constitutes, in this respect, an invaluable tool for research and valuation.

The wealth of patrimonial resources, archaeological and curatorial qualifications and problematics developed by such a great number of teams justifies the development of an international hub of expertise, for which one of the major assets would be the possible sharing of experimentation with universities and laboratories concerned with these same problematics. Let us cite, among the scientific projects in which the laboratories involved in the Labex project are participating or even directing : the research project at the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave, the joint research project at the Cussac cave, studies, conservation and analysis of the Lascaux cave (a cave laboratory), the European project STREP « The Patina of the Desert », the grouping of bilateral research between France and South Africa, and GDRI STAR (Science, Technology, Rock Art).

2. The written memory : elaboration, transmission and reception

Symbolic expression, 'par excellence', is fundamentally writing and it is to this form that ancient civilizations, notably Greek and Roman, entrusted the essential aspects of their memory. These textual archives are lost in part however, contrary to popular opinion in the field, which tends to be of a pessimistic nature, that which is left of writing represents a considerable collection of documentary resources which is still largely left untouched and sometimes even unknown. One dreams of hundreds of thousands of papyri and ostraka which await their publication and in which scientific interest is clear, without mentioning all that which remains to be discovered. What would our knowledge of Antiquity be without the descriptions in all of the documents of the field, the inscriptions and manuscripts which constitute, at least for certain time periods, a major portion of “archaeological” resources?

The study of textual sources, like any study of sources, requires a certain methodology. However, because the written documentation is not consistent, the method to be applied depends on the nature and the initial purpose of the conserved texts and according to the aid and the channels which have assured their transmission all the way to us. Within the framework of this axis, two paths are favoured, the epigraphic monument and the archaeology of knowledge.

The epigraphic monument and collective memory of ancient societies

We are perceiving more and more to what extent Greek and Roman civilisation was involved in the world of public writing, thus including the display of official documents (laws, regulations, homages) as well as registration in the public sphere of private acts (epitaphs, pledge texts, dedications).  Noting the above, there are two factors which bind the similar nature of these two societies.  Firstly, they both share a fundamentally civic-minded character.  This maintained itself in the communal base until the end of the age of antiquity, comprising therein the monarchic framework of the Roman Empire whereby governments consented to debate, deliberation, collective decision, and revision, therefore all forms of dialogue and exchange took place with the authority on one side and the community (ambassadors, leaders, petitions and responses) on the other.  All these acts of collective life created an opportunity for the composition of texts which were communicated and displayed in central zones (agora, forum) as the places most frequented in the civic territory.  Secondly, both encouraged the expression of the individual.  One cannot deny that, in these societies, one was defined above all by his personal status (citizen, foreigner, slave, freeman) and also by his fortune, registration in a qualified category, or even affiliation with an order. Moreover, social organization wasn’t fixed: relative social mobility existed as it was simultaneously developing on a basis of common values of the mentalities of particular groups (noting for example artisans and merchants). This was of utmost importance, particularly in the motley society of the Roman world, in order to mark and to know one’s place, wealth, and rank in the public view of the registers. It is significant from this point of view that during the later years of Empire, characterised by a more static society, the practice of epigraphy faded. 

We see therefore to which point, beyond strictly functional aspects, that writing of monumental registration in the public sphere was intrinsic to Greek and Latin societies. 

On the basis of this assessment, Ausonius has long been developing a complete and rigorous methodology, which should, at present, find an application in a larger setting. In particular, as epigraphic documentation often tends to be fragmentary, support of archaeological analysis reveals itself to be an important source of information. A complete study of the support unit/text is therefore indispensable for interpreting, in a precise manner, epigraphic sources, taking into account the notable particularities (materials, graphics, decoration) of regions and provinces. 

Finally, a study of the memory of Antiquity cannot have resonance without the production of corpora epigraphs, more precisely, compilations by cities, regions and provinces of preserved textual vestiges. This is a domain of research valorisation where Ausonius performs particularly well. From their work in Aquitaine, on the Iberian Peninsula, in Africa as well as Asia Minor, the researchers of Ausonius have published more than twenty corpora epigraphs over the last twenty years, using tools created and developed by the laboratory, therefore a significant number of articles will soon be accessible on the Net : the PETRAE database (general database for antique Latin and Greek epigraphic texts with 4000 current subscriptions).  The first phase of this electronic publication (eagerly meeting the anticipation of the international scientific community) will focus on Latin registers of the Gauls (starting with the registers of Aquitaine and Narbonne).

Archaeology of texts and knowledge

Considering intellectual and noetic memory (constituted by so-called literary sources), the study of texts cannot bypass a history of texts.  Notably, one must take into account the crucial role played by libraries (of Alexandria and Pergamon, then Rome and Constantinople) in the survival of this heritage: the creation of these “conservatories”, are correlative to the successive mutations of the political balance the Hellenistic, imperial and Byzantine eras and a migration of centres of power and knowledge allowing a universal diffusion (considering the time and place) of Greco-Roman culture, resulting in a culture profoundly informed and transformed by having passed through different filters.  These libraries, in fact, represent not only places of accumulation, safe-keeping, and preservation: the books therein were created by diverse methods from the science of writing (divided into books, canons, anthologies, summaries) and the diffusion of knowledge (the editorial process, the progressive disappearance of originals in favour of copies), their content was inventoried, classified, reconfigured, selected, commented upon, “corrected”, because the history of libraries is also the story of what a society, by which we mean its leaders in power, decides to transmit in posterity. To the diverse alterations of the textual tradition are added discontinuities and ruptures due to the random events of history (destruction, burning, pillaging) but equally to the successive technical mutations to which the ancient book had to adapt (the passing from papyrus scrolls to codex parchment...). Ancient literary texts appeared therefore as a singular object : like all intellectual and artistic creation, it is the production of an era (and one that is inseparable from cultural and historical context of its “enunciation”); yet the form in which it comes to us being the largely random result of a series of metamorphoses which have affected the content as much as the material aspects. The reading and the commentary that we furnish must take into account the potential gap (often difficult to evaluate) which separate the actual state or states of the lost original text from the author. The memory of Ancient writing cannot, therefore, be “received” by moderns as a direct and unequivocal “testimony” (non-mediated) of the past: this is why an “archaeology” of texts is the indispensable precondition to their scientific interpretation

2.3. Monuments and dead bodies

Beyond the diversity of treatments reserved for cadavers that archaeothanatology documents with increased acuity and pertinence, funerary ideology is manifest in the manner in which the city of the dead (the necropolis) reproduces or deforms the partitions of the city of the living. This is a dynamic process, which evolves over time, at least from the first appearance of the megalithic tombs as identity markers of territories. The structuring of spaces and chronologies are thus essential elements of the archaeology of Death. The association between religious buildings (and particularly the churches of the Middle Ages) and cemeteries is an important point in this study, churches being for the purposes of worship as well as contributing to the archaeology of the site from the dating of the tombs. As a receptacle for the remains of the deceased and an anchoring point for remembrance, the funeral monument permits the living to honour the dead and maintain their memory. If the typology presents itself according to more diverse variants than the extended space and time, the process of monumentalisation can be studied in its globality, from a multi-disciplinary perspective, which excels the constraints of cultural domains. Otherwise, the monument often constitutes a base for the written elements, which establishes a strong link with the epigraphic studies beginning with antiquity. The expression of the memory is often given in the indication of the ‘civil status’ of the deceased (name, age, sex, parentage), but also by an ideological message that completes or occasionally replaces the iconographic elements, amongst which the portrait is doubtless the most representative, due to its evolution throughout time. Clearly, the funerary groups can only be understood in a socio-demographic sense through the combination of the this data with that with which biological anthropology provides us. In the cases of mass graves from crises of mortality (epidemics, massacres, etc.) archivists, archaeologists and biologists must co-operate towards a common interpretation.

Another fundamental question is that of how long memory lasts. How long is the deceased honoured, his memory maintained? After how much do we accept that a grave be dug up and a part of the skeleton amputated after the dead has been buried? This aspect has been only limitedly developed, and yet concerns an essential issue of ‘cemetery life’, the study of which begins with the combination of observations of the site (the act of rounding earth over a grave, the removal of articles indicating the surface, the ‘demonumentalisation’ of the tomb) with information that we gather from texts (population renewal, acquisition of the site by a new owner, etc.).