"The recognition of the objects structure
in art brings us an aesthetic emotion".
(Translated from Lévi Strauss, in Chabornnier, 1971:109)
This paper supports a structural methodology to understand archaeological
art, since a specific case: the policromic pottery of Marajoara
Phase, Marajó Island, mouth of the Amazon, Brazil. The author states
that the painted, incised and excised designs are a visual and iconographic
code in a lingüistic system, with a singular grammar that might
be studied as such.
Este artículo defende el uso del método estructural en el estudio
de la arte arqueológica, desde un caso específico: la ceramica policromica
de la Fase Marajoara, Isla de Marajó, en la foz del Amazonas, Brasil.
La autora sustiene que los diseños formados por las pinturas, incisiones
e excisiones en la alfarrería se constituen en un código visual
y iconográfico que hace parte de un sistema lingüístico, con una
gramática que debe ser estudiada como tal.
Since the nineteenth century, most of the researchers who described
the Marajoara culture have sometimes ventured into the thorny field
of iconographic studies. (Netto, 1885; Torres, 1940; Bardi, 1980;
Roosevelt, 1991). The fragile analysis characterizing most of this
literature is related to the lack of an adequate theoretical-methodological
basis, specifically directed to the object under investigation,
rather than to a naïve point of view about the archaeological art.
The formal analyses methods, though extremely adequate to identify
styles in order to establish comparisons and construct typologies
(Palmatary, 1949; Meggers and Evans, 1957), are totally ineffective
for the study of semantic representations. In turn, the identification
of naturalistic shapes, whether anthropomorphic or zoomorphic, has
been disseminated in an almost inconseqüent way (Roosevelt, 1991),
while the appreciation of geometric designs has not received the
attention it deserves. In exploring the existing bibliography, we
have not found any research work that had started from a consistent
sample of Marajoara pottery and had analysed the decorative motifs
in a systematic way.
The ethnographic analogy has been widely and unduly used to suggest
meanings for the archaeological art. Fortunately, not only have
ethnologists discarded this possibility, but also a number of archaeologists
restate the purely illustrative nature of the comparative method
in iconographic studies (Chollot-Varagnac, 1980; Prous, 1922). It
is not a contradiction to point out that the study of the features
and sense assumed by artistic exhibits in contemporary indigenous
societies is extremely valuable for understanding pre-historic art.
Anthropological investigations have demonstrated, with no exception,
that art in illiterate societies is a powerful way to communicate
social, ethic and ethnic values, thus forming a code which is socially
accepted and understood. The ornamentation, as closely connected
to its social purpose, transmits the mythology and cosmology of
a group not only to record culture but also to make it public and
stable (Illius, 1988; Costa, 1987; Costa e Beltrão, 1974; Dorta,
1987 and 1981; Müller, 1990, 1992; Ribeiro, 1987, 1992; Seeger,
1987; Lopes da Silva, 1994; Lopes da Silva and Farias, 1992; Velthem,
1992, 1994; Vidal and Lopes da Silva, 1995). Therefore, art functions
as a code inherent in culture and this is the ground for studying
it from its intrinsic properties. Ethnographic studies, then, provide
us with the theoretical basis on which to study indigenous design
as a linguistic visual system that possesses coherence and organic
If we assume that in the origin of art there is a concern with
the transmission of cosmological concepts related to a particular
mythical repertory, then we have to admit that any graphic expression
displays an organization similar to the thought that has generated
it. Lévi-Strauss has repeatedly demonstrated that the mythical story
is not a linear one and is only apparently devoid of logic. The
identification of mythemas, units of signification that conduct
the narrative, has brought many insights into the universal and
logical features of myths. The visual representation of myth as
it happens in art is intended to depict these structures and reinforce
the oral story. Even though not all representations, in view of
their diverse holders, have a mythological referent - as they may
simply be lineage or status signs - there is no reason to assume
they are organized in a different way, since they bear ideas which
were produced under the same mental process. In this context, art
is revealed as a visual code that displays a global epistemological
In studying Marajoara art, our concern was, at first, to elect
a satisfactory number of pottery artefacts that should be carefully
analysed in order to obtain the greatest amount of information available.
Such sample should be looked and touched so that the subtleties
and texture of the design and relief could be observed - reason
why photographed or drawn pictures from other books were promptly
discarded. All these conditions and the geographical proximity led
us to Tom Wildi Collection, as suggested by our supervisor José
Brochado, which was kindly made available to us by Professor Teresa
Fossari, director of the University Museum of the Federal University
of Santa Catarina at that time. We have worked with 208 wares of
the Marajoara Phase, including intact and fragmented pieces, derived
from at least six sites: Guajará, Laranjeiras, Gentil, Macacão,
Matinada and Pacoval do Arari. In spite of the lack of a contextual
record, the material is very representative of the series of techniques
and decorative motifs used in Marajoara art.
For methodological reasons and considering that one of the purposes
of our research was to demonstrate the potentialities of museum
collection studies, no pieces other than those belonging to the
collection were used, even when this could corroborate our assertions.
We shall try to show here the methodology employed and the results
First the bowl profiles were drawn and the main characteristics
of the objects were recorded in a data matrix according to a wide
list of attributes. The vessels or fragments that showed a significant
ornamentation were drawn in their entirety, keeping the proportions
of the original. The analysis of the representations took place
later on by using the drawings, which permitted the assessment of
the group as a whole. At first, we tried to identify in the fauna
of Marajó - which would not be significantly distinct from the one
that existed in the pre-historic period (Marcos di Bernardo, personal
communication) - those animals species represented on pottery. This
search proved to be a fruitful one. A great number of real specimens
corresponding to the zoomorphic representations were found in the
archaeological sites. One of the representations of snakes found
in the Marajoara art could be recognized as a Bothrops marajoensis
or B. atrox, popularly known as "jararaca",
which displays a unique feature: its head is shaped like a spearhead
(Hoge, 1966; Ávila-Pires, 1990). On a vessel drawn by Tom Wildi
(fig. a) it is easily recognized, and on a fragment of a bowl (fig.
b) we can observe its representation in a stylized form.
The internal hachured zone that appears in both pictures could
well represent the snakes ventral side, as suggested by biologist
Marcos di Bernardo. Almost all snake species display this design
formed by the sequence of light-colored scales. Another snake representation
that appears in the collection in a more naturalistic form displays
a head formed by three semispheres - which also suggests a spearhead
shape - and a body covered by alternate signs. We have verified
that the snakes body movements represented on the funerary
urn presented below (fig. c) are very much similar to those appearing
in a stylized form, surrounded by triangles, on a bowl fragment
(fig. d). If there is any doubt as to the fact that the sinuous
lines depict snakes, the next picture (fig. e) shows clearly the
relationship between snakes and triangles.
The two examples above show the basis of our method, that is, the
search for structural similarities between the representations,
considering structure as
"a pattern built according to certain simplificative
operations that allow me to uniform different phenomena as from
a single point of view" (Translated from Umberto Eco,
Though our methodology implies working with a sense of stylization
in comparing zoomorphic designs and graphic signs, it does not follow
that we see naturalistic representations as previous to graphs in
a diachronic sequence. Apart from the fact that the material is
not archaeologically dated, the geometrical design may represent
the structure, rather than the form, of the real object, a matter
which depends solely on agreement between the "interlocutors"
of this form of visual communication. According to Leroi-Gourhan
(1985), the Upper Paleolithic art emerged representing rhythms and
ideas rather than naturalistic forms, which were developed later.
The example above (fig. d) shows that there is an iconic representation
of the snake, since it is related to its referent by lines defining
its basic shape; in this case, there is a parallel between shape
and structure. The identification of this iconicity emerged as a
consequence of the context, without which the representation could
only be interpreted as "interlaced sinuous lines". Thus,
in a similar way, we have identified a number of iconic signs by
comparing more "naturalistic" representations and graphs.
Of course, this could not have been done without a sound theoretical
basis, sought for in the works by Nancy Munn (1962, 1966, 1973)
among the Australian Walbiri. This ethnologist, whose ideas have
largely influenced a number of Brazilian anthropologists studying
indigenous art in Brazil (Ribeiro, 1987a, 1987b; Langdon, 1992;
Müller, 1982; Vidal e Silva, 1992), has identified in the guruwari
(drawings made by the Walbiri in sand and stone) the existence of
a visual iconic language widely used by social groups and related
to the history of their mythical ancestors. The graphs, unintelligible
to any foreigner, were used as a support to the verbal narrative,
lending visual strength to it. From a certain number of iconic graphic
signs, so defined according to their structural relationship with
their referents, the Walbiri elaborated designs of varying complexity
and semantic content. As each of these signs, called by Munn as
minimal meaningful unit, could have more than one single referent,
the determination of its meaning depended on its relative position
in the context and its relationship with the other elements.
Rex González (1974:13), studying the archaeological art from north-west
Argentina, stated that
"attributes are rearranged to create new images whose
recurrence clearly indicates the existence of a true message,
in which the essencial elements would display - by analogy -
the character of true phonemes of figurative phrases, which
may vary in their formal or stylistic aspects, but whose relationships
are preserved in such a way as to permit acknowledging the constancy
or differences in structure that lend coherence to the whole"
(Translated from the original).
The author also supposed that it was possible to find out a type
of grammar organizing the formal relations between these essential
elements. Nevertheless, to the best of our knowledge, this line
of research has not been further developed.
Following similar parameters, we can acknowledge, in Marajoara
art, the existence of minimal structures that might be related not
only to a zoomorphic representation but also to one of its minimal
parts. Rex Gonzáles (op. cit) identifies, in the above-mentioned
work, the existence of naturalistic representations that could be
decomposed into essential elements, like claws and eyes. The well-known
representation of the scorpion on the Pacoval Incised funerary vessel
is closely related to any representation of eyes in Marajoara art.
This can be seen by the transformation it undergoes in several drawings,
in which this idea, whose origin is a scorpion, is finally transmitted
only by two short parallel dots, a minimal unit which represents
an essential concept of this referent. We call these basic units
as "minimal meaningful units" (Munn, Müller, op.cit.)
- which implies they have a meaning, yet unknown. The pictures below
show the representation of the scorpion as it appears on the vessel
mentioned; we can compare it to a true scorpion and to see the way
it was represented in iconical form.
The true scorpion The vessel scorpion The identified
structure The minimal meaningful units
Examples of localization of units on wares from
Tom Wildi Collection
The assumption that parts of the object represented still contain
the same strength of meaning is also supported by observations made
by Regina Polo Müller (1990, 1992) among the Asurini do Xingu, Brazil,
in which minimal meaningful units were identified as well in decorative
motifs. According to Indian reports, the dummy Tayngava (human
imagery) could be equally represented by a part of its body only,
and, whatever part was represented, Tayngava was promptly
recognized by people. We think that certain concepts in Marajoara
art could be equally represented by two slightly different units,
as can be seen by the relative position they occupy in the drawings.
Studying the design of Kayabí basketry, Berta Ribeiro (1987b) considers
that variations in shape displayed by some signs may be semantic
or vocabulary variations.
The representation of the lizard, or crocodile, often seen in large
excised vessels, has also been linked to a minimal meaningful unit,
namely a "trident", which appears in almost all designs,
frequently occupying a central position related to the head:
The naturalistic representation The stylized representation The
structure The unit
Based on iconic graphic signs identified from the structural comparison
with natural referents, and by comparing the different drawings
among themselves, we could identify 52 minimal meaningful units
in Marajoara art. No meaning was imputed to these units at any moment
of our research. Comparisons with animals were made only to identify
them and show the relation between an intelligible concept and the
referent. As the present research was restricted to Tom Wildi Collection,
it is important to state that these units are just a hypothesis
that should be tested in a larger sample, when it will certainly
By employing a structural theoretical and methodological approach,
and based on the great achievements of Munn, Ribeiro, Velthem and
Müller (op. cit.), we intend to continue our research extending
it to a larger sample of Marajoara art. Even though Marajoara graphs
cannot be seen as a type of writing, we understand that it is an
iconic visual language (Schaan, 1996, 1997) that has a generative
and structural grammar that can be studied and understood.
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