The meaning and biographies of collected objects

Two MTA Bifaces from Versigny (

Not only persons, but also objects have biographies, as they are integrated into interactions across time and space and were embedded and later removed from their original context.

As objects gather biographies for themselves they also acquire symbolic value. For example, an artifact found by F. Bordes at Combe Grenal that was lately incorporated into my collection has a high symbolic value for me. It becomes not only an object with a biography but also becomes a part of my own biography and identity. Because it is an item found at a key-site for the European Mousterian and was excavated by the leading Prehistorian of his time it becomes also of value for other persons sharing my interest.

Objects that are displayed in museums or enter collections change their qualities. In his 1988 book „origins of the museum“, Krzysztof Pomian argued that an artifact that was taken out of from the practical and economic sphere becomes a “semiophore” with no practical use. Such objects are brought into a new symbolic context and are charged with a different socio-cultural meaning. The collection and the exhibition of semiophores mediate between the visible and invisible world (the past, the future), making the invisible present through the arrangement of concrete tangible objects. The invisible represented in museum objects is frequently that of past times, persons, or places, but can also be interpreted as a sacrifice for future generations.

Although Pomian helps us to understand the metaphoric symbolism around semiophores, I disagree with Pomian on two major points. Firstly, semiophores are still part of an alternative economy (the collectors market, where more than 10000 EUR are payed for exceptional handaxes and Nordic daggers), and secondly do still have a practical or symbolic use also (the exhibition of Schliemann’s findings from Troy were always charged with national pride and helped visitors to be charged also).

There are Museums, which satisfy both the interest of specialists and the large public. At the best, the artifacts displayed in these museums and the form of their presentation preserve and enhance the aura of semiophores. The Musee National de Prehistoire, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac and the Landesmuseum Sachsen-Anhalt in Halle are the best European examples for such a strategy.

A deterrent example of how the European stone-age should not be presented is the Neue Museum in Berlin, reopened after many years of renovation, two years ago. Here you find a loveless presentation of artifacts, both from collections of French material from the early 20th century (Hausers looting operations in the Perigord) and the late Paleolithic / Mesolithic of the Brandenburg / Berlin area. Much stuff for a controversial debate about the proveniance of prehistoric artifacts- but the curators of the museum did not want to launch such a discussion….


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About Katzman

During my whole life I was fascinated by stone age artefacts. Not only the aesthetic qualities of these findings, but also the stories around them and the considerations arising from their discovery, are a part of my blog. Comments and contributions are allways welcome! About me: J.L. Katzman (Pseudonym). Born in Vienna. Left Austria in 1974 and did not regret. Studied Medicine and Prehistory at a German University. Member of a Medical Department at a German University. Copyright 2010-2017 by JLK. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to use material in these posts so long as you cite the work.
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