The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues


Why these paper clips have gained such widespread popularity is a functional mystery but a fine example of the role aesthetics and style can play in the evolution of artifacts. --Henry Petroski (The Evolution of Useful Things, 1992)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A resourceful convict braided dental floss into a makeshift rope and used it [to] scale an 18-foot jailhouse wall and escape. --Nancy Nussbaum (1994)

It [the Spalding Allen collection of Nez Perce shirts, hats, and other objects collected in the 1840s] definitely has historical and cultural value to our children, their children and their grandchildren. These artifacts should be located here in Nez Perce country [i.e., in Idaho rather than in Ohio]. --Allen Slickpoo Sr., Nez Perce tribal historian (Kenworthy 1995:A3)

Durable sign. A material object (e.g., a consumer product) deliberately fabricated by humankind.

Usage: Like gestures, artifacts have a great deal to "say." The simplest message transmitted by an artifact is, "Something manmade is here" (Givens 1982:172). "Manmade" (i.e., intelligently fabricated by humans) is evident in a. the deliberately patterned shapeb. the grammaticalsyntax (i.e., the structured arrangement of parts), and c. the negative entropy encoded in artifacts as material signs, signals, and cues.

Word origin. The word artifact comes from the Latin arte ("by skill") factum ("made"; via the ancient Indo-European root dhe-, "to set," "to put," derivatives of which include deeddid, and do; skill "by hand" is implied).

Anthropology. "At dozens of archaeological sites in Africa, razor-sharp stone flakes and round hammer-stones mark the handiwork of anonymous craftspeople who forged tools as early as 2.6 million years ago" (Gibbons 1997:32).

Duncan Yo-Yo. The yo-yo "speaks" nonverbally to our visual, spatial, tactile, and kinesthetic senses in a colorfully kinetic dialogue (see SUPERBALL). The yo-yo (Tagalog for "come back") evolved from a Philippine hunting tool made from a softball-size stone tied to a length of plant vine or a leather thong which enabled throwers to retrieve the weapon with a simple flick of the wrist (Hoffman 1996). The modern yo-yo thus has a great deal of physics, prehistory, and hunting lore encoded in its maple, beech, or plastic form (see below, Neuro-notes III).

Lego. European and U.S. children express themselves nonverbally through the whimsical artifacts they build with Lego bricks (made of the plastic, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene). In Latin, Lego means "I put together" (Hoffman 1996). The number of artifacts that may be fabricated from Lego's 1,700 differently shaped bricks is inestimable (as is the number of sentences that may be fabricated from the vocabulary of words). 

Prehistory IOldest sign artifacts. "The oldest human sign artifacts, consisting of engraved animal bones such as the Bordes ox-rib, date to perhaps 300,000 B.P. [before present] from the pre-Neanderthal period in France (Marshack, 1971; 1975). The symbolism is as yet unexplained; however, the V-shaped engravings appear to be constructed--distinctively patterned--rather than natural, so a quite general message, 'made by man,' reaches the contemporary receiver" (Givens 1982:161).

Prehistory IISculpted figures1. "Starting about 40,000 years ago with Homo sapiens sapiens, the archeological record evidences what can be termed a semiotic 'explosion,' a proliferation in human sign-making activities" (Givens 1978:161). 2. " . . . realistically carved animal and human forms appear in Germany's Vogelherd Cave (dating to 30,000 B.P.); as does the French figurine, the Venus of Laussel (dated to 22,000 B.P.). Such signs convey not only 'made by man' and 'man was here,' but rather more complicated messages: 'horse,' 'lion,' 'leopard,' 'bear,' 'bison,' 'mammoth,' 'human adult female,' and perhaps even such qualities as 'standing,' 'awake,' 'bowed head,' 'stretched neck,' and so on" (Givens 1982:161-62).

Tinkertoy. A second multi-part construction toy (see above, Lego) is the Tinkertoy, created in the U.S. in the 1920s. This "meta-artifact" (i.e., an artifact from which other artifacts may be made) was invented by stone mason Charles Pajeau, who ". . . noticed how much fun his own children had sticking pencils into empty spools of thread, then haphazardly assembling them into all sorts of abstract forms" (Hoffman 1996:91; see HANDSLater signs). Lockheed has used Tinkertoy's nonverbal components to test airplane artifacts, including fuselage and wing designs.

RESEARCH REPORTS1. By the age of five, the typical American child has owned 250 artifacts (i.e., toys; Rosemond 1992). 2. The Tasmanian islanders (who lived off the southeastern coast of Australia) are known to anthropologists as the people who made and used theleast number of artifacts of any cultural group in history. In all, the Tasmanian islanders used a total of ca. 25 stone and wooden tools, fiber baskets, shell necklaces, ropes, and bark canoes (Diamond1993). 3. And yet, the contrast between U.S. consumers, e.g., and Tasmanians is not marked, because the total time spent handlingrepairingexchanging, and communicating with and about artifacts may be roughly the same everywhere (see OBJECT FANCY). (N.B.: A case in point is Tibet, where material goods are scarce--and yet where monks nonetheless spend hours each day spinning cylindrical prayer wheels.)
Hand-held. Archaeologists define artifacts as portable objects (e.g., beads, arrowheads, and car keys) which are small enough to carry. In a lifetime, we handle millions of artifacts which "speak" to us through their colors, textures, aromas, and sounds (see MESSAGING FEATURE). (N.B.: The Smithsonian Institution is home to ca. 140 million "objects" [Bliss 1994:3], all of which--including insects, meterorites, and tropical plants--may be classed as artifacts because they have undergone S.I.'s preservation, stabilization, and/or mounting process.)

Monumental. Pyramids, interstate highways, and the Great Wall of China are immoveable artifacts, too heavy for Homo to carry. Most monumental artifacts were made after humans had stopped hunting, gathering, and wandering (ca. 10,000 years ago), and had settled down as farmers. (N.B.: Today, the typical 2,000-square-foot U.S. home weighs an average 340,000 lbs., and "speaks" to us through messaging features designed, e.g., into its arches, shutters, and eaves.)

Colossal. The biggest artifact of all--an ever-spreading and encompassing material veneer we shall call the Artifact--is the sum total of homes, walls, Mid-East tells, campuses, shopping centers, skyscrapers, freeways, interstate highways, strip malls, and sidewalks currently covering, intertwining, and occupying our planet's surface. For hypothetical visitors from outer space, the Artifact (in tandem with humankind's electromagnetic media signals) is the largest physical sign of humanity's presence on Earth. (N.B.: Americans spend 97% of their lives inside the Artifact, secure in its exoskeleton of concrete, steel, plaster, and wood. At least 99% of the 3% of our time spent outdoors takes place on constructed walkways, highways, and byways--which "speak" to us of our humanity and separation from nature [see NONVERBAL WORLD].)

Spatial. The remotest human artifacts are the Pioneer 10 and Voyager 1 spacecrafts, which are traveling indefinitely away from Planet Earth, and which, should they be discovered by intelligent extraterrestrials, would "bespeak" our humanity.

Gravitational. As a physical expression of weight, a platinum-iridium alloy cylindrical artifact was fabricated to represent, nonverbally and apart from words, the International Prototype Kilogram. "It was made in 1878, and scientists agreed in 1889 for all time to define 'one kilogram' as equal to the mass of that cylinder" (Anonymous 1983:16). 

Emotional. When asked to identify our most treasured possession, we often name an artifact given to us by an older family member (Sutton and Waite 1992).

Most viewed. "Considered cursed because three of its owners met tragic ends, the gem [the Hope Diamond] attracts more oglers than any other museum object in the world, including the 'Mona Lisa,' said museum [National Museum of Natural History] spokesman Randall Kremer" (Groer and Gerhart 1996:B3). 

Unusual usages. Humans use artifacts in oddly innovative ways. 1. On July 16, 2001, Sandra Guba, 36, allegedly hit Joy DuBord, 45, on the side of the head with a piece of bread. Guba, a rival of DuBord for the affections of massage therapist Chris Allshouse (a man), 29, was cited in Dana Point, California, for assault and battery with a peanut butter sandwich (Anonymous 2001I). 2. On August 31, 2001, Thomas Rokosky, 26, allegedly attempted to rob a store in Harrison Township, Pennsylvania, by threatening the store clerk with a can of ravioli wrapped in his shirt (Anonymous 2001L).

Neuro-notes I1. "Areas and pathways subserving object and spatial vision are segregated in the visual system. Experiments show that the primate prefrontal cortex is similarly segregated into object and spatial domains. . . . . These findings indicate that the prefrontal cortex contains separate processing mechanisms for remembering 'what' and 'where' an object is" (Wilson et al. [Science] 1993:1955). 2. "When an object is seen or its name read, knowledge of [its] attributes is activated automatically and without conscious awareness" (Martin et al. [Science] 1995:102; see WORDNeuro-notes III). 3. "The visual system separates processing of an object's form and color ('what') from its spatial location ('where'). In order to direct action to objects, the identity and location of those objects . . ." may be integrated with help from neurons in the primate brain's prefrontal cortex (Rao, Rainier, and Miller [Science] 1997:821).

Neuro-notes II. According to PET imaging studies, artifact picture identification activates the left brain hemisphere (specifically, the dorsolateral frontal and temporal cortex [Perani et al. 1999].) (Animal picture identification, on the other hand, activates both the right and left occipital regions [Perani et al. 1999]).

Neuro-notes III. "When we create an artifact such as a tool, we leave a physical trace of our thoughts" (Hauser 2000:22).

Neuro-notes IV. As we indicated in 1999 in our entry for SPEECH, tool making, gesture, and speaking are closely linked in the brain. Now, consider Atsushi Iriki's recent abstract for the 2012 conference on "Mirror Neurons: New Frontiers 20 Years After Their Discovery": "The brain mechanisms that subserve tool use may bridge the gap between gesture and language--the site of such integration seems to be the parietal and extending opercular cortices."


Ancient Artifacts

Illustration of African Oldowan chopping tool, ca. 1.9 million years old (a material object deliberately fabricated by humankind; picture credit: unknown)