Valentine’s Day is fast approaching! Have you bought the red roses and written notes to your valentine yet? Perhaps one of your Valentine’s Day cards will be in the familiar shape of a heart. But have you ever wondered where that shape came from, its origins, its symbolic and emotional meaning, and how it has transformed from the beating organ inside us all to the simple double-scalloped, v-shaped based symbol commonly drawn up on February 14th? And how did the simple shape become connected to the meaning of love? What archaeological discoveries contribute to our understanding of this symbol?
To begin, let us ask, can archaeology really reveal human emotions, such as love, from the material culture and historical knowledge that is recovered from excavations? An article by a Sarah Tarlow (2000), titled “Emotion in Archaeology,” discusses just this. She reviews the archaeological approaches to emotion while “arguing that the study of emotion in the past is both necessary and possible.” She also notes that while “emotion history may not in itself be a useful focus for archaeological research, the study of emotion is a necessary part of any endeavor to look at social and cultural aspects of the past. If one cannot write a past which consists entirely of changing emotional states, neither should one write a past in which deeply meaningful aspects of human experience are either assumed or ignored” (Tarlow 2000:730).
Along with studying emotion, symbols are also something archaeologists should be aware of. You could turn to fictional symbologist Robert Langdon from The Da Vinci Code for iconographical inspiration, but John E. Robb’s (1998) article, “The Archaeology of Symbols,” discusses why and how archaeologists in particular, should be dealing with symbols. He concludes that “any serious consideration of ancient society requires us to deal with its symbols,” that “human symbolism is so diverse…that multiple approaches are needed to deal adequately with it,” and that “a major problem in the archaeology of symbols is understanding how varied kinds of symbols relate to each other,” thus “we need to incorporate symbols more fully into our understanding of social relations” (Robb 1998:329, 342).
Heart shapes were initially seen in ancient decorative art. For example, a gold and faience heart-shaped fig leaf pendant dating to 300-100 BCE was recovered from the Indus Valley civilization. Its shape could have contributed to the modern symbol we recognize today, as ivy, fig, and water-lily leaves were commonly found in art and heraldry. Ivy was also a symbol for fidelity. The Ancient Egyptians even believed the heart was the most important part of the body, the key to the afterlife, the source of intelligence, memory, emotion, personality, and even the soul. This belief is the reason that the heart was the only organ kept inside the body when it was mummified, unlike the others that were removed and preserved separately. Some turn to the city-state in Africa known as Cyrene, with heart-shaped silphium, a large fennel, that was imprinted on their coins. While silphium was used as a contraceptive, it might have become associated with the symbol of love as time passed. Some theorize that the heart-shape developed as a stylized depiction of human anatomy, meant to represent breasts, buttocks, or genitalia, while others believe ancient philosophers inspired the shape, as they saw the heart as a central part of a being.
While heart-shapes were common in art, it is believed that their connection to love began sometime in the 13th century. As courtly love in Medieval times began to lead to the production of more illustrations of such, the heart-shape began to be used more commonly as a symbol for love; the first depiction is in the 1250 French manuscript the Roman de la poire, with a man handing his heartesque-shaped heart to a lady. Typically, we see the heart being pointed upside up until the 14th century, but as the 15th century emerged, the typical two-bumps-at-the-top-one-point-at-the-bottom-shape, became used more frequently, so much so, it was placed on card decks.
Playing cards from the Middle East entered Europe in the 1370s, and while their material was too fragile to survive in the archaeological record, surviving cards from the late 1400s are depict the heart symbol. Artifacts surviving in the archaeological record, including the five heart-shaped urns found in Rennes, France during archaeological excavations in 2015. They dated to the 16th and 17th centuries. Recovered in the basement of the Convent of the Jacobins, the urns contained embalmed hearts, one belonging to Toussaint Perrien, Knight of Brefeillac. Eventually, Catholic Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque’s 1673 depiction of Jesus’ Sacred Heart helped popularize the shape, along with the eventual celebration of St. Valentine’s Day established in A.D. 496, whieh was rejuvenated in the 17th century, with the accompanying love notes affixed with hearts. The Victorian era was rife with the greeting card tradition as well, leading to the heart decorations on mass produced cards today.
One of my personal favorite symbols of love with a heart-depiction is the one on an Irish Claddagh ring. Dating to around the early 1700s, when the design first appeared in an Irish fishing village named Claddagh, now part of the city of Galway, the ring was used as both an engagement and/or wedding ring, in order to save money. The design was created by a Richard Joyce, a craftsman who was taken by Algerians and sold to a Moorish goldsmith to work as an apprentice, only released after William III demanded so in 1689. Upon returning to Galway, he created his jewelry business, along with the Claddagh Ring motif, despite his captor offering half of his wealth and his only daughter in marriage if he just stayed in Algeria to work with him. The rings became popular as they were the only Irish-made rings worn by Queen Victoria and later by Queen Alexandra and King Edward VII. They were made and supplied by a Dillon of Galway, who received the Royal Patent to make them, and since 1750, are still making them today. The hands represent friendship, the heart, love, and the crown, loyalty. Depending on how you wear the ring, it can take on four different meanings. If it is on the right hand with the heart turned upside down and away from the hand, then this means the wearer is not in a relationship. If it is worn on the right hand turned right-side-up and towards the hand, then the wearer is in a relationship. If it is worn on the left hand, with the heart turned upside down and away from the hand, then this means the wearer is engaged. If it is worn on the left hand turned right-side-up and towards the hand, then the wearer is married!
From the verb on the I ♥ NY shirt, to emojis and video game lives, hearts have infiltrated many aspects of our lives. The symbol and its meaning will forever continue to affect the way we express and depict the emotion of love; it may even evolve, altered just as it already has been, changing and shifting just as our societies, languages, and cultures do.
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The Archaeology of Love Part I: The Heart of the Matter