In my never-ending search for objects made of bone in museums and on the web, I have found some finely crafted items with similar decorations. These are small circles that surround central dots. The objects come from far-flung regions of the world and span thousands of years. Is there an overarching meaning? Was the motif designed anew in various cultures or did it originate in one place and then go viral? Why this motif and not stars or hearts?

To find an answer, I queried several art historians, decorative art historians, as well as curators and collection managers at the museums where I found these objects. I received a number of thoughtful replies. These included leads to several books and journal articles on primitive art. Here is a synopsis of what I have learned.

RL Anderson writes in his book, Art in Primitive Societies: Are there universal symbols? Freudian iconography? [Carl] Yung felt that all human beings, no matter what their cultural background, held in their minds a share of the “collective unconsciousness”. … Circle: a symbol of Self. It expresses the totality of the psyche in all its aspects, including the relationship between man and the whole of nature.

Another reference noted that the circle is a universal symbol with extensive meanings. These include the concepts of totality, wholeness, original perfection, self, infinity, eternity, timelessness, all cyclic movement, God.

Those explanations are rather encompassing, but neither says anything about the dot. Other sources have addressed both:

Shamans have the ability to see into other worlds. Thus the circle and dot, both an eye and a hole, equate physical and spiritual movement between worlds.

Images and hunting fetishes marked with the circle and dot were supposed to watch for game, and by clairvoyant powers, sight it at a great distance.

For succinctness and mastery of English, I particularly like the British Museum’s Marcel MarĂ©e’s observation: The circle and dot motif is so common because it is so easy to create, to great ornamental effect, simply by applying a drill.

How was the circle and dot motif inscribed? Anthropologists think that a thin strip of flint, filed to a V shape at its tip with one point slightly longer than the other, would suffice when spun by rubbing it between the artisan’s palms. Metal drills would be more efficient, and the Shuswap tribe in British Columbia made such drills from handles of kettles procured from the Hudson Bay Company. (The author does not explain what they did with the handleless containers.)

So the conclusions run the gamut from mystical “collective unconsciousness” to simple aesthetic practicality. Maybe there is a middle ground, at least for the Inuit, where the motif appears on many hunting charms and everyday objects. In one Inuit language the circle-dot motif is designated as “the eye of awareness” and marks joints on the skeleton. William Thalbitzer in 1908 wrote, “According to Eskimo notions, in every part of the human body (particularly every joint, as for instance in every finger joint) there resides a little soul. How nice. Certainly, across time and space, the soul of each person crafting the circle and dot motif reaches out to us.

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