What is Old is New Again: A Primer on “Ritual” in Archaeology

When writing the previous instalment in this series, I realised that I never wrote a proper post on ritual in archaeology! Which is a mistake on my part – its an important discussion that will need to be addressed before we continue talking about neo-pagan material culture. So, without further ado, read on to discover one of the more “hot topics” in archaeology…

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The term “ritual” has a bit of a reputation among archaeologists. Well, less of a “reputation” and more of a “running joke”, if I’m being honest…one of the first things I learned as an undergraduate taking an “Intro to Archaeology” class was that “ritual” is what archaeologists write when they don’t know what’s happening at a site.

And, to be honest, that makes sense. How do we even define the word “ritual”? Let’s take a look at some examples:

Colin Renfrew (1985) identified the “Four Aspects of Ritual Practice” as:

  1. An attention-focused activity that can be seen in the physical record
  2. A liminal zone that can be correlated with the remaining material
  3. A focus on transcendence and symbol in the material record
  4. Archaeological evidence for participation or offerings

Peter Tompkins (2009), on the other hand, highlights the main elements used for “ritualization” to further define “ritual”:

  1. Temporality – Experiencing time differently
  2. Spatiality – Restricting space
  3. Fragmentation – Relationships between parts and whole
  4. Distance and Scale – Enlargement and minimization for emphasis
  5. Value and Substance – Setting “ritual” importance
  6. Food and Cuisine – Associated with and used to designate “ritual acts”

More recently, Ronald Hutton (2013) adds that ritual, as well as religion, can be differentiated from other acts due to the need for imaginative processes, arguing that finding evidence of early ritual will correlate to the oldest instances of the development of an imagination and symbolic behaviour.

To round these definitions off, Joanna Bruck (1999) provides her perceived definition of “ritual” in her critique of its use in archaeology, arguing that the discipline sees it as something “non-functional” and “impractical”, mutually exclusive from functionality.

In some respects, there are some commonalities in these definitions – for most, ritual is something associated with more abstract, often spiritual concepts that can be differentiated in some sense from what we consider “normative”. Except…that’s a bit problematic as well. After all, what’s “normal” then? This has led to some archaeologists, such as Joanna Bruck (1999) to consider these dualities – “sacred”, “profane”…are these always separated?

This has been discussed specifically with regards to prehistoric rituals in Europe, where “ritual” and “domestic” contexts have been found intermingled at sites. Tompkins (2009) theorises that by drawing from the domestic sphere, rituals allowed prehistoric people to gain new insights and new experiences from their everyday life. Bruck (1999) further argues that perhaps the need to differentiate between “ritual” and “non-ritual” is simply born from the bias of Post-Enlightenment rationalism, and that we should accept that they can co-exist simultaneously in prehistoric life.

Unfortunately, we may never truly agree on what “ritual” is. Based on textual and ethnographic evidence, rituals in the past would most likely utilise tools and offerings that wouldn’t leave behind much of a trace within the archaeological record (Wait 1985), rendering the act as “archaeologically invisible” (Bruck 1999). Ultimately, we will never really have material evidence to base a definitive definition of ritual on – of course, it would be impossible to have one anyway, as ritual will be variable by culture!

So, as we return to modern day paganism, we find that many practitioners of alternative spiritualities will often say that “everything is ritual” (Sylvan 2016). Its a common phrase, promoting a popular concept among modern spiritual communities that one should infuse reverence for the divine into all aspects of everyday life. So perhaps future archaeologists will actually be able to call most things “ritual” and not be joking? Who knows. That’s the beauty of abstract concepts like “ritual” – they’re always changing with the times. And so will our interpretations of them.

References

Bruck, J. (1999) Ritual and Rationality: Some Problems of Interpretation in European Archaeology. European Journal of Archaeology. 2(3). pp. 313-344.

Hutton, R. (2013) Pagan Britain. Yale University Press.

Renfrew, C. (1985) The Archaeology of Cult: The Sanctuary at Phylakopi. British School of Archaeology at Athens.

Sylvan, D. (2016) The Circle Within: Creating a Wiccan Spiritual Tradition. Llewllyn Publications.

Tompkins, P. (2009) Domesticity by Default: Ritual, Ritualization, and Cave Use in the Neolithic Aegean. Oxford Journal of Archaeology. 28(2). pp. 125-153.

Wait, G.A. (1985) Ritual and Religion in Iron Age Britain. BAR British Series 149.

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