Archaeology Of Ritual And Symbolism Research Paper

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Ritual (repetitive sequences of actions related to beliefs) and symbolism (the representation of one thing, often more abstract, by reference to another, often more concrete) have been subjects of archaeological study since the origin of the discipline. Individual artifacts, locations within archaeological sites, and even entire sites or landscapes have been used as archaeological evidence of ritual and symbolism. Archaeologists have varied in their assessment of how difficult it might be to study these subjects, with some expressing doubt that accurate information about such nonmaterial topics could be produced, and others noting that symbols are polysemous, requiring multiple interpretations. Contextual analysis and an emphasis on the active role of social agents characterize the contemporary archaeology of ritual and symbolism.



1. From Ritual Objects To Symbolic Archaeology

Archaeologists have always identified some deposits as evidence of ritual, and ascribed symbolic meanings to some artifacts. Where texts were available, as in Egyptian archaeology, they were employed to validate early interpretations. Beginning in the 1950s explicit concern was addressed to the methodological status of archaeological inferences concerning belief and meaning. Interpretation of ideational systems, including symbolism and ritual, was viewed as more problematic than other topics, such as economics and subsistence. As early as the 1960s, some archaeologists argued that ritual and symbolism were no more difficult of access than more apparently materialist topics, questioning the analytical separation of material and ideational aspects of society. Since the 1980s, archaeologists influenced by practice theory have attempted to demonstrate that the archaeological analysis of symbolism and ritual benefits from attention to human agency. Despite changing theoretical perspectives, throughout the history of professional archaeology similar empirical materials have served as the basis for the archaeology of ritual and symbolism.

1.1 Early Archaeological Research On Ritual And Symbolism

Early fieldwork recovered material interpreted as evidence of ancient ritual and belief. Contemporary texts were sometimes available that sketched out beliefs and, as in the case of Egypt, even provided details of ritual actions.

Such early research established assumptions underlying much subsequent archaeological investigation of symbolism and ritual. First, the symbolism of material remains ideally was to be explained by reference to explicit texts, assigning material culture to the role of a container of a formalized and generally accepted singular meaning. Second, specific kinds of archaeological deposits came to occupy a central place in discussions of ritual. These included formal structures identified as the locations of rituals (temples); human burials, viewed universally as occasions for mortuary ceremonies; and ‘offerings’: deposits of selected objects, especially those encountered in ritual structures and burials.

1.2 The ‘Ladder Of Inference’ And Processual Archaeology

In 1954, Christopher Hawkes proposed that in the absence of texts, archaeologists were constrained by a ‘ladder of inference’ which governed the probable reliability of their explanations (Hawkes 1954). According to the ladder of inference, some topics were more closely tied to material manifestations, which were more tightly circumscribed by pragmatic considerations. As a result, archaeologists were likely to recover a greater proportion of the evidence necessary for understanding these topics, and their explanations were likely to suffer less from crucial missing data or from variability in the nature of the evidence. Areas such as religion and belief were less tightly tied to materiality, and thus archaeologists were likely to lack crucial pieces of evidence to support explanation, or they might recover material that could be explained in multiple ways and have no basis to choose between explanations. In contrast, in initial programmatic statements for the processual archaeology of the early 1960s, Lewis Binford explicitly argued that all aspects of culture were open to scientific archaeological analysis if questions were properly framed. Neither symbolism nor ritual was excluded from archaeological investigation.

Important contributions to the archaeology of ritual and symbolism were developed in processual archaeology. Drawing on information theory, symbols could be treated as messages intended to communicate clear meanings (Wobst 1977). Information theory provided a means to support some of the assumptions necessary for archaeologists to treat ancient symbols as if they had a single consistent meaning. If symbols were media to convey messages, then there would have been strong social pressures, and even adaptive advantages, to having shared interpretations of their meaning. The application of communication models to the archaeological study of symbols facilitated the development of an archaeological theory of style, the definition and interpretation of sociopolitical ‘status badges,’ and the interpretation of differences in material culture as markers of ethnic boundaries and cultural identities.

Robert Drennan (1983), employing processual systems theory, developed an explicit set of expectations for ritual subsystems, which could be linked to specific characteristics of archaeological remains to create predictions for the material correlates of ritual. Following social anthropologist Roy Rappaport, Drennan operationally defined ritual as specific sequences of repeated action directed at intervening in relations between humans and supernatural forces or beings. Among the key features he and others used to attempt to objectively identify remains stemming from ritual were associations between otherwise rare items, and the recovery of such rare items from public spaces. The systems approach assumed a separation between an everyday sphere of activities and a separate sphere, the domain of ritual, detectable by distinctive location and unusual artifacts.

Processual approaches required external bodies of information for the formulation of models of ritual and symbolic systems. Specific ethnographic analogy, the ‘direct historic approach,’ drew on the study of living societies believed to be descended from the archaeological population. General analogies were made from comparative ethnographic samples such as those contained in the Human Relations Area Files. (These were abstracts of ethnographic samples selected to provide a cross-section of known variation in human activity. They provided a beginning point for statistical generalizations about human behavior, including ritual.) The power of explanation rested on the strength of arguments linking the analogies to the test case, requiring extremely broad uniformitarian generalization. The level of generalization required made explanations of ritual and symbolism employed extremely vague, and tended to substitute the operations of superorganic entities for individual actions.

1.3 Postprocessual Directions In The Archaeology Of Ritual And Symbolism

In a series of edited volumes, Ian Hodder (1982a, 1982b, 1989) and colleagues initiated a range of challenges to the processual analysis of ritual and symbolism. Critiques of the information theory models embedded in processual analyses were central to these analyses. Demonstrations of diversity within cultural traditions, based on historical and ethno- graphic documents, highlighted problems with uniformitarian and normative assumptions shared by processual and preprocessual archaeologies.

While there is variation among scholars participating in the postprocessual critique, they share a fundamental view of the nature of symbolic meaning. Rather than seeing archaeologically recovered objects as vehicles carrying pre-existing meanings, they argue that symbolic meaning was negotiated through the use of cultural forms, including the permanent ones recovered by archaeologists. This view of symbolism requires attention to contextual relations in order to understand how symbolic meaning was negotiated. Even when archaeologists operating under this model express uncertainty about their ability to understand the specific meanings symbols had for past actors, they routinely make arguments about the deployment of symbolism as part of strategies of actors and factions within past societies.

The meaning of symbols and their social effects are seen as mutually constituted. Contrasts within and between contexts are required to argue for a relationship between symbolism and any specific form of meaning under these assumptions. The constitution of symbolic meaning is seen as a constant feature of social life. Rituals provided marked settings in which the meanings of symbols were negotiated, but they were not the only or even the most significant settings in which symbolic meaning developed.

2. Archaeology Of Symbolism

Relations of substitution are fundamental to the definition of symbols. Archaeologists commonly use specific objects as signs of categories, for example, the identification of Clovis stone points as markers of a Palaeolithic population in the Americas. This basic archaeological operation rests on the assumption that the makers and users of these points would have recognized a commonality among themselves and a dissimilarity from others, albeit on a largely nondiscursive level (see Gardin and Peebles 1992). Ethnoarchaeological research has demonstrated that the degree to which the use of common material forms conveys either a conscious or unconscious identification is highly variable (Hodder 1982a).

Some symbolic relations of substitution by past populations are treated as more conscious. The embedding of symbolism in concrete things has been a focus of extensive empirical and theoretical debate (e.g., Robb 1999). For example, some artifacts have been interpreted as ‘status badges’ created as deliberate signs of rank. Some archaeologists seek to understand the specific properties of materials which lend themselves to being used in symbolic transactions, or to reinforce culturally accepted meanings. Others are concerned with the way that symbolic meanings are interpreted. The latter approach includes a consideration of the experiential contexts within which objects with symbolic significance were used, including rituals.

3. Archaeology Of Ritual

The archaeology of ritual has moved away from an early history of identification of specific material objects, settings, and representations as evidence of the presence of a separate ritual or symbolic sphere or system, to the use of contextual associations to identify repeated sequences of action like those that are recognized as ritual in living societies. Certain classes of artifacts have been described as ‘ritual’ objects: examples include ancient Chinese bronze vessels, North American copper and shell objects, and ceramic figurines in many areas of the world. The identification of objects as ritual objects has been criticized as a facile means to defer our understanding of unusual objects. Recently, Ruth Whitehouse (in Wilkins 1996) has argued that ‘ritual objects’ can be a real category of material with unique potential for informing about ancient belief and action.

What distinguishes ritual contexts in recent work is not simply their separation from presumed household locations. Historical archaeologists specializing in the study of the African diaspora have recovered assemblages of artifacts arguably used in healing rituals on the household level. In place of defining specific objects and places as inherently associated with ritual, contemporary approaches emphasize the repetition of activity that is central to the definition of ritual. Archaeologists working on the British Neolithic proposed the concept of ‘structured deposition’ as a way to recognize specific archaeological deposits that were likely to be the result of ritual action (Richards and Thomas 1984).

4. The Material Base For An Archaeology Of Ritual And Symbolism

Remarkably, despite theoretical differences, the specific material bases for an archaeology of ritual and symbolism have remained fairly stable and have been constantly under investigation. Offerings or caches, burials, particular spatial locales, and visual images have consistently provided the subject matter for archaeological analyses.

4.1 Caches And Offerings

Caches, hoards, or ‘offering deposits’ figure as primary evidence of ritual in several regional traditions in archaeology, particularly North America, Central America, the eastern Mediterranean, and Neolithic Europe (e.g. Bradley 1991). Interpretations of caches vary from purely materialistic to ideational. Some analysts stress the economic effect of the withdrawal from circulation of a large quantity of specialized goods at one time. Others propose structural-symbolic interpretations in which materials employed worked to create specific associations between ideas about the supernatural world and the locale of the offering, consecrated by the deposit. Explanations of both kinds have been offered for the same deposits, and indeed, they are not mutually exclusive, since a ritual action can have both pragmatic and symbolic effects.

4.2 Burials

Mortuary analysis, the study of sites and artifacts related to human burial, has occupied a central place in the archaeology of ritual and symbolism (e.g., Chapman et al. 1981). Studies conducted under the normative assumptions of culture history described burial customs, including the laying out of the body according to symbolic beliefs (such as the eastward orientation of the head), and the inclusion of artifacts as ‘grave goods.’ Among mortuary activities, the removal of skeletal elements and the practice of secondary burial have been seen as unambiguous evidence of ritual practice. The deliberate burial of animals has generally also been regarded as evidence of ritual activity.

Processual archaeology directed attention to the generation of covering laws or assumptions that could link the forms of burials, and particularly, diversity among them, to social differences. Burials were seen as reflecting the social identity of the deceased. They operated as mechanisms to assert claims for territory. Postprocessual archaeologists examine burial assemblages as the material media of ancient rituals, and demonstrate that mortuary remains can mask social relations as easily as they can reflect them (e.g., contributions to Hodder 1982b).

4.3 Temples And ‘Sacred Landscapes’

The identification of temple sites through spatial segregation, specific construction, or a combination, characterizes much archaeology addressed at understanding ritual and symbolism. While buildings denominated temples may sometimes be unambiguously identified, usually through written documents, such as ancient Egyptian and Maya inscriptions, in other cases the identification of ‘temples’ may be challenged. Other architectural settings that are assumed not to have seen use in everyday life, such as the ball courts of Central America, the Caribbean, and the US Southwest, are also viewed as sites of ritual.

Spatial locales that can be viewed as nonordinary by nature are sometimes treated as effectively unproblematic locales for an archaeology of ritual. Caves and natural springs are prominent foci for some definitions of ‘sacred geographies.’ In contrast, the investigation of entire landscapes, such as those of megalithic Europe, emphasizes the social marking of space through ritual action.

4.4 Visual Images

Artistic representations of artifacts and buildings recovered archaeologically have been a staple in reconstructing ritual. They have been approached in two complementary ways. On one hand, researchers have argued that scenes represented mythologies or beliefs about the supernatural. Some scenes have been identified as models for ritual enactment. For example, the elaborately-dressed individuals buried at the coastal Peruvian Sipan site have been identified with the clearly nonhuman figures depicted in supposed mythological scenes on pots of the Moche kingdom. The implication that such acts as ritual decapitation and mountaintop sacrifice actually took place within ancient Peruvian society has been supported by the recovery of caches of skulls and of frozen bodies on the high Andes.

In other cases, representations have been interpreted as scenes recording ritual practices. For example, Classic Maya stelae have been identified as showing members of the ruling class engaged in ritual bloodletting and the sacrificial burning of paper and resin. The availability of written texts in societies like those of the ancient Maya and Mesopotamia has led to ambitious attempts to reconstruct specific ritual practices from an emic perspective.

4.5 Animal Remains

Analysis of faunal assemblages is a relatively recent addition to the repertoire of methods used to reconstruct ancient ritual practices (Anderson and Boyle 1996). Ritual studies begin with the assumption that the use of any materials in unusual proportions within a site may signal the location of activities different from those oriented toward the practical demands of day-to-day life. With faunal remains, an additional criterion can be added: the identification of parts of animals that cannot have been used for subsistence.

5. Future Directions

Contextual analysis has become a fundamental part of archaeological investigation of ritual and symbolism. Through contextual analyses, specific suites of artifacts are identified that can be interpreted as evidence of ritual action. Continued emphasis on combining data to produce multifaceted arguments for ritual, and on placing active social agents at the center of reconstructions of meaning, can be expected.

For example, archaeologists in many regions have converged on the concept of feasting as a means to interpret particular assemblages of artifacts, animal bone, and plant remains. While feasting itself need not be seen as a ritual, it is often described in those terms, and is always interpreted as of symbolic significance. Studies of ritual feasting employ remarkably similar language and concepts. Drinking, the ingestion of drugs, and dancing have all been identified as part of ritual feasts. This is leading to the identification of specific categories of material remains that provide evidence of presumed ritual activities. Attention is also being directed to the experiential effects of ancient ritual practices on the development of forms of subjectivity.

Archaeologists are otherwise less inclined to propose specific meanings for symbols, except in literate traditions where texts continue to serve to validate interpretations. Continuing debate will focus on how to create interpretations of symbols that incorporate multivocality and capture the recursion between practice and meaning.


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