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Ritual and Archaic States

Ritual and Archaic States

Edited by Joanne M.A. Murphy. Pp. xvii + 244. University Press of Florida, Gainesville 2016. $89.95. ISBN 978-0-81306-278-5 (cloth).

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Ritual and Archaic States aims to rectify a perceived overdependence on war and economy as key variables in early state formation by bringing the role of ritual performance to the forefront. The stated goal is to investigate “the varying nature, expression, and significance of ritual in a variety of archaic states” (xv). This exploration includes introductory chapters by Feinman and Blanton that dominate the volume and establish the theoretical framework for six subsequent case studies from Bronze Age Greece, ancient Peru, and the American Southwest.

Given the long interest of Feinman and Blanton in comparative studies of the evolution of complex societies through a focus on corporate-network political economies, collective action theory (CA), and the cognitive science of religion (CSR), it is not surprising to see their chapters reprise those themes. Feinman (ch. 1) lays the groundwork for interpreting ritual in state making through the adoption of CSR scholar Whitehouse’s “modes of religiosity” (Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission [Walnut Creek, Calif. 2004]) integrated with Blanton and Fargher’s CA forms of governance (Collective Action in the Formation of Pre-Modern States [New York 2008]). Whitehouse postulated that forms of ritual tend to be associated with various aspects (e.g., scale of networks, power distribution, or degree of CA) of human organizational patterns. Into this mix, Feinman brings CA levels of governance and political economy (corporate-network), emerging from previous work by Blanton. The goal of integrating research on ritual modes and forms of governance is to identify “tendencies that are explicable in terms of ‘recurrent processes’ or social mechanisms that generate specific kinds of outcomes” (8). The identification of these “patterns” is the goal of their comparative approach.

Blanton’s (ch. 2) discussion of ritual form as it correlates to different degrees of collective action takes center stage. Blanton examined 30 historic or literate states to demonstrate that forms of governance can be evaluated along a sliding scale by the degree of collective action, from autocratic to democratic. His discussion provides brief summaries of seven of those 30 societies: Venetian, Aztec, Ming Chinese, Athenian, Asante, Vijayanagara, and Swahili Lamu. Based on the premise that ritual functions to integrate social diversity, he proposes that it should be possible to identify different forms of ritual that correlate with different forms of governance (à la Whitehouse).

Blanton proposes that in groups ruled by powerful autocratic elites ritual functions to legitimize the ruling order, while in democratic societies (those with a strong base of CA), rituals promote information flow rather than ideology. Elaborating on the purpose of ritual in democratic societies, he identifies four functions: (1) the public display of governance, (2) the building of cohesion within a diverse society, (3) the public acknowledgment of the polity’s success, and (4) the reinforcement of public morals (39–41).

Both Feinman and Blanton, as well as the volume discussant Alexei Vranich (ch. 9), are cognizant of the challenges of studying ritual in an archaeological context. Not only is the physical evidence of ritual limited but various commentators have shown that historical analogies often lead researchers astray (e.g., Lekson, ch. 8; Marcone, ch. 5). Feinman recognized the dangers of the governance continuum and ritual functions (modes of religiosity) becoming simply functionalist, typological, and mechanistic labels. The concern is well founded considering the fate of Blanton’s earlier corporate-network model. Blanton’s discussion of ritual, for example, could be read as straightforward functionalism in that rituals are literally said to function as mechanisms of, for example, political legitimation or integration (24).

Readers would be well advised to explore the foundational principles of the CA and CSR concepts that underlie Feinman and Blanton’s theorizing. The underpinning of collective action is rational choice theory, and Levi (Of Rule and Revenue [Berkeley 1988]), on whose historical study of rulers’ ability to extract taxes Feinman and Blanton rely, integrates rational choice with the theory of predatory rule. These theories are heavily grounded in several disciplines: economics; sociobiology; cognitive, developmental, and evolutionary psychology; evolutionary biology; sociology; game theory; and biomathematical modeling.

So how do CA and CSR theories inform the six case studies in the volume? Murphy (ch. 3) examines change in Bronze Age Mycenae and Pylos, observing that early on the two sites were architecturally different but were similar in mortuary practices, although later they became architecturally similar but diverged in mortuary rites. She attributes this difference to the presence or absence of local competing polities. Mortuary rites at Mycenaean Dendra form the basis for Schallin’s (ch. 4) interpretation that the transition from early elite autocratic burials to later increasingly modest rites correlated with the rise of the dominant site of Mycenae. The following three papers on ancient Peru form the core of the case studies. Marcone (ch. 5) examines diversity within two Middle Horizon states, Lima and Wari. Looking at mortuary and feasting behavior, he  finds that ritual feasting and ancestor worship were inversely related at the regional and the local levels. Williams and Nash (ch. 6) show how ritual practice on the Wari frontier demonstrates that temple locations and perspectives were constructed to enforce boundaries and to create distinctive identities. Christie and Piscitelli (ch. 7) employ a phenomenological interpretation of standing-stone monoliths to identify different ideological situations in two early Peruvian states. In the final study, Lekson (ch. 8) returns to his advancement of Chaco complexity through the examination of the ritual-political dynamic of the monumental architecture of great houses, great kivas, roads, and observatories.

Ritual and Archaic States contends that CA and CSR afford new avenues to interpret the interaction of ritual and state making. However, while the included studies are important and interesting in their own right, none of them deeply integrates CA theory to generate unique insights. I suggest that, at present, the value of CA theory in this context is yet to be demonstrated, but advocates of CA theory will likely still find this volume interesting.

Thomas E. Emerson
University of Illinois

Book Review of Ritual and Archaic States, edited by Joanne M.A. Murphy

Reviewed by Thomas E. Emerson

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 4 (October 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1214.Murphy

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