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Cult in Context: Reconsidering Ritual in Archaeology [and] The Archaeology of Ritual

July 2009 (113.3)

Book Review

Cult in Context: Reconsidering Ritual in Archaeology [and] The Archaeology of Ritual

Cult in Context: Reconsidering Ritual in Archaeology, edited by David A. Barrowclough and Caroline Malone. Pp. viii + 352, figs. 186, color pls. 9, tables 15. Oxbow Books, Oxford 2007. $90. ISBN 978-84217-303-9 (cloth).

The Archaeology of Ritual, edited by Evangelos Kyriakidis. Pp. xii + 319, figs. 55. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University of California, Los Angeles 2007. $42. ISBN 978-1-931745-47-5 (cloth).

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The two books under review, The Archaeology of Ritual and Cult in Context: Reconsidering Ritual in Archaeology, are among the most recent contributions to a burgeoning subdiscipline that examines the material record for manifestations and evidence of highly symbolic behavior. On the surface, both books address different aspects of the same problem: What are the conclusions that scholars can draw, based on the material record, about how a population performed symbolically charged activities? Beyond that, what do they add to the rapidly growing stack of books in this field? The answer is that, while both contain valuable individual papers, viewed in their totality, The Archaeology of Ritual and Cult in Context demonstrate the complexities and pitfalls of compiling conference papers for publication and the absolute necessity of some narrative arc for such collections. Careful examination of these volumes reveals that method of publication can profoundly affect the overall impact of a selection of conference papers. Editors who do not organize the essays according to a framework rooted in the analytical and substantive content of those writings risk producing an intellectual grab bag, thereby burying even the most provocative contributions. In the end, The Archaeology of Ritual succeeds and Cult in Context does not because of the different choices made by the respective editors.

The essays reviewed here address the techniques that preliterate societies considered efficacious in dealing with the largely incomprehensible forces of the natural world (cf. C. Renfrew, The Archaeology of Cult: The Sanctuary at Phylakopi [London 1985]; C. Bell, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions [New York 1997]; R.A. Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity [Cambridge 1999]; T. Insoll, Archaeology, Ritual, Religion [London and New York 2004]). These forms of behavior mediated dangerous transitions, particularly initiation (the introduction of the former child into the mysteries of the adult community or of the novice/unknowing into the ranks of those already possessing knowledge or expertise) and death (the passage of the once living person onto a different plane of existence) (cf. M. Parker Pearson, The Archaeology of Death and Burial [College Station, Texas 1999]). They also structured engagement with the cosmic powers of the sun, moon, and stars, and provided formats for apprehending the changeability of the natural world and interacting with its constituent elements, earth and water.

Rituals also served to organize and manage society, either directly as in the investment of authority in a new ruler or indirectly through the elaboration of funerary or other rituals associated with the community’s ancestors (cf. P. Keswani, Mortuary Ritual and Society in Bronze Age Cyprus [London 2004]). As a society became more complex, specialists emerged and performed those rites essential for the prosperity and security of the community. Priests or shamans possessed special knowledge that they demonstrated in carefully staged performances that enabled them to access the immaterial forces and to intervene on behalf of the larger group (cf. M.W. Helms, Ulysses Sail: An Ethnographic Odyssey of Power, Knowledge, and Geographical Distance [Princeton 1987]). Certain crafts such as metallurgy and pot making enjoyed privileged status because their practitioners understood how to manipulate fire to transform amorphous earth into purposeful, frequently aesthetic objects. Emerging elites employed highly structured activities to legitimate their authority and establish their position as integral to the general welfare. Leaders could invoke their knowledge of, or special connection to, the cosmos or other spiritually charged aspects of the environment to demonstrate their special power.

Earlier scholars who assumed that an active mind shaped passive material focused on sacred places and objects without a systematic consideration of context, relying, instead, on mythology preserved during the historical period to extract meaning (e.g., M.P. Nilsson, The Minoan-Mycenaean Religion and Its Survival in Greek Religion, 2nd rev. ed. [Lund 1950]). The reconceptualization of the relationship between human consciousness and the material world over the last 25 years has revealed the inadequacy of this approach (E. De Marrais et al., eds., Rethinking Materiality: The Engagement of Mind with the Material World [Cambridge 2004]). Acknowledgment that the mind/object dualism does not accurately reflect human experience requires recognition of the inherent instability of ritual behavior. The relationships between and among individuals, community, and the natural world are dialectical, constantly subject to change. Rituals require the active acceptance of the message by an audience whose responses evoke reactions from the performers so that no two performances are ever the same. Just as no two pots or swords are ever identical, so, too, are the products of ritual actions—the objects that are manipulated; the steps, sounds, and gestures are continually transformed, new and yet familiar on each occasion. In this way, action and belief shape each other. A severe drought or other natural disaster might precipitate a complete abandonment of the apparently ineffectual rituals of the past, the adoption of new, more productive rites, and a complete power shift within the community. While terracotta and metal offerings have survived, an ashy deposit may be the only evidence for plant and animal sacrifices. Similarly, less durable ritual gear such as wooden staffs, floral decoration, perfumed aromatics, or feathered crowns perished or were intentionally destroyed by their users long ago. With so much of the material record irretrievable, reconstruction of the behavior is highly contingent.

The identification and interpretation of material evidence for ritual behavior is further complicated by the lack of consensus regarding the actual subject matter. Renfrew (1985), approaching the subject from the perspective of an archaeologist, offered the first systematic methodology for identifying and interpreting the material evidence of cult activity, taking into consideration the totality of the archaeological record, with four aspects (attention focusing, special aspects of the liminal zone, presence of the transcendent and its symbolic focus, participation and offering) and an 18-point checklist of material correlates now cited almost universally (cf. M. Prent, Cretan Sanctuaries and Cults: Continuity and Change from Late Minoan IIIC to the Archaic Period [Leiden 2005]). Bell (1997), a historian of religion, focuses by contrast on the actions that comprise ritual and has identified certain traits—repetition, invariance, rule governance, formalism, and the air of tradition or symbolism—as characteristic, though not definitive, of ritual behavior. Kyriakidis has refined Bell’s scheme in his own investigation of the Minoan peak sanctuaries, adjusting it to interpret the material record (E. Kyriakidis, Ritual in the Bronze Age Aegean: The Minoan Peak Sanctuaries [London 2005]).

Kyriakidis, the editor of The Archaeology of Ritual, describes the book as “not ... presenting one unified attitude toward ritual.... [Rather] it should be viewed as exemplifying the discourse on the archaeology of ritual today” (1). The 12 papers that make up this volume were delivered at a conference at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology in Los Angeles in 2004. Kyriakidis sets the tone for the discussion by his pragmatic approach to the identification of ritual activity in the archaeological record with a helpful definition of “ritual”: “an etic category that refers to set activities with a special (non-normal) intention in action, which are specific to a group of people” (10). “Set” activities, according to Kyriakidis, are those that by repetition have become crystallized and are thus more likely to leave traces than are the more random patterns of mundane actions. Nevertheless, there are limitations as to how precisely one can identify a particular ritual. Common material elements among rituals in the same belief system, the reuse of a site by multiple rituals, and the impossibility of linking constancy of behavior with consistency of belief prohibit making fine distinctions between individual rituals. The sharing of a site by ritual and mundane activities (e.g., a church office) and the clearing of a ritual site with disposal of the objects in a secondary deposition also can deceive the archaeologist. Kyiakidis remains confident that awareness of these issues and appropriate “calibration” can reduce the likelihood of a mistake in attribution. Renfrew (ch. 2) also addresses practical considerations in arguing that evidence of ritual may not necessarily imply the presence of religion, a question that can be answered only by considering the larger context.

Some of the papers reflect on the goal of studying ritual. Marcus, working in Mesoamerican archaeology, argues against narrow readings that limit the scope of available conclusion. Instead, she promotes a methodology that looks to the fundamental principles that shape all ritual within a culture; she thus situates religion in a broader sociopolitical context. Hastorf focuses on the “dynamic between inclusion and exclusion in ritual” (99). The sunken enclosures that would have been accessible to all ritual participants at the Andean site of Chiripa were replaced by a mound with a sunken enclosure surrounded by small cobbled structures, probably used for preparation and curation. Although the enclosure still allowed for participation, the mound restricted access. A subsequent rebuilding produced a still higher platform with a sunken enclosure surrounded by well-built, fully planned rooms. Again, the enclosure suggests inclusiveness, but the rooms, which had sliding doors, express exclusion and hierarchical relationships. Nikolaidou’s paper raises the slightly different question of whether ritual can be identified outside a clearly cultic context. She suggests that objects produced by skilled craftsmen and craftswomen during the Greek Neolithic were encoded with social and cultural meaning, effectively ritualizing the technologies used in their manufacture.

Four of the papers provide cautionary tales about the perils of relating one source of information about ritual to another. Fogelin castigates his colleagues who read the present onto the past by identifying a seated figure on Indus Valley seals as proto-Shiva, a practice that enhances understanding neither of Shiva nor of the Indus Valley culture. Ancient religions must be read within their own contexts. Examining the burial patterns at an early historic-period Buddhist monastery, Fogelin demonstrates that the material remains reveal an ambivalence about the relationship between the monks and local populations that contradicts later textual evidence. Lopez y Royo confronts a different manipulation of the evidence. Odissi dance is a classical form (re)invented in the 1940s, with roots in 20th-century theater, and subsequently linked with the temple maharis, who entertained Lord Jagannath by the inclusion of certain movements and gestures similar to those found in earlier Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain temple art. By this process, the dance has become accepted as ritual by performer and audience. Humphrey and Laidlaw provide a useful object lesson against reading all acts related to sacred activity as ritual. At a Buddhist monastery in Inner Mongolia, presentation of the taxilag, a portion of an animal sacrifice, is ritual, but the killing of the animal is not and is conducted in a very mundane manner. Ranger suggests that even important rituals may leave no record at all. In the oracular caves in Zimbabwe, postmenopausal women are vessels for the voice of God whose words are interpreted by the priests and priestesses who thereby also maintain their position as mediators of the divine. A temporary screen of wooden slats stands at the entrance, but in all other respects, each cave must be preserved in as close to a state of nature as possible as part of the staging to suggest the presence of God.

The remaining three papers address the future of the archaeology of ritual. McCauley and Lawson suggest that the developing cognitive science could play an important role in balancing the consideration of archaeological evidence from being primarily interpretive to more explanatory. Bell responds to the contributors as a whole, arguing for the need to think more coherently about such issues as systems, memory, cross-cultural dimensions, and power, and about the nature of the whole enterprise of studying ritual. Kyriakidis, in a second paper, remains optimistic, and while agreeing that issues of definition remain, concludes that the conference suggested promising new directions of inquiry. In the end, The Archaeology of Ritual comprises a coherent whole. The papers are focused and substantial.

Cult in Context is more problematic. In part, the difficulties the reader encounters arise from the conference organizers’ decision to adopt the issue of cult in context as an ordering principle. Contending that scholars too often have misunderstood the relationship between places, objects, and images, they write, “This volume explores how contextual archaeologists are approaching the task of interpreting ritual and cult in the archaeological record by re-establishing integration” (3). The reader also confronts 44 papers on various topics, approximately one-third of which concern cult on Malta (in part because the organizers were the recipients of a grant for a project on prehistoric Malta). In the absence of a unifying substantive theme, the resulting publication seems almost chaotic.

The length of the volume precludes discussing all the papers. Following an introductory chapter, Malta is the focus of the first 16 papers. Although the authors assume familiarity with Tarxien and Ggantija, even someone unfamiliar with Maltese archaeology will find the articles interesting. According to Trump, the Maltese temples, products of an indigenous development, date from 3500–2500 B.C.E. (Malta: Prehistory and Temples [Malta 2002]). Stroud underscores the effect that speculative interpretations of the megalithic stone temples have had for their preservation and reconstruction, culminating in the unfortunate case of the Bugibba temple, which was incorporated into the pool area of the Dolmen Resort hotel, thereby obscuring the structure’s use as a temple. Vella similarly laments the presentation of ritual objects in photographs or museums bereft of any reference to their original context. Malone argues that the orientation of the temples and the placement of ritual structures (oracle holes, phallic pillars, altars) reflect strict, even rigid, ritual rules such as libations to the left of the central corridor and sacrifices to the right. Grima notes that the Maltese temples occur in contexts already significant to the population as natural gateways between land and sea. Low-relief panels with marine and vegetation referents “stand in” for these elements on the blocks in front of the temples. GIS analysis reveals, according to Anderson and Stoddart, that temple design controlled access, with visibility decreasing as worshipers moved into the ever-darker interior spaces, so that sacred objects presented at the darkest parts gave ritual performances the character of “epiphanies.” Stoddart, writing separately, explains that mortuary complexes had a totally different visual impact, at the center of nested cosmic circles surrounded by temples and houses and ultimately the stars. The most interesting of the papers on Malta is Tilley’s comparison of Tarxien on Malta and Newgrange in Ireland. Each is oriented in the direction of the sun at the winter solstice and features a prominent threshold. At Tarxien, decorative reliefs directed at the worshipers display neat rows of designs; animal sacrifices occurred on the interior, and burials were relegated to the nearby Hypogaeum. By contrast, at Newgrange, the cremated dead were deposited in stone bowls in the interior; the decoration on the walls of a constricted passage is so disorderly as to appear improvised, and there is no trace of animal sacrifice. Tilley concludes from these and other features that rituals at Tarxien were for the living, not the dead, and were associated with a release of spiritual energy. At Newgrange, structure and decoration were directed toward the potentially malicious spirits and their containment within the tomb.

“Context,” as it applies to the remaining papers in the book, is an elastic concept encompassing natural environment, experience and sensation, the broader society, the presence of stone, time, household, and more. A sampling follows. Some contexts enable those who structure the ritual to establish certain truths about the participants and their world. Thus, at the Middle Neolithic site at Goseck, Germany, a circular enclosure surrounded by a ditch had constricted entrances, the northern and southern of which were aligned with the summer and winter equinoxes. Biehl, who participated in the excavation, identifies the enclosure as a means of structuring embodied human experience and perception. In what were probably initiation rites, the sanctuary, designed to permit celestial observations, separated participants visually and physically from the outside, shaping their experience and differentiating them from those not allowed to enter. Bond’s discussion of the Sweet Track in England demonstrates how the seasonal conditions of the track and its wooden slats emphasized the primacy of water while incorporating a group memory of events in the distant past. Visible but impassable during winter flooding, the track during the summer drew those who walked it into a secret and otherwise invisible environment filled with sensory experiences of water, plants, and earth. Bond suggests that walking the track maintained group identity by enacting a myth of the distant past when Mesolithic populations lived nearby. During the Irish Neolithic, builders of megalithic tombs underscored their transformations of the virgin stone by incorporating the bedrock and the debitage in their constructions. Cooney writes, “They ... capture the notion of what the transformation of stone in monuments is about; breaking it open by human action and in doing so creating new materialized arenas for human experience” (146). Aldenderfer discusses analogous practices in one region of Tibet where a stone circle made of rocks brought down from the mountain acted as the source of village identity. O’Sullivan discusses the deposition of at least 237 adults in the Mound of the Hostages at Tara, Ireland. She notes that in addition to those bodies, there was an earlier foundation deposit of unburned bone and deposits of cremated bone located at the perimeter, reflecting a shift in burial practice.

Besides structural evidence, the context for cultic activity can be established in other ways. Bradley demonstrates how rock carvings in southern Scandinavia disclose Bronze Age perceptions of the passage of the sun. At Högsbyn in southern Sweden, a group of carved stones extends up from the edge of a lake toward some cairns on a nearby hill. Sun symbols and ships appear on the stones at either end, with the ships closest to the lake being the largest. Many of the stones also display carved footprints. The ships and most of the carvings of footprints are oriented toward the lake. By contrast, the human figures on these stones are smallest near the lake and at the other end are large, explicitly male, and carry weapons farther inland. Bradley suggests that people could stand on the stones and watch the passage of the sun from the northeast across the lake and over the land where it set. Because the stones were visible only from April through October, Bradley sees in this pattern a statement about regeneration. The Chalcolithic tell of Cascioarele-Ostrovel in southeastern Romania, like others in the area, featured levels of occupation separated by levels of firing and alluvial deposits resulting from the flooding of the Danube River. Gheorgiu identified what he calls “pyro-objects,” houselike clay structures with holes that would have ventilated fires in actual structures and from which smoke was emitted if the clay object were placed on a fire. Following the clues of the pyro-objects, Gheorgiu constructed and set afire a wattle-and-daub house with holes for ventilation. During the day, smoke concealed much of the structure, but at night, fire shone through the vent holes. Sight and memory would have read this expenditure of energy as a replication in reverse of the house construction during which materials would have been taken from the landscape. In the case of the Tallensi in northern Ghana, Insoll argues that the practice of dispersing the remains of the offerings following the ritual effectively destroys the context and would lead the archaeologist to conclude (falsely) that the sacrifices were unrelated to the totems. Moyes demonstrates that emphasis on the behavior that resulted in the deposition/context can reveal more than any meaning imputed to the objects themselves. Thus, she observes that at Chechem Ha Cave in Belize, significant charcoal deposits date from the Terminal Preclassic to Early Classic periods (210–420 C.E.), whereas 50% of the ceramic assemblage from the cave date to the Late Classic Spanish phase (700–900 C.E.). The earlier deposits reflect use of the cave for extended ritual, whereas later deposition of large pottery types traditionally associated with water deities constituted an offering intended to affect an end to the extended drought. The other chapters in this volume cover a broad range of topics, including the use of figurines, Neolithic rock art, comets as signs of the divine, and mortuary practices, as well as more abstract issues such as time and performance.

The flaws in Cult in Context (lack of a coherent framework, editorial sloppiness) almost certainly result from the editors’ overinclusiveness and subsequent lack of time for proper editing. That said, both of these books would be useful additions to the library of anyone interested in ritual, cult, and religion. The researcher will find an abundance of thoughtful and provocative articles in the pair and substantial bibliographies in The Archaeology of Ritual. Many of the contributors compel us to look at issues of ritual, cult, and religion in new ways. Commendations are given to the authors for bringing these innovative and creative reflections to our attention.

Emily Miller Bonney
Department of Liberal Studies
California State University
Fullerton, California 92834

Book Review of Cult in Context: Reconsidering Ritual in Archaeology, edited by David A. Barrowclough and Caroline Malone; The Archaeology of Ritual, edited by Evangelos Kyriakidis

Reviewed by Emily Miller Bonney

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 113, No. 3 (July 2009)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1133.Bonney

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