Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.07.33

Evangelos Kyriakidis (ed.), The Archaeology of Ritual. Cotsen Advanced Seminars, 3.   Los Angeles:  Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA, 2007.  Pp. xii, 319; figs. 55.  ISBN 978-1-931745-47-5.  $40.00 (pb).  ISBN 978-1-931745-48-2.  $70.00 (hb).  

Reviewed by Sandra Blakely, Emory University (
Word count: 2262 words

Table of Contents

This collection of essays from the 2004 Cotsen seminar represents a solid contribution to the genre of edited conference volumes on archaeology and ritual.1 Among these, it stands out for the range of disciplines assembled. Archaeologists often approach ritual primarily within the context of regional, cultural or period studies. The result has been an uneven development of theory and methodology vis-à-vis the material evidence for ritual practice and belief. These developments characteristically appropriate much from cultural anthropology, religious studies and sociology. They run the risk of relying on the outmoded, classic models of these disciplines, while at the same time not taking advantage of current debates within the field, which represent the development of those concepts through application and testing over multiple scholarly generations. This volume represents one of the most effective counters to this tendency, since it presents contributions from cognitive science, philosophy, religious studies, anthropology and art history as well as archaeology. The contributions offer the unmediated voices of the disciplines on which archeology has drawn, and demonstrate the difficulty as well as the potential for interdisciplinary discussion. The authors vary in the extent to which they directly address archaeological concerns, or their optimism for meaningful contributions to those problems. Strong disagreements on the value of definitions and the relationship between ritual and religion, run throughout the papers, as does a persistent concern for the usefulness of ethnography and ethnohistory in studies of ancient societies. The collection is a significant contribution: the papers are of consistently high quality, several offering article-length synopses of books within their field; regional specializations include Mesoamerica, the Aegean, Inner Mongolia, and Zimbabwe. Consensus is neither its goal nor its outcome. The collection will stimulate meaningful debate, and belongs in the collection of scholars working in both archaeology and religion. It would be an excellent inclusion in graduate seminars in both fields.

The volume consists of 10 essays, framed by an introduction and conclusion by the editor and an additional response by C. Bell.

In 'Finding ritual: Calibrating the evidence', Kyriakidis defines ritual as an etic category with special intention in action, specific to a group of people. Using material from Minoan peak sanctuaries and the Mesara tholoi, he enumerates the challenges of interpreting archaeological data from ritual sites: the similarity of individual rituals within a system, the common use of one space for multiple rituals, the disjunction between ritual practice and belief, the inseparability of ritual and mundane spheres, and finds of ritual items in secondary contexts. Modern comparanda demonstrate the inadvisability of assuming identical meanings behind superficially analogous symbols and actions.

In 'History, ethnography and essentialism: the archaeology of ritual and religion in south Asia', Fogelin critiques the assumptions which underwrite the uses of village ethnography and classical texts as explanatory materials. The ethnography is underwritten by evolutionary assumptions; the texts are the product of an elite. Both are used for essentialist ends, seeking origins rather than an examination of material in context. Fogelin uses the so-called proto-Shiva of Indus Valley seals, and Early Historic period Buddhist mortuary landscapes in Andhra Pradesh, India, to demonstrate a more nuanced approach to the relationship between landscape, texts, inscription and social practice. Individuals who were not associated with the monastery in life were typically buried farthest away from it, the poorest being kept even out of its line of site. The humblest laborers remained, in death as in life, far from interaction with the monastery.

Marcus, in 'Rethinking ritual', outlines the principles of structural replication of ritual, in which interrelated cosmological principles are manifested at numerous levels of society. Marcus traces three key concepts among the Aztec of Mexico: the universe is alive, it is divided into four quadrants, and humans, properly dressed, may approach or impersonate these forces. These concepts are manifested in built structures, iconography, and ethnohistoric texts. Examples are drawn from child sacrifice at Mount Tlaloc, celts and pottery from San Jose Mogote and Monte Alban, and the teixiptla, a term used for humans, effigies, or masks. Particular attention is given to archaeologically invisible ritual components, including chanting, dance and incense, and to the integration of ethnohistoric and archaeological materials.

Hastorf's 'Archaeological Andean Rituals: Performance, Liturgy, and Meaning' focuses on the nested structural enclosures of the Andean highland and coast, part of the Yayamama religious tradition which flourished 900-500 BCE. The enclosures demonstrate dynamics of ritual inclusion and restriction of knowledge, energized by the concept of the ancestors who embody cultural memory and animate the Inka landscape. Shamanistic ceremonies are used to open the Taraco Archaeological Project at Chiripa every season, offering the excavators insight into the transformative aspect of contemporary ritual practice in the region, and aiding in the suspension of the etic perspective as part of the process of understanding the site. Hastorf uses architecture, images, sight lines and small finds to trace the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion, mark their change through time, and measure the influence of the ritual activities beyond the immediate ceremonial time and space.

In 'The Archaeology of Ritual, of Cult, and of Religion', Renfrew positions the study of ritual in cognitive archaeology, with an emphasis on non-religious rituals. The religious are those which involve superhuman beings: either the presence of images, or exceptional scale of human labor and investment, indicate religious value. The extent to which rituals create institutional facts has not been considered archaeologically, but constitutes a promising direction for further research. Renfrew concludes that the question of ritual and religion may be less valuable than we imagine, as many societies do not make a strong distinction between sacred and secular.

In 'Living Ritual and Indigenous Archaeology, The case of Zimbabwe', Ranger, an Africanist, notes the 'promiscuous relationship' between African studies, and archaeology and anthropology. He turns on its head the archaeological question of the identification of cult sites, asking instead how the living tradition of the oracular caves of the Matopos mountains of southern Zimbabwe could be read as archaeological sites. The caves adhere to ritual prohibitions against modifications to the natural landscape: offerings are ephemeral; installations remain small scale. Since shrines are defined by local organizations rather than by the sacred space alone, promising routes forinvestigation include regional studies of the relationships between shrines, villages and landscapes, or studies of competing toponyms which reflect competing memories. While the Matopos offer ritual without archaeology, the Great Zimbabwe offers archaeology which, due to its status as a UNESCO world heritage site, is kept free of contemporary ritual practice. The prohibition hinders the development of hypotheses for the functioning of the site in its landscape. Ranger offers valuable insights into the limitations of ethnographic data for archaeological investigation: both are incomplete sources of information, and not immediately transparent to the investigator. The value of ethnography as a way to understand the relationship between site and landscape helps shift its heuristic use away from the search for survivals, which has characterized it in the past, and toward the investigation of use in context. Lopez y Royo, in 'The Reinvention of Odissi Classical Dance as a Temple Ritual', describes the emergence of Odissi classical dance of eastern India, contrasting the narrative of its roots in antiquity with the history of its invention in 1940's India. Texts and temple sculptures from Hindu, Buddhist and ancient cave temples are invoked to support the legendary origin, which linked the dance with the female temple dancers known as devadasis. Archaeological evidence helps ritualize and exoticize the dance, both factors key in its successful marketing. The focus on imaginary ritual roots obscures the entertainment value of the dance, which is an entirely theatrical phenomenon, and distracts from its more intriguing origin as a response to Indian independence, part of a number of artistic revivals of the period.

Nikolaidou, in 'Ritualized Technologies in the Aegean Neolithic? The Crafts of Adornment', focuses on the analysis of small finds, to which she brings anthropological theories of technology. Using beads, pendants, and shell bracelets from the Neolithic site of Sitagroi in Northern Greece, she identifies nine functional analogies between technology and ritual: the symbolism of the raw material, the empowering sense of wisdom, social skills, repetitive patterns, redundancy of symbols, display, feelings of communitas, liminality and mystique in the interaction between crafter and material, and the ceremonial use of the end products. The Sitagroi ornaments open the door to an exploration of the integration of technology, ritual and symbolism into the technai of daily life, with close attention to the materials used, means of production, apprenticeship in the acquisition of the art, and the uses of ornament to mark advancement toward personal and social maturity. The essay makes sound use of theoretical approaches to the body as a social object capable of adornment, and an object of investigation for ritual in an archaeological context.

MacCauley and Lawson's essay, 'Cognition, Religious Ritual, and Archaeology', summarizes and updates the authors' 2002 book. Cognitive processes affect the shape and transmission of belief; people have similar mental representations about ritual actions, and those similarities have cognitive explanations, based on factors of sensory pageantry and frequency. Rituals are defined by their special focus on agent, patient or instrument, frequency of their performance, and degree of pageantry. A balanced ritual system factors in these elements and takes into account concerns for sensory overload, habituation, and tedium. The authors propose that some of their distinctions should be visible in the archaeological record: low frequency, high sensory rituals should be distinguishable from high frequency, low sensory rituals, for example, as special agent rituals should be distinguishable from special patient. Their 3-dimensional model of sensory pageantry, ritual form and frequency is the basis of a unified theory for religious ritual. They conclude that the limitations of data for any given archaeological example would make the application of this model virtually impossible for an archaeological site or cult.

In 'Sacrifice and Ritualization', Humphreys and Laidlaw provide an ethnographic study of the process of ritualization, using the taxilag rituals of Inner Mongolia. The region of study is characterized by the combination of Buddhism and local religious traditions. Local traditions recognize sacred forces in the landscape in the form of fierce spirits, and create places of worship in the form of stupas, victory flag-staffs, and oboo, round stone cairns. The taxilag rituals include animal slaughter, commonly identified as sacrifice. Closer examination demonstrates that the slaughter is not a sacrifice: it lacks any of the characteristics of ritualization, defined as the process of displaced intentionality through which rules or archetypes, rather than individual intent, governs the structure of action. Those signs of ritualization which do emerge are traced to the Buddhicization of worship: local Buddhism demonstrates a surprising engagement with the local spirit cults as well as with blood sacrifice.

The volume concludes with responses from Bell and Kyriakidis. Bell writes that the seminar demonstrates ritual theory's ignorance of archaeology, which has traditionally been approached as a source to support evolutionary models. She emphasizes the paucity of archaeological data in comparison to that within ritual studies, and notes the disparity in the concepts of systems and memory between the two fields. Bell prefers the concept of schemes to that of system, and defines belief as the process of putting these schemes to use. A definition of ritual, she argues, is counter-productive, as such definitions reflect a focus on scholarly categories rather than those of the subject culture, and agreement on a single definition seems extremely unlikely. In order to come close to this local meaning, she proposes a focus on the various ways performance may be intended and experienced, and on ritualization as a process of decision making within the subject community itself.

Kyriakidis counters Bell's negative assessment of definitions, pointing out that they fight vagueness and encourage critical argument, and that consensus is not the measure of usefulness. He confirms archaeology's contributions to ritual investigation, and notes specific methodological approaches at scales ranging from small finds, to regional and political histories, to globalized models. Thus studies which incorporate artifact production and ownership, small scale spatial analysis, and landscape offer insight into belief systems; analysis of sites vis-à-vis settlements and social structure casts light on the political dynamics of ritual practice. He also notes the role of political concerns in shaping the interpretation of the archaeological record, as nationalism may seek to use archaeology to support claims of origins, and globalization shapes the designation of protected archaeological sites, an act which both supports and limits archaeological investigation.

The divergence between these two responses exemplifies the value of this collection. At the same time that the collectioncrystallizes a wide spectrum of the arguments relevant to ritual and archaeology, it demonstrates the challenges of working across disciplines, as such essential matters as the value of definitions and the meaning of terms remain unresolved. The themes which figure throughout the contributions, however, demonstrate the value of continuing the discussion: the need for articulated theory regarding the material components of ritual action and belief; a nuanced analysis for change over time; the relationship between ritual and landscape; the uses of ethnographic comparanda; the creation and malleability of cultural memory. This volume's greatest success is also its most substantial challenge: no reader will be equally familiar with all of the disciplines represented, and some authors present the rudiments of their discipline more clearly than others. This sets the challenge to archaeology to clarify how its methodologies and theories, as well as data and conclusion, may contribute to the ongoing evolution of ritual studies. In a volume characterized by productive disagreement, this seems one proposal which all would deem a worthy goal.


1.   Comparable collections include D. Barrowclough and C. Malone, (edd.), Cult in Context: Reconsidering Ritual in Archaeology, Oxford, 2007; P. Biehl et al. (edd.), The Archaeology of Cult and Religion, Budapest, 2001; D. Carmichael et al. (edd.), Sacred Sites, Sacred Places, London, 1994; P. Garwood et al. (edd.), Sacred and Profane, Oxford, 1991; A. Goldsmith. et al. (edd.), Ancient Images. Ancient Thought. The Archaeology of Ideology, Calgary, 1992; T. Insoll (ed.), Belief in the Past: Proceedings of the 2002 Manchester Conference on Archaeology and Religion, Oxford, 2004; T. Insoll, (ed.), Case Studies in Archaeology and Religion. The Proceedings of the Cambridge Conference, Oxford, 1999; J. Mylonopoulos and H. Roeder (edd.), Archäologie und Ritual, Wien 2006; and forthcoming, Y. Rowan, (ed.), Beyond Belief: The Archaeology of Religion and Ritual, Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association no. 19, 2009.

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