Seminar CXCVIII: steps towards an archæological theory for ritual

People who know the sad history of archæology as a subject at the University of Birmingham are usually surprised to learn that there still are any archæologists here, but there are, now housed in what is now Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology. None are primarily medievalists, however, so while I was a lecturer here I had direct business with them only through teaching (which, indeed, I was repeating only yesterday) or when, on the 18th March 2014, I turned up at the Anthropology Seminar to hear Professor Paul Garwood speaking with the title, “Ashes, Smoke and Fire: rethinking archaeologies of ritual”.1 This was off my usual map in several ways: I’ve not been to an anthropology seminar for years and never this one, there was nothing specifically medieval about the title and it turned out to be much more theoretical than usual for me, but I certainly got some things to think with from it so perhaps you will also.

As Professor Garwood acknowledged, there is a much-mocked but genuine tendency for archæologists to classify objects and contexts they can’t understand as ‘ritual’, which is in some ways a function of a definition of ‘ritual’ as non-functional behaviour; when an object doesn’t have a clear function, therefore… This, as Professor Garwood explained in a painstaking review of the field with due nods to the contributions of anthropological thinking to it, given what seminar he was in, stems from the belief of earlier archæologists that beliefs were not recoverable in material evidence, at least without unusually superb evidence. One of the places anthropology helped to change this was in giving archæologists a greater appreciation of the rôle of systematised behaviours in orchestrating and regulating societies, which meant that examining things like fires with no cooking or object elements in them, stuff deposited under building foundations or in floors or boundary ditches or similar, could be got at by trying to work out what the rules of this particular system of behaviour were. Nonetheless, we still have people (in all our fields!) saying that ‘ritual’ just isn’t a useful concept because of how much ritual is everyday or even, of course, functional.2 I think, for example, of rituals that are not a specific activity so much as a way or order of doing that activity, like a Japanese tea ceremony, which with no other context might not be archæologically identifiable as anything other than a high-status means of making tea but obviously is.

Teapot, mug and strainer in my kitchen

Even outside the Japanese world, this functional equipment can serve ritual purposes, and anyone who thinks differently has never seen the reverence with which I brew up

So what is needed is some ways to think about ritual as an archæological target that might save it as a concept, and these have been generated, in particular that of seeing it as a performance where as archæologist one is looking not for the matter being communicated by its symobology but its physical outcome, its staging and the environment that guided action in the ways desired; here, recent approaches to Stonehenge are exemplary. Frequency might ideally be a factor here too: was such a setting used so much as to be everyday or was it deliberately unusual and ‘other’? (The tea comparison still makes me think that this isn’t fine enough: I have a couple of teas I will not be able to restock—some Mariage Frères stuff from Rwanda, for example, lovely but now rather hard to get—so that I brew them only when there seems some special reason, but I use the same kit to do so as usual…) Professor Garwood seemed himself to favour an approach he termed ‘chaines opératoires‘, constructing models from the evidence of what the sequence of events and types of object involved had to be for the ritual to ‘work’, so that the technology of the process rather than the outcome remains the target, and that’s certainly easier to approach from finds. (Though would it pick up how important it is to warm the pot and for the milk to go in first?) I found myself inwardly comparing this to Actor Network Theory and similar approaches and liking this better because it left agency clearer, myself, but I understand that those that like ANT do so not least because it spreads agency to the objects, and I suppose that with ritual that is worship, that could be important: look at the big early medieval debate over whether people believed icons themselves did things, after all, and how to stop those people doing so if they did.3 Professor Garwood also recommended a definitional approach in which one looked at the processes in terms of workflow, almost like industrial process analysis: what did people need in what order to do this and what do we find? These approaches could obviously run into one another, but as he said, they do get us out of the basic problem of saying what ritual actually is!4 Free your mind, as they say, and the rest will follow…

1. I don’t know Professor Garwood’s work really, but there are obviously bits of it that could be of interest to medievalists, not least P. Garwood, D. Jennings, R. Skeates and J. Thomas (edd.), Sacred and Profane: Proceedings of a Conference on Archaeology, Ritual and Religion, Oxford, 1989 (Oxford 1991) or P. Garwood, “Rites of Passage” in Timothy Insoll (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Archaeology of Ritual and Religion (Oxford 2011), pp. 261-284, DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199232444.013.0019.

2. I think straight away of Geoffrey Koziol, “The dangers of polemic: is ritual still an interesting topic of historical study?” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 367-388, DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-9462.2002.00116.x but Professor Garwood cited Joanna Brück, “Ritual and Rationality: some problems in interpretation in European archaeology” in European Journal of Archaeology Vol. 2 (Leeds 1999), 313-344, DOI: 10.1179/eja.1999.2.3.313 and Ian Hodder, “Triggering post-processual archaeology and beyond” in R. F. Williamson & M. S. Bisson (edd.), The archaeology of Bruce Trigger: theoretical empiricism (Montreal 2006), pp. 16-24.

3. I came to actor network theory as applied archæologically by Patricia Galloway, “Material Culture and Text: Exploring the Spaces Between and Within” in Martin Hall & Stephen W. Silliman (edd.), historical archaeology, Blackwell Studies in Global Archaeology 9 (Oxford 2006), pp. 42-64; I’m not sure what the canonical cites would be for any other uses. As for the debate over icons, you should now see Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c. 680–850: a history (Cambridge 2011), and Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia 2009).

4. As is ineluctable with a paper about theory, there were a great many names flying about and I didn’t catch them all. Those I did I haven’t yet followed up, indeed, but they included, as well as those in n. 2 above, Marcel Mauss, “Les techniques et la technologie” in Journal de psychologie normale et pathologique Vol. 41 (Paris 1948), pp. 71-78, Clifford Geertz, Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (Princeton 1980), Victor W. Turner, From Ritual to Theatre (New York City 1982) and idem, The Edge of the Bush: anthropology as experience (Tucson 1985).

3 responses to “Seminar CXCVIII: steps towards an archæological theory for ritual

  1. I hope Bell (Catherine Bell) made an appearance in any discussion of ritual, but I know that sometimes she does not. The two books there are Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions, and Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice; but her piece on “practice” (where she ended up) in Critical Terms for Religious Studies might be a better introduction for those with less time.

    (Is Latour not the father of ANT? In which case Reassembling the Social is the work, I think; I do have other works in STS that I’d prefer ahead of that one for some of the concepts, however.)

    • Latour is certainly the name the literature people I know who like ANT use, and whom the social science primers blame, but the archæological applications of ANT I’ve seen haven’t had much to do with that kind of thinking. Nonetheless, on inspection, it is Latour direct whom Galloway cites in the chapter I cited myself… As for Bell, my notes don’t record any mention of her, but I’m sure I didn’t catch everything. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice is cited in Garwood’s “Rites of Passage”. I shall take this combination as a recommendation!

  2. As an aside, the tea ceremony is an integral part of Chinese weddings and is a component in the very practical custom of gift-giving in New Year family gatherings. (My wife is Chinese, so I am an important actor in these events.)

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