SEARCH

SEARCH BY CITATION

Keywords:

  • [ritual;
  • religion;
  • practice;
  • embodiment;
  • materiality]

ABSTRACT

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. Religion and Embodied Practices
  4. Materiality and the Ritual Reproduction of Religion
  5. Religion over the Long Term
  6. What Religion and Ritual Look Like from an Archaeological Standpoint
  7. References

Archaeology understands religion from embodied practices; interrogates the role of materiality in the reproduction of religion, accomplished in ritual; and explores what historical perspectives tell us about how religions persist and change. Archaeology is specially prepared to examine the repetition of practices over time, and their mediation through material forms. Embodied practices, routinized, unquestioned, yet subject to recognition and approval as “right,” are the core of religion in action, or ritual. A pragmatic archaeological approach asks not what religion is, but what it does, and how the material and historical basis of archaeology might change our view of religion.

I take my title from the inspiration of Susan Kus (chapter 2, this volume), who offers us the warning tale of the description of elephants by those who are visually challenged. Touching all parts of the animal, as she reminds us, each participant in the common project of description produces a satisfying analogy to a known object, but together, the assemblage of analogues fails to illuminate. As she notes, the standard lesson to draw is to beware of trying to interpret what is beyond your vision. In my conclusion, I will suggest we draw a different moral: that we trust what we can touch but keep moving around until we experience more of the beast that is religion using more of our senses. But first, perhaps, we can draw on what we have already experienced to come up with some ideas about how best to describe what we cannot see through our ability to make at least partial tactile connection with it.

Contemporary archaeology, as exemplified by the chapters in this volume, is actively trying to understand religion from the perspective of embodied practices; by interrogating the role of materiality in the reproduction of religion that is accomplished in ritual; and through examining what historical perspectives tell us about how religions persist, including how they can change while remaining historically connected and thus in some sense the same. I consider each of these aspects of contemporary archaeology of religion in turn. With these understandings as firm grounding, we can move from answering the question, “What should an archaeology of ritual and religion look like?” to ask a more open-ended question: “What do ritual and religion look like from an archaeological standpoint?”

Religion and Embodied Practices

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. Religion and Embodied Practices
  4. Materiality and the Ritual Reproduction of Religion
  5. Religion over the Long Term
  6. What Religion and Ritual Look Like from an Archaeological Standpoint
  7. References

How, exactly, does ‘a system of symbols’ establish ‘moods and motivations in [wo/]men’ at the level of local knowledge and belief?” Kus (this volume) asks, reacting to Clifford Geertz's famous definition of religion as a cultural system (Geertz 1973:90). Her answer, expressing the view of many contemporary anthropologists, is that “‘moods and motivations’ are expressed and restructured in meaningful material practice” (Kus, this volume). As foreshadowed by Sherry Ortner (1984) in a landmark article, practice theories have become a staple of anthropology, and thus have come to permeate contemporary anthropological archaeology as well. This has been a particularly productive development for our ability to think about how religion might be studied archaeologically. My own view is that archaeology is a critical contributor to theorizing practice precisely because it provides an understanding of the repetition of practices over time, and their mediation through the material forms in which human action is embedded. As both archaeological and broader anthropological theories of practice have shown, a great deal of the power of practice comes from its incorporation in the ongoing flow of human action, as a normally unreflected-upon aspect of what Ortner (1989:200) more recently has characterized as “coping.” Practices must, of course, be learned over the life course, a realization that has had the salutary effect of directing new attention to childhood and to learning. Once learned, practices become embedded in bodily hexis, the unthought-about ways of acting that Marcel Mauss (1973) famously described as “techniques of the body.” Embodied practices, routinized, unquestioned, yet subject to recognition and approval as “right,” are the core of religion in action, one productive way we might define ritual, as Mark Aldenderfer (chapter 3, this volume) suggests.

Emily Anderson's (chapter 11, this volume) use of the work of Mikhail Bakhtin is especially exciting when we consider religion as active practice that is always subject to assessment in terms of a largely inexplicit, and thus perhaps more powerful, sense of what is correct. Bakhtin insists that the moment of dialogue, which Anderson correctly notes is not limited to verbalized exchanges, is an active, experiential, and unique context in which meaning is articulated. In his concept of “answerability” (also translatable as “responsibility”), Bakhtin (1993:2–4, 28–29) places the power of dialogue precisely in the way one utterance (whether linguistic or performative) is met by a reply by another, a response that in religious participation presumably is expected to be an affirmative. Dialogics is consequently one way to think of belief not as something simply inside the heads of people, and thus in some sense impossible to examine, but as something that becomes evident in actions.

Similar commitments to the potential visibility of belief in practice underlie Aldenderfer's proposed use of pragmatics as a method to examine religion, not simply ritual, by asking not what religion is, but what it does. One source of pragmatics already important in archaeology, to which I will return below, is the work of Charles Sanders Peirce, whose “pragmatic maxim” echoes Aldenderfer's formulation: “consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object” (cited in Lele 2006:54).

Aldenderfer thus offers an important caution against the tendency for archaeologists to set aside belief and emphasize ritual, writing that “for the archaeologist, religion … is only perceived when it is expressed through some act that has material consequences.” The pragmatics he advocates helps him escape the trap of making religion nothing more than the sum of ritual practices, which would lead to the question of why some repetitive, stereotyped practices should be abstracted out of the ongoing flow of life for special consideration. Not all repetitive stereotyped activities should be understood as ritual, and not all apparently ritualized actions are linked with belief in the way that seems distinctive of religious rituals.

In his examination of Tibetan standing stones, Aldenderfer further endorses an experiential approach to the landscapes that these objects distinguish, a study he describes as phenomenological. Phenomenological approaches, of course, require us to maintain a perspective rooted in embodiment. Pragmatics and practice-based approaches generally probably do demand an embodied perspective to be successful. It is thus interesting that Aldenderfer in part rejects the influential work of Catherine Bell (1992), who shares an emphasis on practice and bodily experience.

Bell (1992:98) argues that the pragmatic outcome of ritual, “that which it does not see itself doing,” is “the production of a ‘ritualized body.’” A ritualized body has, as a result of its experience, embodied dispositions that are the product of and also the medium for reproduction of ritual experience. She offers the term ritualization for “a way of acting that is designed and orchestrated to distinguish and privilege that which is being done in comparison to other, usually more quotidian, activities” (Bell 1992:74). Ritualization is a form of contrastive stylization of action. This practice-based concept has been extremely influential in archaeology of ritual and religion and, I would suggest, continues to be a fruitful way for us to think about religion in practice.

Archaeologists, of course, have developed our own concepts through which we identify similar stylization of practice. Richard Bradley (2003) notably explicitly connects Bell's concept of ritualization with archaeological investigation of practices. Taking ritual as action rather than symbolic statements “makes it possible to consider the contexts in which particular rituals are created and performed, and the consequences of such actions, whether they have been intended or not” (Bradley 2003:12). In this profoundly important study, Bradley draws on a long tradition emerging from British anthropology using the concept of “structured deposition” as a means to understand archaeological sediments as products of more or less intentional activity, especially possible ritual practices (Joyce and Pollard 2010; Richards and Thomas 1984). The intentional association of otherwise unremarkable objects in relation to depositional features in specific British Neolithic sites, Bradley (2003:8) notes, seemed to be “governed by a number of conventions” suggesting “a degree of formality” that is “a defining feature of ritual.” This tradition of analysis is very close to understanding the “contextual structure of meaningful attributes, or a ‘structural context’ of both the artifact and of the place” called for by Peter Biehl (chapter 9, this volume). It is no accident that these similar approaches are adopted by scholars interested in understanding ritual practices that are not immediately evident in the form of objects or places but become evident in their stylized repetition over time.

While Bell (1992) does not explicitly make the link between her concept of ritualization of practice and the critical role of materiality in religion, from an archaeological perspective the link is unavoidable. What sets some practices apart from others is not just the intent or belief of the person whose embodied practices we might witness but whose interior state in the moment we could not determine any more than others participating in the event could. In part, the stylization of ritual practices is mediated by the use of distinctive things. The carved marble vases discussed by Christina Luke (chapter 8, this volume) can be seen as stylized versions of contemporary painted ceramic vases, made distinctive by the unusual material and specific imagery they incorporated. While what people did with these vases might have been the same as what they did with the pottery analogues, the practices mediated by the carved stone vases would have been experienced as absolutely different. It is this capacity for the substance of things to embody and in fact create distinctions in experience that is the second contribution of the archaeology of religion that we need to consider in more depth.

Materiality and the Ritual Reproduction of Religion

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. Religion and Embodied Practices
  4. Materiality and the Ritual Reproduction of Religion
  5. Religion over the Long Term
  6. What Religion and Ritual Look Like from an Archaeological Standpoint
  7. References

The recent emergence of materiality as an interdisciplinary focus of scholarship has had a surprisingly transformative impact in archaeology, which we might have supposed already possessed fully developed theories and methodologies for understanding things and their connections with people. Yet materiality as a concept actually frees archaeologists from some of the limitations of traditional approaches to “material culture” or “artifacts.” This is especially important when we want to consider the ways that the reproduction of practices is mediated through the manufacture, use, and discard of material things.

The role of materiality was called out in particularly clear form by Fredrik Barth (1990) in his classic Cosmologies in the Making. Barth was attempting to understand the diversity of religious practices that were carried out for similar purposes, such as ancestor veneration, among neighboring Mountain Ok peoples in New Guinea. He cites an incredible range of material forms, including ancestral skulls and bones, bags, paint, pandanus wigs, and temples, among others, necessary for the reproduction of rituals. A significant point for archaeology is that many of the rituals he studied were enacted only rarely. In part, it is through the way material things are employed that intermittently reenacted rituals are reproduced in similar forms, and can be changed while being seen as the same.

The kind of contextual comparative framework explored here is so fundamental in the archaeology of religion that it is easy to overlook its importance. Without the contrasts between objects in different contexts, or between different objects in the same context, we would find it difficult to single out some things as potentially informative about belief and practice. Peter Biehl (this volume) identifies archaeological context as key to understanding specific assemblages of features as evidence of religion. He proposes a method to construct “ideational and symbolic” context, making it possible to include in analysis objects that are not from immediately interpretable associations. The objects of his study are recovered from European Neolithic enclosures, where they were associated with repeatedly recreated architectural features like ditches and palisades. Biehl compares his proposed method of contextualization to the more familiar chaîne opératoire or chain of technical choices. He sees it as a way to allow us to see otherwise mundane objects in the act of being transformed into religious or ritual objects by their participation in ritual practices in particular spatial settings.

In Sandra Blakely's (chapter 5, this volume) discussion of two classes of objects, inscriptions and personal ornaments, stable and portable, installed at the scene of religious experience and transported from there, respectively, we see an excellent example of how archaeology of religion can build on the singularity of things and the kind of inflection of their meaning that Biehl, with his understanding of the transferral of objects into religious status, points toward. Blakely's description of the portable magnetized iron rings carried away by participants in mystery rites held at Samothrace is in some ways typical of other archaeological discussions of religious objects. Because of the contemporary production of texts, Blakely can examine with more certainty how contemporaries might have understood these rings as emblems of the Samothrace cults.

Emily Anderson (this volume) provides a proposed approach to the understanding of the archaeological analogues of such things. She takes as her goal understanding how “symbolic objects” can be identified by archaeologists. Her proposal that the object be understood as a tripartite relationship between the cultural concept, material attributes in a lived context, and the human perspective within that lived context strongly recalls the three-part model of the sign offered by Charles Sanders Peirce, which a number of contemporary archaeologists have explored (Bauer 2002; Joyce 2007, 2008; Knappett 2002; Lele 2006; Preucel 2006; Preucel and Bauer 2001). In the tripartite sign as understood by Peirce, signification occurs when an interpretant actively links the representamen, or sign as such, and an object, with the important implication that “sign relations are neither linguistic nor completely arbitrary … the representamen's relation with an object represented for and through an interpretant is not necessarily arbitrary” (Lele 2006:50).

Anderson calls for detailed attention to the relationship that must exist between a sign, as an abstract entity, and a specific token that embodies that sign. Her enterprise is a study of how we might identify some tokens as unique, and thus potentially as religious objects. The token is inextricably linked to a specific time and place, making the study of religious objects in archaeology an exercise in specificity, in place of the more common archaeological enterprise of categorical study of things.

This innovative proposal suffers from limitations arising from understanding signs as arbitrary symbols (in the tradition initiated by Ferdinand de Saussure). So Anderson must specify that the token is encoded with its meaning, which commits her to understanding objects as embodying and transmitting preformed meanings. In contrast, in Peirce's concept of the triadic sign, “generating an interpretant ‘completes’ the sign—that is, makes meaning” in a continuous process of semiosis that proceeds as “signs ‘reveal’ or represent an aspect of the object to another sign/mind/interpretant” that in turn can become the representamen in another sign (Lele 2006:51). The interpretant provides a place for the person, as the site of creation of the interpretant, in an active process of making meaning, rather than encoding and decoding meanings, that actually strengthens Anderson's argument.

Anderson suggests that real material things are simultaneously both a sign and a token of the sign; both categorical and the specific instantiation of the category. This move is possible because the meaning of the object unfolds over time. Anderson employs Russian linguistic philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin's (1993:2–5) concept of the “once-occurrent” value of an act, a pragmatic approach to communication that acknowledges that dialogue is possible because we use common concepts but that in every single instance, the sense of the concept is specified in a unique way particular to a specific time and place. Anderson locates the historical specificity of material signs in the “physical attributes” of their specific material form. Here we can find echoes of Kus’ (this volume) urging that we remember the materiality, sensuality, and affectivity of signs.

With a Peircean understanding of the sign, Anderson's conception of the “intonated” object can point us toward productive ways to think about how we know some things are “religious” or “ritual” objects. Specifically, she underlines the necessity of material things as media for signifying the “ethereal” concepts that might otherwise be understood to comprise religion. Returning to Blakely's example of the magnetized iron rings of Samothrace, we can see that when viewed away from the site of ritual, the rings acted as indexical signs of participation in cults. Indexicality is particularly important in archaeological analyses (Joyce 2008; Knappett 2002; Lele 2006; Preucel and Bauer 2001). The representamen of an indexical sign is existentially connected to the object of the sign, rather than being simply conventional, as “arbitrary” symbolic signs are if their histories of convention are ignored, or as iconical signs may seem to be because what constitutes “resemblance” is culturally specific. With indexicality, we always have some form of connection to work from, even if that capacity in no way exhausts the understanding of semiosis and even when we cannot entirely approach broader signification.

The 19 iron rings Blakely reports were recovered from Samothrace, within religious sanctuaries, served to index temporalities by their material, understood as introduced late in history, and indexed warfare by the link of iron otherwise to weapons. Perhaps viewed as a physical form like a knot, rings indexed the profane milieu that contrasted with the sacred precincts where rings, knots, and other bindings were prohibited. More specifically, the magnetization of these specific iron rings definitively indexed Samothrace, understood traditionally as the place where this phenomenon was discovered. The “metonymous relationship” Blakely suggests magnetized iron rings would have had to Samothrace is another way of understanding indexicality, as a form of consubstantiality. If, as she proposes, magnetized rings were actually part of the cult, then they indexed these experiences and, as she suggests, provided a site of recall of ritual action. When Blakely describes these rings as “tokens of secrecy,” she brings to life Anderson's proposal that we view religious objects as simultaneously embodying broader concepts (secrecy) and their specific, historically situated, and materially “intonated” instantiations (iron rings). These things also, of course, acted as part of embodied experiences for those who wore them, bringing with them those sensual dimensions Kus reminds us not to forget.

John Schoenfelder's (chapter 10, this volume) explicitly Peircean analysis of rock facades in Bali allows us to extend this kind of analysis beyond portable objects to comprise a semiosis of place. Schoenfelder argues that a Peircean semiotic perspective allows archaeologists to “glimpse, with only minimal recourse to prior comprehension of culture-specific symbols, at least part of the intentions” of those who created the features he is examining. In a particularly clear way, he identifies the importance of context (in the archaeological, rather than linguistic, sense) as central to understanding indexical signs. Citing Bauer's (2002:42) observation that “the meanings of objects at an archaeological site are not only interpreted individually, but indexically through the spatio-temporal arrangement of the artifacts in a given context,” Schoenfelder grounds the possibility of semiosis of place in the interactions between features that are juxtaposed in a particular place. In the specific Balinese case, Schoenfelder argues that the juxtaposition of multiple temples in sacred precincts—even if they are only carved rock facades indexing temples through their iconic resemblance to the key features of temples—itself serves as an indexical sign, a token of the key abstract concept of affiliation that we can identify by observing the material features of these things. As Schoenfelder argues, “comprehension of indexical [and, he adds, iconic] meaning depends less on shared knowledge of arbitrary codes” than understanding of purely conventional symbols.

Yet we need to be careful, especially in an archaeology of religion, not to set aside symbolic meanings entirely. Here again, Peircean perspectives are helpful: while viewed at any point in the process of semiosis, some signs may seem to be based on unmotivated connections between the object and the representamen, the production of the sign through the conjunction of these two parts with an interpretant takes place in history, and it is the previous history of semiosis that motivates conventional symbolic signs. So Kus (this volume) demonstrates what she describes as the distillation of the sacred symbolic order exemplified in the house into basic symbolic elements, central axis mundi and four directions, in the Imerina palace, through an exploration of richly textured history. The stripping away of complexity, and inversion of meaning, of other symbols that she discusses may well be repeated aspects of the actions of dominant power.

Christina Luke (this volume) demonstrates the utility of understanding conventionalized symbolic signs in her demonstration that carved marble vases in Precolumbian Honduras conventionally represented sacred mountains. On the one hand, the abstract concept of the sacred mountain is the object of an almost equally abstract representation in the form of certain motifs carved on these vessels. But as Luke recounts, mountains were actively indexed in the physical settings in which carved marble vases were made and used by everything from orientations of buildings to the placement of human burials. Simultaneously indexical signs of the surrounding mountains that provided the distinctive material from which they were made, marble vases condensed exceptionally complex chains of semiosis.

The indexicality of the white stone allows Luke to convincingly connect these vases to the significance of actual mountains indexed in the construction of architectural centers. This indexical connection, reinforced by the centrality of the main site of production of these vases, provides a basis for the extension into interpretation of more conventional symbolism of the vases that Luke herself admits is difficult to justify historically, given the disjunction between the source society (Maya) and the target of interpretation (Lenca, or better, Ulúan). A major reinforcement of her argument to extend symbolic interpretations rooted in the specific Maya historical tradition to the distinct Ulúan tradition comes from her demonstration that the Ulúa marble vases were accepted in Maya courts as objects of prestige. Indeed, it is possible that they were actually produced with an intention of exchange with these contemporaries, “intonated” objects (in Anderson's terms) that conjoined motivated histories of Maya and Ulúa in a unique Bakhtinian moment of synthesis.

Analyses like these make clear the importance of the historical dimension of archaeology to understanding even those aspects of belief that might otherwise be considered the most conventional and inaccessible aspects of religion. The long-term histories that archaeologists can explore are where the original motivations for otherwise conventional expressions of belief were formed, and where they may be seen as nonarbitrary.

Religion over the Long Term

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. Religion and Embodied Practices
  4. Materiality and the Ritual Reproduction of Religion
  5. Religion over the Long Term
  6. What Religion and Ritual Look Like from an Archaeological Standpoint
  7. References

Consideration of religious action as practice and concern with the role of materiality in creating religious experiences are already part of contemporary religious studies, not unique to archaeology. As the editorial statement for Material Religion, a journal that began publishing in 2005, puts it, “the study of religious images, objects, spaces, and material practices” develops from a new understanding that “religion is about the sensual effects of walking, eating, meditating, making pilgrimage, and performing even the most mundane of ritual acts … what people do with material things and places, and how these structure and color experience and one's sense of oneself and others” (Material Religion 2005).

In contrast, the significance of the long-term histories of religious practices that archaeologists can assemble is not yet as clearly recognized in the broader field of religious studies. Practices, while in everyday discourse understood to be so naturalized as to be unthought about, are subject to conscious reflection at any time, a point that has been considered in particular detail in the archaeology of culture contact. Here, we often see repeated the argument that when two distinct ways of being in the world come to confront each other, participants in each may find themselves suddenly aware of what had once been taken for granted. In Bourdieu's (1977:159–170) terms, what was once unexamined doxa may either be reasserted as orthodoxy or recreated as heterodoxy. The fact that the language Bourdieu uses to describe these situations is derived directly from studies of religion makes clear that what is being described is applicable to histories of religious change and continuity, including those explored by archaeologists rooted in pragmatics.

Aldenderfer's (this volume) description of studies of changing use of the liminal spaces inside caves over a 200-year period of Classic Maya history is one clear example. The methodologies that allow the fine-grained understanding of changes over time in religious practices are interesting enough on their own. Beyond this more archaeological concern, though, what we have here is a study that looks at how persistent religious practices that are historically connected, and, we believe, understood as continuing tradition by those engaged in them, actually were transformed over time.

His study takes a long-term perspective that makes specific practices perceptible as patterned evidence of stylized actions developing over multiple generations. It is consequently important to note that the temporal dimension that archaeologists control so well can be much tighter or more expansive. Randi Barndon's (chapter 4, this volume) study of African iron workers, employing the methodological device of analysis of the chain of technological choice, urges us to examine everyday practices within the scale of the individual human life. At the other end of the spectrum, Ilan and Rowan (chapter 7, this volume) provide a synthesis of 800 years of religious practices in the southern Levant. Particularly interesting is their demonstration that fragmentary and scattered representational media can, when viewed in a long-term historical sequence, become more intelligible.

Robin Beck and James Brown (chapter 6, this volume) even more clearly exemplify how the archaeological long term can inform studies of religion. Employing Max Weber's concept of routinization instead of the now more current vocabulary of practice theory developed by Bourdieu, they argue that two sites in the southeastern United States, Hopewell Mound 25 and Etowah Mound C, were “places where people enacted their respective religious ideologies through funerary rites” through actions “rooted in precedent, if not actually repetitive.” They further explore “transformations of religious tradition and cosmological knowledge” that in their view created “fertile ground for novel religious movements to take hold across the broad expanse of the precolonial Eastern Woodlands.” From a practice theory perspective, religious actions rooted in precedent can be understood as grounded in doxa, uninterrogated beliefs. When these previously unexamined beliefs are confronted with changed circumstances, whatever the cause, the consequences may be visible changes in religious action. These may take the form of renewal and intensification of practices patterned on those that went before—renewed orthodoxy. Alternatively, we may see changed practices, often using the same ritual objects, places, and actions in new assemblages—heterodoxy.

Juxtaposing the earlier Hopewell and the later Mississippian, as represented at Etowah, without constructing a sequence of development from one to the other, Beck and Brown offer an irresistible provocation to rethink the possibilities of religious transformation and how routinized beliefs persist and are reconfigured. They argue that “Hopewell religion invoked an individual ecstatic experience” while “Mississippian religion … situated different kin-based constituencies relative to a primordial past of founding ancestors and culture heroes. Hopewell religion focused on the here-and-now, Mississippian on the there-and-then.” Since part of the real historical past of the Mississippian peoples was the prior existence of the Hopewell tradition, it is tempting to suggest that Mississippian religion heterodoxically reconfigured what had been Hopewell doxa.

Studies like this have enormous potential for the broader understanding of how religions can be said to persist when they demonstrably change. Along with the perspectives archaeology provides on embodied practices and the materiality of experience, the historicizing of continuing practices is a powerful aspect of contemporary archaeology of religion. Together, these themes allow us to reframe the initial question, “What should an archaeology of ritual and religion look like?” and instead ask how the material and historical basis of archaeology changes our view of religion.

What Religion and Ritual Look Like from an Archaeological Standpoint

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. Religion and Embodied Practices
  4. Materiality and the Ritual Reproduction of Religion
  5. Religion over the Long Term
  6. What Religion and Ritual Look Like from an Archaeological Standpoint
  7. References

Considerable effort is usually made at the beginning of essays like this to define terms: ritual, religion, belief, cosmology; the list gets longer and longer, and there seem to be no consensus definitions in sight. And that is as it should be. Definitions only matter if we insist on a long-abandoned assumption that there are cross-cultural (or pan-human) institutions whose outlines we might clarify by using a comparative method to identify their core features. Such efforts have been critical interventions historically, but each unfolded to reveal unquestioned assumptions that start new rounds of reconstruction. So it is worth a brief look at some of the broader literature on ritual and religion that continues to be the mainstay of most archaeological work in this area to understand why we prefer these approaches and what assumptions they bring with them.

Roy Rappaport's (1979, 1999) materialist approach to religion allowed for an immediate connection with archaeological data. Rituals were communicative events, and at the same time, they had real material effects, facilitating social adaptation. Religion, for Rappaport, was a set of widely shared ideas about the nature of the world and the place of people within it (Rappaport 1979:117–121, 207–211, 231–234). Because religion was enacted in ritual, it was open to materialist examination. By implication, widely shared ideas about the world and the place of people in it were also materially perceptible; public, not private, consequential, not epiphenomenal. The status of ritual stood in direct contrast to belief, which was interior, private, and inaccessible (Rappaport 1979:194–195).

Rituals were recognizable as “stylized, stereotyped and repetitive”; they required “the proper persons, occasion, place, and time” (Rappaport 1979:175–176). The effect of ritual was to combine “the most abstract and distant of conceptions” with “the most immediate and substantial of experiences,” transforming “the dubious, the arbitrary, and the conventional into the correct, the necessary, and the natural” (Rappaport 1979:217). Here we see one of the reasons Rappaport's work became one of the productive grounds for a generation of archaeologists engaging in archaeologies of ritual and religion. The concretization of belief in action and object meant that religion, not just ritual, had substance.

Rappaport's ideas converged powerfully with the approach advocated by Colin Renfrew (1994), who continues to explore the nature of religion from a cognitive perspective. At first glance, it seems an unlikely transition from a materialist, almost behaviorist, conception of ritual to one rooted in human cognition. But both authors insist that what remains inaccessible to ethnographic or archaeological knowing is the nature of personal belief and personal experience. Renfrew's original definition of religion has recently been described as structural (Fogelin 2007:59). But even in this discussion, the emphasis is on how Renfrew (1985:12) views “material remains” as “consequences of actions” that “we can plausibly interpret as arising from religious belief.” It would not be too much to suggest that Renfrew's cognitive view of religion and a pragmatic approach to archaeology of religion share fundamentally the same view of not just what we can know, but why, and how.

These approaches bear a great deal in common with Bell's (1997) understanding of ritual. Bell's initial definition of ritual follows established paths, identifying formality, repetition of traditional precedents, and attempts to maintain invariance as key features (Bell 1997:145–150). But as she notes, these features are insufficient to allow a stable definition of what is and is not a ritual. It is the stylization of action that singles out ritual practice from other forms of daily practice. Stylization of ritual practice is often, if not always, mediated materially.

Archaeologist Timothy Insoll departs from these predecessors. He rejects ritual as the defining site where practices of a particular kind, “stylized” as both Rappaport and Bell would say, provide unequivocal evidence of what Rappaport would call a fundamentally “numinous” form of experience and Renfrew would consider “spirituality.” Most of these terms he finds too imprecise. With ritual, Insoll (2004:6) sees us as trapped by structures specific to one religion, Christianity, with its division of experience between religious and mundane. Insisting that our object of study must be religion, not ritual, he nonetheless declines to give a precise definition, arguing that “in many respects it is indefinable, being concerned with thoughts, beliefs, actions and material … religion also includes the intangible, the irrational, and the indefinable” (Insoll 2004:7).

It is thus worth considering Bell's (2007) more recent discussion of how starting with ritual can lead to an understanding of religion. While offered as a commentary on teaching, it could serve as a useful guide for archaeologists, who still most often start with the repetitive, the stylized, the intonated and from that infer the symbolic, the meaningful, the experiential, the belief. Bell (2007:179) identifies four key topics that she used to organize her teaching of “the social life of religion,” including ritual but also symbol and myth, scripture and interpretation, and “types of religious communities dealing with change.” It seems as if archaeology has concentrated on the first two of these potential objects of religious studies to the exclusion of the latter two. Yet it is not as if scripture and interpretation or religious communities have no material existence. Bell comments that undergraduates coming to this material understand religion as rooted in scripture and interpretation, and move into the other areas with more uncertainty. Archaeologists, it would seem, are comfortably rooted in ritual and symbol. Like the undergraduates Bell discusses, we perhaps could stand to expand our horizons.

It is possible to view in this light Insoll's (2004) advocacy of making religion our focal concept. In summing up his own argument, he revisits an introductory example in which he identified the visibility of religion, the role of myth, ritual, temporality, its relation to identity, “belief/emotion/experience,” and the status of “the numinous/the holy” as among the questions that any satisfactory discussion of religion needs to consider (Insoll 2004:148–150). Rejecting any comprehensive view of religion, he fundamentally argues for maintaining a sufficiently complex view that it will not be reduced to a collection of particular things.

As Fogelin (2007:66) suggests, “archaeologists often assume that ritual is a form of human action that leaves material traces, whereas religion is a more abstract symbolic system consisting of beliefs, myths, and doctrines,” and archaeologists differ on whether they see religion or ritual as primary. When we identify ourselves with one of these two positions, we see the field of actions through which people engage with the world in actions informed by belief as either a play of symbols or a sequence of actions.

What is critical here is our standpoint or, to return to my opening metaphor, where we approach the elephant. Both symbols and practices are, we realize now, materially mediated. As a consequence, religion and ritual, belief and action, are all archaeologically perceptible. We may want to continue restlessly moving from one point of contact to another, rather than stop where we started. Or, we may feel that we each have enough to do in working toward truly understanding the fine details of our piece of the puzzle, while acknowledging the importance of other approaches, questions, and partial solutions. Either way, we should agree that lack of vision, or invisibility, is not a barrier to our attempt to find ways to describe the almost indescribable. What will stand in our way is if we begin with a drawing of the elephant we have yet to see, yet to touch, and insist that the question to answer is whether the elephant is in the room or not. Religion may not be something we can define beforehand. It may be something that looms in front of us and offers us small points of purchase, places where we may feel the color of the elephant's skin, hear the shape of its tusks, and, finally, transform our senses of what we can perceive entirely.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. ABSTRACT
  3. Religion and Embodied Practices
  4. Materiality and the Ritual Reproduction of Religion
  5. Religion over the Long Term
  6. What Religion and Ritual Look Like from an Archaeological Standpoint
  7. References
  • Bakhtin, Mikhail 1993 Toward a Philosophy of the Act. Vadim Liapunov, trans. Vadim Liapunov and Michael Holquist, eds. Austin : University of Texas Press.
  • Barth, Fredrik 1990 Cosmologies in the Making. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.
  • Bauer, Alexander A. 2002 Is What You See All You Get? Recognizing Meaning in Archaeology. Journal of Social Archaeology 2:3752.
  • Bell, Catherine 1992 Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. New York : Oxford University Press.
  • Bell, Catherine. 1997 Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. New York : Oxford University Press.
  • Bell, Catherine. 2007 Religion through Ritual. In Teaching Ritual. Catherine Bell, ed. pp. 177193. Oxford : Oxford University Press.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre 1977 Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.
  • Bradley, Richard 2003 A Life Less Ordinary: The Ritualization of the Domestic Sphere in Later Prehistoric Europe. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 13:523.
  • Fogelin, Lars 2007 The Archaeology of Religious Ritual. Annual Review of Anthropology 36:5571.
  • Geertz, Clifford 1973 Religion as a Cultural System. In The Interpretation of Cultures. pp. 87125. New York : Basic Books.
  • Insoll, Timothy 2004 Archaeology, Ritual, Religion. London : Routledge.
  • Joyce, Rosemary A. 2007 Figurines, Meaning, and Meaning-Making in Early Mesoamerica. In Material Beginnings: A Global Prehistory of Figurative Representation. Colin Renfrew and Iain Morley, eds. pp. 107116. Cambridge : McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.
  • Joyce, Rosemary A. 2008 Practice in and as Deposition. In Memory Work. Barbara Mills and William Walker, eds. pp. 2540. Santa Fe, NM : School of American Research Press.
  • Joyce, Rosemary A., and Joshua Pollard 2010 Archaeological Assemblages and Practices of Deposition. In Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies. Dan Hicks and Mary Beaudry, eds. pp. 289304. Oxford : Oxford University Press.
  • Knappett, Carl 2002 Photographs, Skeumorphs and Marionettes: Some Thoughts on Mind, Agency and Object. Journal of Material Culture 7:97117.
  • Lele, Veerendra P. 2006 Material Habits, Identity, Semeiotic. Journal of Social Archaeology 6(1):4870.
  • Material, Religion 2005 Editorial statement. Material Religion 1:4.
  • Mauss, Marcel 1973 Techniques of the Body. Economy and Society 2(1):7088.
  • Ortner, Sherry 1984 Theory in Anthropology since the Sixties. Comparative Studies in Society and History 26(1):126166.
  • Ortner, Sherry. 1989 High Religion: A Cultural and Political History of Sherpa Buddhism. Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press.
  • Preucel, Robert W. 2006 Archaeological Semiotics. Malden, MA : Blackwell.
  • Preucel, Robert W., andAlexander A. Bauer. 2001 Archaeological Pragmatics. Norwegian Archaeological Review 34(2):8596.
  • Rappaport, Roy A. 1979 Ecology, Meaning and Religion. Berkeley, CA : North Atlantic Books.
  • Rappaport, Roy A. 1999 Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.
  • Renfrew, Colin 1985 The Archaeology of Cult: The Sanctuary at Phylakopi. The British School of Archaeology at Athens, suppl. 18. London .
  • Renfrew, Colin. 1994 The Archaeology of Religion. In The Ancient Mind: Elements of Cognitive Archaeology. Colin Renfrew and Ezra B. W. Zubrow, eds. pp. 4754. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.
  • Richards, Colin, and Julian Thomas 1984 Ritual Activity and Structured Deposition in Later Neolithic Wessex. In Neolithic Studies: A Review of Some Current Research. Richard Bradley and Julie Gardiner, eds. pp. 189218. BAR British Series, 133. Oxford : British Archaeological Reports.