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date: 16 July 2019

Introduction: Ritual and Religion in Archaeological Perspective

Abstract and Keywords

This article discusses the generally positive situation that exists in relation to archaeological approaches to ritual and religions. A ‘turn’ is also evident whereby serious consideration is being given to the materiality of ritual and religions, and what this might tell us about defining religion and religions, and reconstructing rituals and potentially (albeit often elusively) beliefs. This is vital for, often, archaeological consideration of ritual and religions remains underlain by assumption — that labels and definitions derived from other disciplines (religious studies or anthropology, perhaps) are ‘right’, and thus applicable to different contexts far removed geographically and temporally; whilst material culture might be treated as just ‘there’ instead of being interrogated as to how it symbolizes, represents, misleads, and informs the archaeologist attempting to explore the subtleties of ritual practice and religions. The archaeology of ritual and religions is a vast subject encompassing material of myriad configurations from diverse contexts, periods, and areas. This book illustrates this diversity, but is also indicative of the resonances that likewise exist across time in humanity's attempts to engage with those complex constructs we define as ‘ritual and religions’.

Keywords: ritual, religion, archaeology, materiality

Seven years ago this author wrote that ‘religion itself is increasingly being (re)recognised as of importance within the “secular” West, a realisation which has profound implications for archaeology, considering the proportional impact of Western archaeologists on archaeological theory, interpretation and methodology’ (Insoll 2004: 147). This Handbook is testimony to the accelerated pace of this interest, as are a variety of other dedicated studies that have recently appeared focusing on, for example, ‘cult’, ‘ritual’, and ‘religion’ (cf. Kyriakidis 2007; Barrowclough and Malone 2007; Whitley and Hays‐Gilpin 2008; Morley and Renfrew 2009). It is also significant that the entries within this Handbook and the majority of the other works just referred to are not written by what might be termed ‘religious’ archaeologists but rather by archaeologists, perhaps with an interest in religion, or perhaps not especially so. Instead ‘religion’ and religious ritual has now become a routine part of the focus of archaeological attention—as it should—rather than as a specialist sub‐discipline, something which it was not ten, or to a lesser extent even five years ago (Insoll 1999, 2001, 2004, 2009a).

This Handbook indicates the varied approaches that are being employed in the diverse geographical and chronological ‘fields’ that constitute ‘archaeology’. As such it is unnecessary to provide a history of archaeological research on ritual and religion for this has been done elsewhere (Insoll 2004) and because this is a subject that most of the contributors engage with, where relevant, in their entries. Thus today a generally positive situation exists in relation to archaeological approaches to ritual and religions. A ‘turn’ is also increasingly evident whereby serious consideration is beginning to be given to the materiality of ritual and religions, and what this might tell us about defining religion and religions and reconstructing rituals and potentially (albeit often elusively) beliefs. This is vital for, often, archaeological consideration of ritual and religions remains underlain by assumption—that labels and definitions derived from other disciplines (religious studies or anthropology, perhaps) are ‘right’, and thus applicable to different contexts far removed (p. 2) geographically and temporally; whilst material culture might be treated as just ‘there’ instead of being interrogated as to how it symbolizes, represents, misleads, and informs the archaeologist attempting to explore the subtleties of ritual practice and religions (Insoll 2009a).

Meskell (2005: 1) has noted that archaeology ‘has been notably remiss in producing substantive accounts of materiality for archaeological contexts’. This might be less true now (e.g. Thomas 2006–7), but in relation to thinking about the materiality of ritual and religions from an archaeological perspective was until recently correct. Anthropologists were already engaging with the materiality of religion (e.g. Keane 2008; Material Religion 2005–9), and archaeologists are beginning to do likewise (Insoll 2009a). This is well indicated, for instance, by Boivin's (2008, 2009) exploration of how the non‐language‐like qualities of material culture make it perfectly suited to emotionally and experientially directed ritual activity. In so doing she has questioned the framing of material culture ‘as a passive reflection of cultural values, thoughts and cosmological beliefs that are understood to prefigure them’ (2009: 266). It will be interesting to see if Boivin's emphasis upon this non‐language‐oriented perspective will be followed by other archaeologists seeking to explore what she describes as how ritual ‘helps to grasp the elusive and unknowable at the margins’ of somatic experiences (Boivin 2009: 284).

It is possible that within the framework of exploring materiality greater consideration might be given by archaeologists to the ‘efficacy’ and ‘agency’ of objects (Nooter Roberts and Roberts 2007: 10). How the interplay of the two might be teased out contextually and how as Nooter Roberts and Roberts (ibid.) discuss, ‘the degree to which the efficacy of objects is due to the agency of human beings, versus how objects may possess their own powers and capacities based upon spiritual or divine intentionality and intervention’. Where the elucidation of the sacred, or the numinous—the irreducible essence of holiness which can be discussed but not defined (Otto 1950; Sharpe 1986: 164)—is perhaps in part what is sought archaeologically (Insoll 2004: 19–20) then thinking about ‘things’ in such a way could be vital. This differs slightly from, for instance, Keane's (2008: S124) position that ‘religions may not always demand beliefs, but they will always involve material forms’. Although material culture provides the archaeologist’s empirical framework we do not want to sacrifice the immaterial elements of religions on the altar of materiality. Instead the ideas expressed by Karlström (2009: 146) in relation to Buddhist archaeology and heritage in Laos are more positive as to the immaterial and its material retrieval, whereby immateriality is ‘understood as the way the immaterial is conceptualised in culture, or expressed through material forms’.

This Handbook indicates the many dimensions that can be explored under the umbrella of materiality, even if this currently fashionable archaeological buzzword is not always utilized herein. For instance, framed from the perspective of ritual and religions, the senses and emotions, rites of passage, ideology, interpretations of personhood, gender and other identities, and myriad ritual actions as well as the residues of innumerable configurations of beliefs and associated religious phenomena across time and geographical space can all be linked to substance and material culture as is indicated. Foregrounding objects, efficacy, agency, and materiality as elements of archaeological research is vital in thinking about ritual and religious change over time. And here one would agree with Keane (2008: S124) that, ‘material forms do not only permit new inferences, but, as objects that endure across time, they can, in principle, acquire features unrelated to the intentions of previous users or the inferences to which they have given rise in the past. This is in part because as material (p. 3) things they are prone to enter into new contexts.’ Context is here given prominence and contexts—sites, features, layers, and profiles—are the building blocks from which the discussion in these are ultimately constructed.

It is certain that archaeological interest in religion and ritual will continue, for, as noted, it has entered the mainstream. Predicting future research trends is difficult but it is likely that the static nature of much archaeological interpretation in relation to ritual and religion will be increasingly challenged, something that is already apparent in this Handbook. The current static conceptual prevalence is potentially due to the fact that archaeologists consider static material residues, and in turn, perhaps albeit subconsciously, this static image is transferred onto the beliefs and ritual practices of both individuals and communities that generated the archaeological material. Instead it can be posited that some of this material is perhaps structured by much more fluid, dynamic, and active behaviours (Insoll 2009b: 290).

Catherine Bell (1992: 109–10) has informed us about the link between ritual and time, and via the notion of validation, the construction of memory, as well as indicating that movement can form a key component of ritual. Movement is in turn related to time and all these elements—movement, time, space, and memory—interconnect within the process of ritual action. It also needs to be recognized that ritual time is not a stable edifice of practice and custom, a simple construct. Ritual practices and the deposition events by which they are materialized archaeologically could be subject to considerable trajectories of change even over comparatively short periods of time (Insoll 2009b: 293). Yet in making this point it is not the intention necessarily to deny the existence of an underlying core of stability in practice and belief with regard to ritual. In bodily understandings in relation to the use of space, in religious beliefs, and in the metaphorical and symbolic qualities ascribed materials and objects utilized in rituals (e.g. Nooter Roberts 2000: 75–8) this can and does exist. Equally, movement can form a component of these strata of stability, for stability does not equate with ‘static’ (e.g. Fowler and Fowler 1986: 885, 891).

Hence challenging the static within archaeological interpretations of ritual and religions might increasingly become the focus of research. Movement can also be framed within the notion of performance, and the complementarity of ‘ritual’ and ‘performance’ has been noted (Lewis 1980: 33–5; Parkin 1992: 42–3; Schechner 2002), as have the problems inherent in a ‘performance theory’‐based approach to ritual (e.g. Bell 1992: 42–3). Also, as already identified, memory is a further crucial component that needs consideration in relation both to the construction and maintenance of ritual and religions. In considering interpretive options perhaps the approaches adopted with the nascent ‘archaeology of memory’ (e.g. Rowlands 1993; Chouin 2002; Lane 2005; Van Dyke and Alcock 2003) might be relevant (Insoll 2009b). To a degree this could be so, but it also needs to be recognized that in constructing memory with reference to places and material culture—ritual, religious, or otherwise—the importance of the body as an agent in negotiating and/or understanding these through movement perhaps again needs emphasis. This would appear to be especially so considering Vansina's (1985: 43) point that ‘studies of memory emphasize that remembering is action’ which perhaps returns us succinctly to ritual—as embodying practices recurrently linked to memory.

It is thus apparent that there is a shift from the cataloguing of the residues of the archaeology of ritual and religions to thinking about what they encode—actively rather than as static residues—and how this is achieved materially through engaging with (p. 4) materiality. These are but two emergent themes influencing recent research. The archaeology of ritual and religions is a vast subject encompassing material of myriad configurations from diverse contexts, periods, and areas. The Handbook illustrates this diversity, but is also indicative of the resonances that likewise exist across time in humanity’s attempts to engage with those complex constructs we define as ‘ritual and religions’.

In addressing these diverse materials the Handbook has been structured into six sections. All of these are self‐explanatory as to what they contain, and break the archaeological material down singularly or in association either thematically, chronologically, geographically, or by types of ritual practices and religions.

Acknowledgements

I am especially grateful to Rachel MacLean for her assistance in the production of the volume, for formatting the entries, corresponding with, and chasing contributors where required. The Handbook could not have been completed without her help. I am also grateful to Hilary O'Shea at Oxford University Press for initiating the project and for support during its completion. Finally, I would like to thank Danielle Stordeur for permission to use the fantastic cover image from her excavations at Tell Aswad in Syria.

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