Thursday, 5 February 2015

Beyond the "Fringe Archaeology" — part sixteen: the elephant in the room

Banksy art exhibit "Barely Legal" in Los Angeles, 2006
photo: Bit Boy
The one word will which likely cause more smiles among archaeologists than any other is "ritual". Many archaeologists feel that the word is used too frequently when other archaeologists cannot understand something of the arrangement of the evidence at an archaeological site. Yet, you can read books and papers, and even take archaeology courses about the archaeology of religion and ritual.

The elephant in the room is not that "ritual" is given as the meaning for some archaeological evidence that is not clearly understood, but it is the common choice of the word "ritual" to describe what the evidence might mean.

A ritual is an action that takes place (in this case, specifically as part of a religious act) which represents something within the religious or cultural beliefs of the participant. Carl Jung says:
"I remember an African tribe whose members greeted the first rays of the sun by spitting in their hands and turning them towards it. That's classic: since breath is the soul, the saliva which accompanies the breath is the substance of the soul. What that gesture means exactly is: "My God, I offer you my soul." I tried to find out if they knew the meaning of their gesture. No, the young did not know, nor the fathers. But the grandfathers knew, it is they who guard the secrets."
Here we have an example of an eyewitness ritual where people who actually participated in such could offer no interpretation. It was something understood only by the elders. The action Jung describes could leave no archaeological evidence, but other rituals, just as mysterious to the participants, could leave traces that could be excavated.

In most modern religions, a priest will face the congregation, so the effect will be something like a performer being viewed by an audience. Joseph Campbell points out that in ages past, many of the rites performed by the priest are in the "inner sanctum" of a temple, or are carried out with the priest facing the altar and his back to the congregation. The priest was seen more as an intermediary between the people and the divine. In a medieval church, the priest's Latin verses might not be understood by any of the congregation. When John Wycliffe produced the first English translation of the Bible in the late fourteenth century, it was considered heresy by the Pope.

Mystery is an important ingredient in religious practice, from the shaman's magical tricks to the the Greek Mystery cults such as Dionysianism, right up to Christianity (which has enough similarities to Dionysianism to be called a Mystery religion, itself  — at least in its earlier practices).

So, in a sense, when an archaeologist points to something which he or she labels as "ritual", it is a reflection of the idea of it being a mystery. The ritual can exist in a state of complete mystery to the participant and the archaeologist assumes the role of such a practitioner who, while not knowing the exact meaning of the rite, will likely be able to direct anyone to the elder or priest who could (but not necessarily will) explain its meaning.

As the archaeologist cannot produce such a person because anyone who did know the meaning might have died hundreds of years earlier, there can be a different sort of appeal to authority when some explanation is needed, and that can take the form of the latest theories about social interactions, or positions of power and so on. I have found that many of these explanations tell us more about current thought than they do about ancient practices. Without such explanation, the designation of something as "ritual" might have the unconscious realization of the importance of mystery to the psyche. Its use, then can be something of a Freudian slip, and it as such times that it becomes the elephant in the room.

The extraverted materialistic archaeologist is personally disturbed whenever he or she has to deal in non-material, psychic, content. As such, the label "ritual" requires no further explanation (in their mind). The introverted, intuitive archaeologist just smiles at this treatment.

Note: The Internet Archive text for my Jung quote is from Interviews and Encounters and not Memories, Dreams, Reflections as it appears in the browser title tab, although the same incident is described in the latter work. I used this version as it is more succinct.


  1. Hi John:

    Fascinating stuff as usual!

    Might I add the word 'ceremonial' as an additional muddier of the archaeological waters? Whenever I've heard the word, it's always been prefixed by the words, " a vitally important,' followed by, "piece of major significance," and all safe in the knowledge no-one will dare, or is sufficiently interested, to question them.


    John Howland

    1. Thanks, John, and yes, the lack of certainty about a claimed ceremonial site rarely diminishes the hype that is given it! I also like "offerings to the gods" without any data as to which gods and why. The last time I threw a coin in a fountain, the idea of gods never crossed my mind.