Identifying “Ritual” in Archaeology

Humans have been engaging with the supernatural for at least 50,000 years and perhaps much longer.  Because humans have been writing for less than 5,000 years, this means that some 45,000 years of religious history reveals itself to us only through the archaeological record.  For a long period of time, archaeologists were reluctant to investigate these matters, weakly claiming that because “the soul leaves no skeleton” (Higgs & Jarman 1975), not much could be known.

Souls do in fact leave skeletons: those that have been deliberately buried with grave goods provide solid of evidence of soul beliefs. Nevertheless, archaeologists have been circumspect and ventured firm conclusions about ritual-religion in the record only when something looks like “religion” to modern eyes.  In practice, this usually has meant that a site or assemblage is considered “sacred” only when if it is monumental and non-practical.  While there is something to be said for such caution, it is quite limiting and not wholly justified.

I was reminded of these things while reading Richard Bradley’s “A Life Less Ordinary: the Ritualization of the Domestic Sphere in Later Prehistoric Europe” (2003).  After noting the strict criteria some archaeologists have proposed for identifying ritual activities, he demurs:

This scheme is entirely a product of modern assumptions about the past in which ritual and religious belief are separated from the everday.   There seems no reason to insist that shrines should have been set apart from domestic buildings or that they should have been located at conspicuous points in the landscape.

At the heart of these discussions there is a particular conception of ritual.  It seems to be something set apart from daily life, protected from scrutiny by its specialized procedures and connected with religious belief and the supernatural.  It is this combination of formality and separation that has been looked for by archaeologists.

Bradley proceeds to argue, implicitly relying on the ethnographic record, that in many societies there is no such separation.  Given this fact, archaeologists may be looking at what they consider to be ordinary, domestic, or practical sites/assemblages that are in fact quite closely connected to ideas about the supernatural.  Knowing this may alter our perspectives and allow us consider such objects in a different light.


Higgs, E. and Jarman, M.  1975.  “Palaeoeconomy,” in Palaeoeconomy, 1-7 (eds. Higgs & Jarman).  Cambridge University Press.

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