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ANRV323-AN36-04 ARI 13 August 2007 17:6

The Archaeology
of Religious Ritual
Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 2007.36:55-71. Downloaded from

Lars Fogelin
Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Albion College, Albion, Michigan 49224;
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Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 2007. 36:55–71 Key Words

First published online as a Review in Advance on structure, practice, power, symbolism
April 24, 2007

The Annual Review of Anthropology is online at Abstract
Archaeologists traditionally assumed that rituals were understood
This article’s doi: best in light of religious doctrines, beliefs, and myths. Given the
material focus of archaeology, archaeologists believed that ritual was
Copyright  c 2007 by Annual Reviews. a particularly unsuitable area for archaeological inquiry. In the past
All rights reserved
25 years, archaeologists have increasingly started to address ritual in
0084-6570/07/1021-0055$20.00 their research. Some archaeologists with access to extensive histori-
cal or ethnohistorical sources continue to see rituals as the enactment
of religious principles or myths. Other archaeologists have adopted
a more practice-oriented understanding of ritual, arguing that ritual
is a form of human action. In emphasizing ritual practice, archaeol-
ogists reject a clear dichotomy between religious and nonreligious
action or artifacts, focusing instead on the ways that the experience
of ritual and ritual symbolism promotes social orders and dominant

ANRV323-AN36-04 ARI 13 August 2007 17:6

INTRODUCTION Some archaeologists who have only material

remains to investigate ritual still employ struc-
Archaeologists studying religion often focus
tural assumptions concerning the primacy of
on ritual. The reason for this focus is straight-
myth and belief, whereas others who examine
forward. There is a widespread archaeological
mythology or ethnohistory are also enthusi-
understanding that ritual is a form of human
astic advocates of the ritual primacy over re-
action that leaves material traces, whereas re-
ligion. Each of these different permutations
ligion is a more abstract symbolic system con-
of archaeological research on ritual has dif-
sisting of beliefs, myths, and doctrines. This
ferent interpretive strengths and weaknesses;
common understanding does not mean, how-
each is discussed below. First, however, it is
ever, that all archaeologists approach the study
important to examine the foundational con-
of ritual in the same way. Although many agree
cepts in which archaeologists rely in their
Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 2007.36:55-71. Downloaded from

that ritual is a form of action or behavior, sig-

analyses. In studying ancient ritual, archaeol-
nificant differences can be found in how ar-
ogists have appropriated many of their foun-
chaeologists conceive of the relationship be-
dational understandings from cultural anthro-
tween religion and ritual. Some archaeologists
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pology, religious studies, and sociology. In the

see religion as primary, with ritual enacting
process, archaeologists have been forced to
underlying religious beliefs. Others see ritual
develop material implications from what are,
as primary. Here the symbolic meanings of rit-
for the most part, more intangible theoretical
uals are downplayed; rather the specifics of re-
ligious belief conform to rituals that lie at the
heart of things. In both cases, archaeologists
create a simple dichotomy between religion
and ritual, belief and action. As such, the now-
standard anthropological debates concerning
structure and agency are front and center in In the nineteenth and early twentieth cen-
the study of ancient ritual and religion (Barrett turies an academic debate formed within re-
2001, Dobres & Robb 2000). Whichever per- ligious studies over the primacy of religion
spective archaeologists employ, most recog- or ritual. Whereas some argued for the his-
nize that a dialectic exists between ritual and torical primacy of ritual (Frazer 1955[1911],
religion; aspects of one are necessarily related Robertson Smith 1969[1889]), others ar-
to aspects of the other. Ritual elements can be gued that myths preceded rituals (Müller
used to infer belief systems, just as knowledge 1967[1861]). For the most part, these debates
of the mythology of a particular society can rested on fanciful reconstructions of the dis-
be used to investigate its rituals. tant past, with theoretical positions determin-
Generally an orientation toward either ing historical narratives. Archaeological data
structure or practice guides archaeologists’ were kept out of it, and few archaeologists
thinking about ritual. For the most part, ar- took up the challenge of sorting out the ori-
chaeologists who emphasize the structural el- gins of religion and ritual (but see Mithen
ements of religion focus on the symbolic as- 1998, Tattersall 1998). Over time, religion and
pects of ritual, often by using historical or ritual have come to be understood in more
ethnohistorical sources. In contrast, those ar- dialectical terms, with historical primacy no
chaeologists who emphasize ritual practice longer serving as a proxy for importance (see
in their analyses tend to focus on the ways Kluckhohn 1942). However, the old debates
that material remains can inform on the ac- over myth and ritual serve to illustrate a cen-
tions and experiences of past ritual partici- tral divide in the study of religion and ritual
pants. That said, archaeological materials re- that exists to this day. Although no serious
lating to religion and ritual are fragmentary. scholar in any discipline argues that ritual or

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religion is completely determinative of the in Madagascar. Bloch demonstrates that the

other, different scholars tend to emphasize content and form of the ritual has been un-
one over the other. These differences in em- changed for almost two centuries, despite its
phasis lead to important differences in ap- shift from a small-scale village puberty rite to
proaching the study of religion and ritual. a large-scale ritual central to Merina identity.
Because religion is a particularly stable so-
cial phenomenon, it can also be used as a
Religion means of retaining valuable social information
Geertz (1973), from a structural perspective, over the long term. It is this property of rit-
argued that ual upon which cultural materialists (Harris
1977; Lansing 1991; Rappaport 1968, 1979)
[r]eligion is a system of symbols which acts and their archaeological progeny (Cove 1978,
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to establish powerful, pervasive, and long Minc 1986, Sobel & Bettles 2000; see also
lasting moods and motivations in men by Scarborough 1998) seized in their analyses.
formulating conceptions of a general order For example, Sobel & Bettles (2000) argued
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of existence and clothing these conceptions that methods for coping with winter food
with such an aura of factuality that the moods shortages are contained within ritual recita-
and motivations seem uniquely realistic. tions of Klamath and Modoc myths of the
(p. 90) northwest coast of North America. Ritually
recited oral histories and folktales preserve
The emphasis here lies on belief and the survival strategies so that younger generations
meaning of symbols—the manner in which can employ them when famine strikes. The
belief serves to instill in people a sense of danger in encoding environmental informa-
where they belong in the universe. Rituals, tion in oral traditions is that myths can be-
in this conception, serve to enact or promote come corrupted through repeated retelling.
symbolic meanings in a format that can be eas- Thus, mechanisms must be developed that
ily understood by the masses. As phrased by preserve the integrity of ritual storytelling.
Wallace (1966, p. 102), “ritual is religion in Sobel & Bettles discuss elaborate strategies
action; it is the cutting edge of the tool . . . It that the Klamath and Modoc employ to make
is ritual that accomplishes what religion sets sure that their myths do not change over time.
out to do.” In this formulation, ritual is a form Ritual recitations of famine myths are per-
of human action determined or shaped by un- formed only in winter (when the potential for
derlying religious views. hunger is immediately present), three people
Of particular importance to a structural- who know the story must be present at the
ist perspective is the idea that religion is a recitation to check for accuracy, and children
particularly stable and long-lasting cultural are not allowed to recite the stories. These rit-
phenomenon. If religion is a relatively sta- ual proscriptions serve to keep the content of
ble phenomenon and ritual is the enactment the myths intact over multiple generations.
of religious principles, then rituals must also The anachronistic and invariant elements
be relatively stable over time. Thus, rituals of ritual fit well within archaeological ap-
are a particularly anachronistic element of hu- proaches to ritual that employ historical and
man societies (Bloch 1977, 1986; Connerton ethnohistorical sources. If religion is among
1989). Just as many Christians continue to the most stable and long-lasting cultural phe-
use the King James Bible, many societies con- nomena, then ethnographic, ethnohistoric,
tinue to engage in rituals that employ archaic and historic accounts—even those that post-
speech or actions. This is perhaps best illus- date the archaeological period being studied
trated in Bloch’s (1986) classic discussions of by several centuries—are a legitimate source
boys’ circumcision ritual among the Merina for the study of ancient religious practices. • The Archaeology of Religious Ritual 57

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Furthermore, given the richness of the sym- If rituals enact religious principles, follow-
bolic, mythic, and doctrinal information avail- ing a structural perspective, then all rituals
able in these sources, it is not surprising that should be religious or at least religious ritu-
archaeologists who have a more structural un- als should constitute a fairly distinct category.
derstanding of religion tend to focus on these However, by placing the stress on ritual, prac-
sources. Given the difficulty of determining tice theorists have a different problem. Sports,
the meaning of symbols in purely prehistoric theater, and other activities—what Bell (1997,
contexts (Fogelin 2007, Hayes 1993), assum- Ch. 5) labels ritual-like activities—are diffi-
ing stability of religion over the long term is cult to distinguish from religious ritual. Bell’s
a convenient research strategy. Recent trends use of the term ritual-like belies an interest
in the anthropology of religion, however, have in maintaining a separation between religious
questioned these more simple formulations of and secular rituals while recognizing the dif-
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historical memory. ficulty, if not impossibility, of doing so.

From a practice perspective, Bell (1997,
Ch. 5) identifies six characteristics that ritu-
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als and ritual-like activities exhibit to varying

Some anthropologists and religious histori- degrees. Bell is clear that these characteristics
ans advocate for the primacy of ritual practice are not exhaustive, nor are the characteristics
in the dialectic with religion. These scholars limited to religious ritual. The characteristics
emphasize the creative or revolutionary as- are as follows.
pects of ritual. Rituals are not seen as pre-  Formalism: Rituals often employ more
serving or enacting stable sets of religious formal, or restricted, codes of speech
beliefs, but rather rituals construct, create, and action than people use in everyday
or modify religious beliefs (Bell 1992, 1997; life.
Humphrey & Laidlaw 1994). People con-  Traditionalism: Rituals often employ ar-
stantly choose to remember, forget, or recre- chaic or anachronistic elements.
ate elements of their religion through rit-  Invariance: Rituals often follow strict,
ual practices (Connerton 1989, Hobsbawm often repetitive, patterns.
& Ranger 1983). In archaeology this per-  Rule-governance: Rituals are often gov-
spective has been employed in the works erned by a strict code of rules that de-
of Bradley (1991, 2002, Bradley & Williams termine appropriate behavior.
1998), Rowlands (1993), and others (Chesson  Sacral symbolism: Rituals often
2001, Jonker 1995, Meskell 2002, Pauketat make reference to, or employ, sacred
2001, Van Dyke & Alcock 2003). Although symbolism.
specific rituals may remain the same over long  Performance: Ritual often involves pub-
periods of time, their meaning for society lic display of ritual actions.
is constantly recontextualized. People trans- Ritual, from this perspective, is more a
form and change underlying religious beliefs process than an event (Bell 1992, Humphrey
through the creation and practice of rituals. & Laidlaw 1994). Certain actions are, or be-
Rather than focus on stable meanings of rit- come, ritualized; they become more formal,
ual actions, practice theorists emphasize the traditional, invariant, etc. That is, ordinary
experiential aspects of ritual and the effects actions assume greater meaning and signifi-
of ritual on the social relations between rit- cance. Although not strictly required by the
ual participants. As such, practice approaches theoretical perspective, much of the literature
tend to focus on ritual change and what rit- on practice theory emphasizes the ways that
ual does rather than on what it means, al- ritualization promotes the development of re-
though it is important not to overplay this lationships of power (Bell 1992, Comaroff
point. 1985, Ortner 1989). By focusing on the role

58 Fogelin
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of ritual in forming, perpetuating, or resisting ize the practice of ritual and compared it with
power relationships, practice theorists down- his archaeological assemblage. These archae-
play the importance of symbolism in favor of ological characteristics of ritual included sac-
analyses that concern the ways people harness rificed plants or animals, a location in either
symbolism to achieve specific ends. Thus, the special buildings or geographic locales, and
specific meaning of a symbol is less important distinct architectural elements (e.g., pools,
than the manner in which it is deployed and benches, and alters). In the end, Renfrew con-
the goals of the people who deploy it. Like- cluded many of the characteristics of religious
wise, some archaeologists emphasize how the ritual were present and that the structure he
experience of ritual creates, reaffirms, or chal- was investigating was a cult sanctuary.
lenges dominant social orders (Bradley 1998, I do not doubt Renfrew’s identification of
DeMarrais et al. 1996, Fogelin 2006, Inomata Phylakopi’s cult center. What I find interest-
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2006, Inomata & Coben 2006, Lucero 2003, ing are the underlying views that Renfrew
Moore 1996). brings to his research. Despite his focus on
the material remains of a ritual practice, his
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understanding of religion could be described

IDENTIFYING RITUAL IN best as structural (Renfrew 1985, p. 12, italics
One of the earliest questions of archaeologists
who studied religious ritual was how to iden- The archaeologist . . . cannot observe be-
tify materials and locales that could be con- liefs: one can only work with material re-
sidered religious. As will become clear below, mains, the consequences of actions. In fa-
many archaeologists now feel that this ques- vorable cases . . . these remains are the result
tion is, at a basic level, flawed. That said, ar- of actions which we can plausibly interpret
chaeologists have long referred to any arti- as arising from religious belief.
fact or feature that was strange, aberrant, or
inexplicable as religious, the assumption be- Renfrew provides an example of a structural
ing that religion consists of those things that view of religion that begins with and cen-
have no functional value or are just plain odd ters on ritual. Renfrew correctly notes that
(Hodder 1982, p. 164; Renfrew 1994). De- many rituals are not religious. For Renfrew,
spite recent criticisms of trying to label things then, the main goal of his criteria is to de-
as religious or not, the desire by early pio- velop methods to exclude those material con-
neers in the archaeology of religion and ritual sequences of ritual that are not religiously
to develop more precise definitions is under- motivated. Renfrew accepts that his crite-
standable in the contexts in which they were ria will tend to exclude domestic and other
working. small-scale rituals (Renfrew 1985, pp. 21–22).
The recent resurgence of interest in rit- For Renfrew this loss is acceptable if it al-
ual by anthropological archaeologists can be lows for the archaeological identification of at
traced back to Renfrew’s pioneering work least those rituals that are unquestionably de-
at the Phylakopi Sanctuary on the Island rived from religious beliefs. Other archaeolo-
of Melos in Greece (Renfrew 1985; see gists are less willing to exclude the fringes of
also Barrett 1991, Carmichael et al. 1994, ritual.
Garwood et al. 1991). Here Renfrew at- In contrast with Renfrew, other archae-
tempted to establish specific criteria to eval- ologists of a more structuralist bent accept
uate whether a specific architectural complex that ritual and religion are more expansive
was a cult center or sanctuary. With this goal and less clearly definable than has been tra-
in mind, Renfrew (1985, p. 19) developed a list ditionally accepted (Brück 1999, Insoll 2004).
of material correlates that typically character- To accommodate this position, structuralist • The Archaeology of Religious Ritual 59

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archaeologists are forced to expand the nition. Unfortunately, with much of the ar-
breadth of religion’s influence on every- chaeology of religions we will never get at its
day lives. By rejecting the Durkheimian essence no matter how long we boil the pot,
(1915[1995]) distinction between the sacred because it is in the mind, it defies rationality,
and profane, these structuralist thinkers be- and . . . it will remain elusive.” Whereas Insoll
gin to equate religion and culture. This per- rejects Renfrew’s reliance on the distinction
spective can be found most clearly in Insoll’s between the sacred and profane, he persists in
recent discussions of religion (Insoll 2004, relying on a structural understanding of reli-
p. 22). gion. When combined, these two views lead to
a degree of pessimism concerning the poten-
The more we look, the more we can see tial for archaeologists to study religious rituals
religion as a critical element in many ar- successfully.
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eas of life above and beyond those usually Others who are interested in domestic or
considered—technology, diet, refuse pat- other small-scale rituals celebrate the idea that
terning, housing. All can be influenced by religious and secular rituals are not distinct
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religion; they are today, why not in the past? or clearly identifiable (Bradley 2005, Walker
Religion can be of primary importance in 1999). Rather than seeing this as a problem,
structuring life into which secular concerns these archaeologists are interested in the pro-
are fitted, the reverse of the often-posited cess whereby a seemingly ordinary action be-
framework. comes ritualized. Rather than seeing rituals as
either religious or secular, archaeologists of
One can clearly see an element of truth this sort view as worthy of study the gray area
to this argument. Simply because some ac- between the two.
tion is economically rational does not nec-
essarily mean that it is not also religiously Once we reject the idea that the only func-
motivated. However, from this perspective, tion of ritual is to communicate religious be-
religion seems to be everywhere and all per- liefs, it becomes unnecessary to separate this
vasive in nonwestern societies. The problem kind of activity from the patterns of daily life.
with this perspective is the growing recogni- In fact, ritual extends from the local, infor-
tion (noted by Insoll 2004, p. 17) that some so- mal and ephemeral to the public and highly
cieties, even “traditional” societies, have only organized, and their social contexts vary
a limited interest in things religious (Barth accordingly. (Bradley 2005, p. 33)
1961, Douglas 1982, Kemp 1995). The sep-
aration of church and state may be a mod- In a detailed study of ritual in prehis-
ern, western notion, but it is a mistake to as- toric Europe, Bradley (2005) intentionally ex-
sume that people in other societies were or plores the blurred areas between religious
are necessarily ruled by their religious be- rituals, secular rituals, and everyday life. In
liefs any more, or less, then are Europeans one brief discussion, Bradley examines the
or Americans. The centrality of religion in difficulties archaeologists have had in deci-
human society can be expected to be highly phering the role of a type of earthen en-
variable and assumptions of its universal im- closure (Vierekschanze) in Neolithic central
portance highly suspect. Europe. These structures blend ritual, do-
The expansiveness of Insoll’s view of reli- mestic, and even industrial characteristics in
gion is partially the product of his structural ways that have frustrated attempts at un-
view of religion itself. Following Otto (1950), derstanding them. One of these structures,
Insoll (2004, p. 150) argues that archaeologists Mšecké Zehrovice in Bohemia, blends ritual
must recognize “that elements of the archae- structures and metalworking (Bradley 2005,
ology of religions are metaphysical by defi- pp. 21–23; Venclová 1998). Relying on

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ethnographic accounts of metalworking, the United States and Europe began to work
Bradley argues that the transformative prac- on developing new methodologies for the
tices of metalworking typically rely on magic, interpretation of rituals as forms of human
ritual, and restricted knowledge (see Schmidt action.
& Mapunda 1997; see also Dobres 2000). Tra-
ditionally metalworking was a ritual act, even
if it resulted in the production of utilitarian Behavioral Archaeology
objects. Thus, the question “is it religious?” Among the first to examine ritual as action
is viewed as fundamentally flawed. Unlike the in the United States was Walker in his stud-
position advocated by Insoll, Bradley rejects ies of witchcraft in the American Southwest
both the structural view of religion and the (Walker 1996, 1998, 1999). Following the
distinction between sacred and profane. Met- principles of behavioral archaeology, Walker
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alworking is both sacred and profane. Sacred- defined his subject matter as “ritual behav-
ness does not adhere to any object or phe- ior and its attendant ritual objects as ma-
nomena in particular, but is created through terial processes comprised of people inter-
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an object’s use or performance in specific con- acting with artifacts” (Walker 1998, p. 246).
texts, often tied metaphorically to an object’s Walker explicitly argued against a simple di-
mundane or domestic role (Bradley 2005; see vision between utilitarian/nonutilitarian arti-
also Ortman 2000, Plunket ed. 2002, Tilley facts. Rather, he argued that the ritual aspects
1999). of artifacts are a product of their use in a rit-
ual context—that normal, everyday artifacts
take on special ritual significance based on
RITUAL AS ACTION ritual use during the life history of the arti-
Archaeologists do not necessarily have to de- fact. In particular, Walker investigated krato-
velop a theory of mind or symbolic exegesis phanous violence, the intentional destruction
to recognize that sequences of deposits and and discard of ritual objects. By carefully in-
variability within those deposits can reveal vestigating the context in which objects were
ritual and nonritual activities. Rather, they deposited, Walker argued that it is possible to
need to recognize that ritual embodies be- identify those objects, or people, that were the
haviors as much as symbols. (Walker 1998, recipients of kratophanous violence. Walker
p. 296) argued specifically that evidence for extreme
postmortem violence against certain individ-
Until recently, most archaeologists viewed re- uals, structures, and artifacts was evidence
ligion in structural terms: that religion con- for the ethnohistorically known ritual treat-
sisted of belief, doctrine, and mythology. ment of witches in the American Southwest.
Ritual, if it was considered at all, was decid- In addition to Walker’s behavioral approach
edly secondary. Given this understanding, it is to sacrificial ritual, many other archaeological
not surprising that archaeologists argued that studies of sacrifice, votive deposits, and offer-
religion was not a productive field of research ings have also been conducted by other ar-
(Binford 1965, Hawkes 1954; in contrast see chaeologists (Bradley 2005; Hill 1995, 2003;
Fritz 1978). This perception began to change Kunen et al. 2002; Lucero 2003; Marcus 1998;
with the advent of more practice-oriented Osborne 2004).
approaches to the anthropology of religion. Of particular importance to the archaeo-
Archaeologists had long recognized that the logical study of ancient ritual is the commend-
archaeological record was created by human able rigor and nuance that Walker’s (1998,
actions in the past; they now recognized that 1999, 2002; see also Appadurai 1986) life-
ritual could also leave material traces as well. history approach brings to the question “is
With this new insight, archaeologists in both it religious?” It allows for artifacts to be • The Archaeology of Religious Ritual 61

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considered both utilitarian and religious de- tion of ritual architecture to demonstrate that
pending on the questions, or contexts, be- different layouts promoted rituals that alter-
ing investigated. In this sense, the methods nately served monastic or lay Buddhist inter-
and conclusions of behavioral archaeology are ests. At those religious centers most closely
surprisingly similar to research that relies on associated with Buddhist monasteries, ritual
practice theory. spaces were organized so that an individual
could stand between the central symbolic fo-
cus (a large hemispherical mound referred to
Experiential Approaches to Ritual as a stupa) of the space and devotees who were
In contrast to the behavioral emphasis on forced to face him or her. This layout pro-
taphonomy, archaeologists who rely on prac- moted leadership roles for monks in ritual ob-
tice theory have focused attention on the way servances. In contrast, ritual centers favored
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in which ritual was experienced by people in by the laity placed the stupa at the center of a
the past (Bradley 2000; Fogelin 2003, 2004, large courtyard, eliminating the potential for
2006; Howey & O’Shea 2006; Inomata 2006; any individual to stand between the ritual fo-
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Inomata & Coben 2006; Moore 1996; Smith cus and all those who were engaged in rit-
& Brooks 2001; see also Tilley 1994 for a ual around it. If any individual attempted to
phenomenological approach to experiential place themselves physically as intermediaries,
archaeology). A particularly robust example the audience could simply walk to the other
of the experiential approach is presented by side of the stupa and ignore the presumptive
Moore (1996) in his study of pyramid com- ritual leader entirely. Thus, different archi-
plexes in coastal Peru. He carefully exam- tectural layouts of religious centers promoted
ined the size, elevation, and layout of pyramid ritual experiences that favored either monas-
complexes, paying close attention to the ac- tic or lay-Buddhist interests.
tual and perceived size of the pyramids from Both behavioral and experiential ap-
the viewpoint of the people standing below proaches to the archaeology of ritual down-
them. He concluded that a variety of architec- play, if not exclude, investigations of sym-
tural tricks were employed in the construction bolism. Rather, both tend to focus more on
of the pyramids to increase their grandeur. the functions of ritual, often in terms of le-
In turn, this grandeur served to promote the gitimizing existing social orders. This does
power of those in charge of the rituals per- not mean that archaeologists who employ
formed on top of the structures. On a more these approaches are uninterested in symbolic
pragmatic level, Moore noted that given the meaning, but only that they tend to be more
great distance between the ritual participants conservative in their use of it. Where strong
on the pyramids and the spectators below, the historic or ethnohistoric sources are avail-
rituals performed must have required large able, even archaeologists who emphasize rit-
movements and limited vocalizations because ual practice will use them (see Fogelin 2006,
it would have been exceptionally difficult for Walker 1998). However, the strong emphasis
the audience to see or hear what was occurring on human action in these approaches places
on top of the pyramids. lesser value on symbolic understandings of
As in Moore’s emphasis on “architecture past ritual.
of power” (Moore 1996; see also Fox 1996),
archaeologists who focus on the experiential
elements of ritual often emphasize the ways RITUALS AND SYMBOLS
that rituals serve the interests of authority and Many archaeologists, myself included, have
resistance to authority. In his work on early criticized those archaeologists who focus on
Buddhist Monasteries in South India, Fogelin symbolic analyses (Fogelin 2007, Howey &
(2003, 2006) examined the spatial organiza- O’Shea 2006, Insoll 2004, Renfrew 1994,

62 Fogelin
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Walker 1998). I now believe that I was mis- als of his attendants—some potentially sacri-
taken in many of my early criticisms. Ritu- ficed as part of the mortuary ritual (Emerson
als do, at times, enact deeper religious beliefs 1997, Pauketat 2004). Relying on ethnohis-
through complex symbolic actions. If religion toric sources and detailed iconographic anal-
and ritual truly inform one another, archae- yses, Brown argues for a different interpreta-
ologists can only benefit from investigations tion, that the assemblage is the retelling of a
into both sides of the dialectic. Where written specific myth common in the Midwest (Brown
sources describe religious beliefs, mytholo- 2003, p. 96).
gies, and symbolism, a structural approach to
ritual is fairly straightforward. However, there Led by a falcon hero, the heroes, four
is no reason, a priori, to assume that prehis- in number, game with the representatives
torians cannot study ancient symbolism and of death and the netherworld (Hall 1997).
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belief. The question remains, however, how Ultimately losing their heads, the heroes
best to study symbolism within the material pass into temporary oblivion. In time the son
confines of archaeological research. or sons/nephews of the falcon hero avenge
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If symbols are organized in complex sys- the death of their ancestors by seizing the
tems, as Geertz (1973) argues, then knowl- head from the custody of death.
edge of some aspects of the symbolic system
could be used to infer other parts. Archaeolo- This myth is made materially manifest in a
gists might even identify a key symbol (Ortner mortuary tableau at Mound 72. Brown iden-
1973), one that serves as a central element of tifies the figures in the myth through exam-
ancient ritual practices. Furthermore, studies inations of the iconographic elements found
of ancient symbolism need not focus solely on within each burial. The central figure, laying
the symbols themselves but can infer symbolic on the beaded cape, is the avenging son of the
meanings of rituals from the material remains falcon hero, laying directly above the defeated
of rituals themselves. Archaeologists can use figure of death. The surrounding burials con-
structural regularities in the relationship be- sist of the falcon hero and his teammates. Fur-
tween ritual and religion to investigate sym- thermore, all the figures within the tableau are
bolism and belief in the past, even in the ab- “constructed” of secondary burials with the
sence of historical or ethnohistorical sources. exception of one: the primary burial of an in-
dividual in the position of the falcon hero. For
Brown, it is this figure, not the figure on the
Enactments of Meaning beaded cape, for whom the mythic tableau was
Perhaps the most common approach to the ar- constructed. Thus, traditional interpretations
chaeological study of ritual consists of using of the mortuary assemblage, in the absence of
historic or ethnohistoric sources as a guide to the symbolic associations, led to the incorrect
the interpretation of archaeological remains. identification of the only elite burial within
Brown’s (2003; see also Brown 1997, Hall the assemblage as that of an attendant.
1997) analysis of a burial assemblage within The strength of Brown’s interpretation
Mound 72 at Cahokia in the American Bottom rests on his use of structural assumptions con-
provides a good example of the strengths of cerning the guiding force of religious thought
this approach. Mound 72 consists of several (the falcon hero myth) in directing ritual ac-
burials, one laying on top of a cape of 20,000 tion (the interment of people within Mound
marine shell beads (Fowler et al. 1999). An- 72). For Brown, then, the ritual actions at
other burial lies directly below the former, Mound 72 are best explained as ritual en-
with several others burials surrounding them. actments of symbolic meaning rather than as
Traditionally, this assemblage has been inter- simple statements of ritual power. Brown’s
preted as an elite burial surrounded by buri- analysis also demonstrates the value of ritual • The Archaeology of Religious Ritual 63

ANRV323-AN36-04 ARI 13 August 2007 17:6

bolic regularities but fails to illuminate spe-

MORTUARY RITUAL cific meanings of the ritual symbols. In this
sense it blends the experiential and symbolic
Among the most developed subjects within the archaeology approaches discussed thus far. Whereas the
of ritual are studies of mortuary ritual. Archaeologists have meaning of a symbol is downplayed in cog-
long recognized that the interment of human remains is typi- nitive archaeology, the experience of creating
cally associated with rituals, often understood in terms of rites and working with symbols is well explored.
of passage (Turner 1966, Van Gennep 1960). Given the large Lewis-Williams (2002b) has argued that
number of studies of mortuary ritual and the existence of sev- rock art often depicts the effects of the
eral excellent reviews on the subject (Pearson 2001, Williams shamanic trance state on the human brain
et al. 2005), I have chosen not to discuss mortuary archaeology (Pearson 2002, Price 2001, Whitley & Keyser
in any significant detail. Approaches to the study of mortuary 2003). When going into a trance state,
Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 2007.36:55-71. Downloaded from

ritual have many of the same elements as studies of ritual gen- whichever means are used to achieve it, several
erally. Where some archaeologists focus on the iconographic common physiological stages occur (Lewis-
and symbolic meaning of grave goods, others focus more on Williams & Dowson 1988). Initially, people
by ALBION COLLEGE on 11/28/07. For personal use only.

the processes of interment of the body and the ritual practices entering a trance state begin seeing entop-
that accompanied interment. In general, archaeologists have tic visions—flickering or wavy geometric lines
gradually moved away from studies that see mortuary ritual as and dots visible with eyes open or shut. In the
passively reflecting society toward studies that see mortuary next stage, the mind of the person in the trance
ritual as actively constructing social orders. state tries to make sense of the entoptic visions
by associating them with things that are famil-
iar. A wavy line may be seen by the person in a
perspectives in the study of mortuary practices trance as a horse or mountain. Finally, in the
(see Mortuary Ritual). third stage shamans feel as if they are pass-
Ethnohistorical and historical sources in- ing or flying through a tunnel into another
form numerous studies of ancient ritual, world. At this stage, odd groupings of entop-
particularly in the new world (e.g., Bauer tic visions may be blended in the mind of a
1992, Brady & Prufer 2005, Sekaquaptewa shaman, resulting in images of animals with
& Washburn 2004, Hayes-Gilpin & Hill human heads or other fantastical imagery.
1999, Fowles 2005). These studies rely on the The bulk of Lewis-Williams’s research
greater ability of myth, art, and other forms concerns rock art in southern Africa (2002a),
of religious expression to provide guidance but his discussion of the rock art in Lascaux,
on the interpretation of material remains of an Upper Paleolithic cave site in France, illus-
ritual. One can, however, investigate symbols trates his overall perspective (Lewis-Williams
archaeologically in other ways, by exploiting 1997, 2002b). He argues that spatial move-
other structural understandings of symbols. ment into the cave graphically represents
the shamanic movement into trance. Thus,
initially the cave has a substantial amount
Cognitive Archaeology of geometric and animal motifs. Moving
A different approach to structural regulari- inward the images depict elements repre-
ties in ritual is promoted by cognitive archae- senting movement through a tunnel, finally
ologists (Renfrew & Zubrow 1994, Mithen reaching the deepest portions of the cave
1998). Cognitive archaeologists focus on the where blended and fantastic images occur. For
physiological processes of the human brain Lewis-Williams, the cave paintings of Lascaux
and the implications of these processes on hu- are a record of shamanic rituals practiced
man cognition. Unlike other structural ex- 17,000 years ago in Europe. Although Lewis-
planations of ritual, cognitive archaeology Williams’s interpretation does not decipher
actually posits the specific cause of sym- the specific meaning of the bulls, horses, and

64 Fogelin
ANRV323-AN36-04 ARI 13 August 2007 17:6

other painting in Lascaux, it does offer an ex- Pauketat & Alt (2004; see also Pauketat
planation for the creation of the paintings and et al. 2002, Pauketat and Emerson 1991) pro-
identify the practice of a specific form of rit- ductively employ these insights in an exam-
ual, shamanism, in the distant past. ination of a cache of 70 stone axe heads at
the Grossman site, a small village in the up-
lands above Cahokia. Through careful exam-
Symbols and Power inations of the placement, material, and mor-
A final approach to the study of ritual sym- phology of the axe heads, Pauketat & Alt
bolism concerns issues of power and the cre- argue that the cache was constructed as part
ation of dominant ideologies. Whereas much of a ritual intended to promote solidarity
of this research relies on structural assump- among the diverse social groups coming under
tions concerning the dominance of religion the dominion of Cahokia. Different people,
Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 2007.36:55-71. Downloaded from

and myth in ordering society, some of it fo- representing different social groups, placed
cuses more on how symbols are appropri- axe heads into the cache sequentially, sig-
ated and manipulated to achieve specific ends nifying their unity. As stated by Pauketat
by ALBION COLLEGE on 11/28/07. For personal use only.

(e.g., Inomata 2001, Lucero 2003, Mills 2004, & Alt (2004, p. 794), “the ritual burial of
Pauketat & Emerson 1991, VanPool 2003). the axe-heads at Grossman might have sig-
The former approach assumes that the role nified the coming together of the Cahokian
of ritual is enacting long-lasting cosmologi- order.”
cal orders that legitimize the ruling elite. The
latter blends with experiential approaches to
ritual discussed earlier, with ritualized sym- Approaches to Ritual Symbolism
bols as points of contention between rival If symbols are material things that can be ma-
claimants to power. In either case, research nipulated and used by people in the past, then
in this vein asks who controls or benefits from archaeologists should be able to infer at least
the production, display, and performance of some of their meaning through careful exami-
ritual symbolism? The main differences con- nations of their material context. These stud-
cern archaeologists’ views on the stability or ies can be heavily informed by historic and
dynamism of ritual symbolism. ethnohistoric sources or even by generalized
An important element of these studies for processes of the human brain. The material
all archaeological research on ritual is that context of symbols can also be used to in-
symbols are also material things, that ide- fer the manner in which they were employed
ology is materialized in objects (DeMarrais to reaffirm dominant ideologies. Whatever
et al. 1996; Robb 1998, 1999). Once material- approach is used, deciphering the symbolic
ized, these symbolic objects can be controlled meanings of past rituals, particularly in ab-
and manipulated in much the same way that sence of historic or ethnohistoric sources, re-
any other nonsymbolic object can. The ruling mains among the most challenging and un-
elite can, for instance, limit access to material derdeveloped aspects of the archaeology of
symbols in much the same way they can limit ritual.
access to food or other goods. Furthermore,
the manipulation of a material symbol can act
to change the underlying meaning of the same CONCLUSION
symbol. The construction of a sacred building The insights of cognitive archaeology and
by a king is an avenue toward sacred power; practice-centered archaeology—whether em-
limiting access to the same building affirms phasizing symbolism or human action—are
that sacred power is restricted to a select few. important advances in the study of ancient rit-
Ritual, in this formulation, is also form of ma- ual, but at least part of their success comes
terialized ideology. from avoiding the issue of symbolic meaning. • The Archaeology of Religious Ritual 65

ANRV323-AN36-04 ARI 13 August 2007 17:6

Rather, both tend to emphasize more func- address the material implications of ritual and
tional aspects of past ritual. These approaches ritual symbolism that are often lacking in the
do provide rich accounts of ritual activi- existing anthropological literature.
ties in the past, but it is hard to deny that Few archaeologists strictly follow either
interpretations that also account for sym- a structural or practice-oriented approach to
bolic meaning would be even richer. When the archaeology of ritual. More typically, ar-
it comes to symbolic meaning, archaeologists chaeologists employ insights from both per-
still rely primarily on ethnohistoric and his- spectives in their research. Given the di-
toric sources to guide their interpretations. alectical nature of religion and ritual and
Future research on the archaeology of rit- the fragmentary evidence of ancient ritual,
ual needs to develop new, robust approaches blended approaches are both necessary and
to the interpretation of symbolic meaning in successful. This does not mean that archaeol-
Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 2007.36:55-71. Downloaded from

ritual. ogists have overcome the contradictions be-

In the past few decades archaeologists have tween a structural and agent-oriented under-
made great strides in deciphering cosmo- standing of ritual but only that they have
by ALBION COLLEGE on 11/28/07. For personal use only.

logical principles. Now archaeologists must productively sidestepped the problem. Fu-
develop methods for identifying how cosmo- ture archaeological research on ritual must
logical or religious concepts are materially en- begin to address these issues more explic-
acted or communicated through ritual. A first itly, if only to identify regularities better in
step toward this end would be ethnoarchae- the relationship between religion and ritual
ological studies of ritual (see Jordan 2003). that can be exploited for new archaeological
Ethnoarchaeological research could begin to research.

1. 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. The dialectic between ritual and religion allows each to inform on the
2. Some archaeologists view religion as primary, with ritual as a means of enacting the
embedded meanings of religious belief. Others see ritual as primary; the specifics of
religious belief systems are created to conform to rituals practices.
3. Archaeologists who see religion as primary see the goal of the archaeology of ritual as
the identification of underlying meaning of ritual acts. Studies of this sort often make
extensive use of historical and ethnohistorical sources.
4. Archaeologists who view ritual as primary investigate the ways that the experience
of ritual served to create, reaffirm, or contest social orders, often viewed in terms of
authority and subordination.
5. Archaeologists have also productively studied ancient symbols as material objects,
gaining insight into the function of symbols, if not the meaning of them.

The author is not aware of any biases that might be perceived as affecting the objectivity of
this review.

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ANRV323-AN36-04 ARI 13 August 2007 17:6

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In press
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AR323-FM ARI 24 August 2007 20:38

Annual Review of

Contents Volume 36, 2007

Prefatory Chapter
Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 2007.36:55-71. Downloaded from

Overview: Sixty Years in Anthropology

Fredrik Barth p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p1
by ALBION COLLEGE on 11/28/07. For personal use only.

The Archaeology of Religious Ritual
Lars Fogelin p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p 55
Çatalhöyük in the Context of the Middle Eastern Neolithic
Ian Hodder p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p105
The Archaeology of Sudan and Nubia
David N. Edwards p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p211
A Bicycle Made for Two? The Integration of Scientific Techniques into
Archaeological Interpretation
A. Mark Pollard and Peter Bray p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p245

Biological Anthropology
Evolutionary Medicine
Wenda R. Trevathan p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p139
Genomic Comparisons of Humans and Chimpanzees
Ajit Varki and David L. Nelson p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p191
Geometric Morphometrics
Dennis E. Slice p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p261
Genetic Basis of Physical Fitness
Hugh Montgomery and Latif Safari p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p391

Linguistics and Communicative Practices

Jennifer Hay and Katie Drager p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p 89

AR323-FM ARI 24 August 2007 20:38

Comparative Studies in Conversation Analysis

Jack Sidnell p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p229
Semiotic Anthropology
Elizabeth Mertz p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p337

Sociocultural Anthropology
Queer Studies in the House of Anthropology
Tom Boellstorff p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p 17
Gender and Technology
Francesca Bray p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p 37
Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 2007.36:55-71. Downloaded from

The Anthropology of Organized Labor in the United States

E. Paul Durrenberger p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p 73
by ALBION COLLEGE on 11/28/07. For personal use only.

Embattled Ranchers, Endangered Species, and Urban Sprawl:

The Political Ecology of the New American West
Thomas E. Sheridan p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p121
Anthropology and Militarism
Hugh Gusterson p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p155
The Ecologically Noble Savage Debate
Raymond Hames p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p177
The Genetic Reinscription of Race
Nadia Abu El-Haj p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p283
Community Forestry in Theory and Practice: Where Are We Now?
Susan Charnley and Melissa R. Poe p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p301
Legacies of Derrida: Anthropology
Rosalind C. Morris p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p355


Cumulative Index of Contributing Authors, Volumes 28–36 p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p407

Cumulative Index of Chapter Titles, Volumes 28–36 p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p p410


An online log of corrections to Annual Review of Anthropology articles may be found


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