Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 1-2 (November 2009)Maaike Groot: Searching for patterns among special animal deposits in the Dutch river area during the Roman period

5 What is ritual? Ritual in archaeology

It is an old joke among archaeologists: if it cannot be explained or if we do not understand it, it must be ritual. Although a lack of understanding is not the best basis for any interpretation, we know that material evidence for rituals exists in archaeology. Most finds in temples and cemeteries, as well as foundation deposits in farmhouses, are linked to ritual and no one doubts the validity of a ritual explanation in these cases. However, when ‘ordinary’ finds from settlement contexts, such as animal remains, are interpreted as ritual deposits, criticism may follow. This seems to be based on modern ideas on what constitutes a good offering, namely something valuable. Many archaeologists do not realize that a dead animal may have been of value, even if it is of a species that is not normally eaten. Similarly, broken pottery or other artefacts from settlements are nearly always regarded as discarded rubbish. A second reason for the scepticism among archaeologists with regard to ritual practices in settlements is a direct result of our modern Western attitude that ritual and normal daily life are two separate spheres that do not overlap (Bradley 2005, 20, 29, 35). Bradley argued that, on the contrary, ritual and daily life were closely interlinked in the past and that buildings or objects could have both a practical and symbolic function (idem, 8, 16).

- ritual is consciously experienced by the participants (Lewis 1980, 20, 25),

- rituals are often intended to manipulate or be part of a dialogue with supernatural powers (Derks 1998, 76; Bradley 2005, 32),

- ritual is a kind of practice, and not just a way of communication. Ritual can put an emphasis on certain parts of life (Bradley 2005, 33-34),

- ritual is formal, governed by rules (Merrifield 1987, 6; Lewis 1980, 13; Moore & Meyerhoff 1977, 4, 8),

- rituals are repetitive since they follow a set of rules (Moore & Meyerhoff 1977, 7).

In archaeology, many other distinguishing elements of ritual, such as singing, dancing, clothing and movement are lost, but the consciousness of doing something special can be reflected in the way objects are buried. The burial of artefacts or animals is of course only one way of offering to supernatural powers, but it is the one that is most visible archaeologically. Deliberate burning is another (Halstead & Isaakidou 2004; Hamilakis & Konsolaki 2004), but so far little evidence has been found for this practice with regard to animal remains in the Roman Netherlands (for an exception, see Lauwerier 2002, 66). The motivation behind many rituals lies in the belief that supernatural powers can be reached this way. Gods are asked for health or wealth or thanked for acts of generosity. The formal, repetitive aspect of ritual is the most promising for archaeologists, since this should create recurring patterns in deposits. In fact, it is possible that much of the material culture and organic remains found by archaeologists survived only because they were intentionally buried (Bradley 2005, 21; Hill 1995).

When studying structured deposition it is essential to have some idea of what ritual in archaeology should look like, formulate criteria based on deposits for which a ritual interpretation is agreed upon, and then apply these to other deposits. It is likely that both ritual burials and dumping of dead animals occurred. How can we then tell the difference archaeologically? While burials of complete animals are the first to be described in publications regardless of the interpretation (ritual or non-ritual), these may be the most difficult to interpret. There is a sliding scale of interpretation, with ’profane’ at one end and ‘ritual’ at the other. Intentional burial of animals occurs at either side of the scale. Animals die of disease in any agrarian community and it is likely that some animal burials are dumped carcasses. On the other end of the spectrum, the context or posture of some complete animal burials leave little doubt about their ritual origin, for instance because of an association with other objects. A careful analysis of these (animal species, location, type of burial etc.) may lead to a set of criteria that can be applied to those burials that are harder to interpret. Recurrent patterns and characteristics reflect the rules of the ritual the deposit was part of. A ritual deposit is always meaningful but the precise meaning may be impossible to reconstruct by archaeologists.

Many archaeological finds represent rubbish, which may have been disposed of either casually (e.g. throwing a bone away during a meal) or deliberately (e.g. sweeping a farmhouse and dumping the rubbish). Rubbish disposal occurs alongside the burial of animal remains or other objects, whether surrounded by ritual or not. Recognising these different ways in which the archaeological record was created, as well as knowing their archaeological 'signature', will be valuable in advancing the study of structured deposition. In practice, this means that both deposits interpreted as ritual and clear-cut rubbish dumps need detailed descriptions in excavation reports.

Distinguishing between ritual and non-ritual seems to incorporate more assumptions and biases than other aspects of burial practices. It is important to be aware of our own assumptions and make them explicit. Most of these assumptions are rooted in modern western culture. One of my own personal assumptions is that dead animals would not be dumped or buried close to habitation unless there was a very specific reason. Another is that people would not make the effort of digging a large pit specifically to dump a carcass but that they would drag it outside the settlement.