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Session 15 – Everyday Life and Ritual Life – Can We Distinguish?

Timetable: Saturday afternoon 1430-1645 in the Uzma Rivzi Zoom Room

Format: Standard

Organiser: Peter S. Wells


In study of the prehistoric past, what methods and approaches can we use to distinguish the material remains of everyday life – of subsistence practices, construction techniques, craft activities – from the remains of “ritual” activity, such as the building of “sanctuaries” and the making of votive deposits?  Discussion of the concept of “structured deposition” has been fruitful in airing many of the relevant issues.  From a theoretical and methodological perspective, can we develop a set of criteria that can help to distinguish everyday life from ritual life, or must we content ourselves with the idea that they are inseparable?  Papers in this session will present case studies in distinguishing practices of everyday life from practices that involve the supernatural, with the aim of arriving at a set of criteria that might be applied to future studies of archaeological sites.


1430 – Problematic Stuff: A New Framework for Understanding Mundane Rituals of the Everyday

Lindsey Büster, University of York

In contrast to the periods which precede it, Iron Age Britain is well-known for its domestic settlements but monuments to the dead all but disappear. The absence of a discrete monumental landscape and the increasing recognition of the ‘ritualization’ of the domestic sphere (cf. Bradley 2003) has forced us to reconsider the lines we draw as archaeologists between ‘ritual’ and ‘everyday’ life. Brück (1999) rightly notes that such dichotomies reflect an inherently Cartesian, post-Enlightenment worldview. However, recent work using archaeology to open up discussions around death, dying and bereavement in contemporary society challenges the idea that these distinctions are fundamental to modern life, and demonstrates that our worlds are as ontologically ‘messy’ as they are likely ever to have been. Through the concept of ‘problematic stuff’, this paper will use contemporary bereavement experiences to reinterpret the emotional context behind (at least some) ‘structured deposits’ and argue that the false dichotomies drawn between ‘ritual’ and ‘everyday’, ‘settlement’ and ‘funerary’ hinder our attempts to understand the people behind the objects we study.

1455 – Cellars, caches, and clamshells: untangling the sacred and secular in Neolithic Central Europe 

Peter Bogucki, Princeton University

On settlements of the fifth millennium B.C. in central Europe, the separation between the secular and the sacred is often blurred.  At sites of the Brzesc Kujawski Group in northern Poland, recurring patterns of features include enigmatic basins that are often called “cellar pits” located in a defined place within most houses, caches of flint nodules, animal burials, and a variety of other structured deposits that present challenging symbolic and ritual dimensions when considered across the broader settlement landscape, yet when viewed individually could be interpreted in quotidian ways.  This paper will consider the role of analytical scale in the interpretation of such features and conclude with a cautionary anecdote about how modern cultural practices can constrain the range of possibilities in the interpretation of prehistoric finds in this context.

1520 – BREAK

1540 – Houses for the Dead, Houses for the Living, or Houses at all?  Reconsidering Irish Iron Age Ring Ditched Enclosures

Erin Crowley-Champoux, University of Minnesota; Zenobie Garrett, University of Oklahoma; Susan Johnston, George Washington University

The problem of the Irish Iron Age (~700 BC-AD 500), articulated by Barry Raftery’s Pagan Celtic Ireland: the enigma of the Irish Iron Age (1994), has been the absence of large, permanent settlements.  This absence of settlement evidence stands in stark contrast to the preceding Late Bronze Age, in which several settlement forms proliferated.  Celtic Tiger-era development in the late 1990s and early 2000s has been credited with the expansion of known Iron Age sites.  In the last 10 years, analytical work using these data has provided a useful framework for how we conceive of the Iron Age, reaffirming the dating and phasing for the period as well as offering categorizations of settlement evidence.  Ring ditched enclosures, however, have largely been excluded from discussions of settlement activity due to their association with burial.  However, not all ring ditched enclosures have burial evidence, and indeed many have evidence of other internal features – features that would otherwise identify the site as domestic rather than ritual.  This would suggest that there were more complex relationships between settlement and burial and that ritual activity and domestic activity might have been more entangled in the Irish Iron Age society than we currently understand.  This paper will use theoretical and methodological approaches to address the current data on Irish ring-ditches and address the question of whether or not these sites were ritual and/or secular spaces. 

1605 – Settlement Deposits – Why Were Objects Buried?

Peter S. Wells, University of Minnesota

Deposits of objects in the ground are near universal phenomena on settlements.  The possible reasons for burying objects are manifold – storage of food, hiding of valuables, disposal of unwanted materials, making offerings to supernatural powers.  How can we distinguish one purpose from another?  Are there specific guidelines for distinguishing what we consider to be secular from ritual purposes, or were the two so intertwined in prehistoric societies that such distinctions are irrelevant?  This paper explores examples of Bronze Age and Iron Age deposits to examine factors that may help us to determine the purpose behind the deposition and arrangement of objects in underground contexts.

1630 – Discussion


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