Monday, 31 July 2017

In defence of Ritual

I don't usually post about archaeology, but I am an archaeologist and as such was somewhat taken with a post a couple of days ago over at Realm of Chaos - an Oldhammer blog of some repute - and it got me thinking about that much-maligned term that archaeologists seem to come out with whenever they don't have an explanation for something - 'ritual'

I'm going to defend the 'ritual' interpretation, but with a caveat. I'll start by saying that it sometimes seems that archaeologists use 'ritual' as an excuse for not thinking. It might seem that way - but I think it isn't so. Honestly, archaeologists think loads, and some of the thinking is amazing. What they (or maybe we) don't do some of the time is communicate that thinking very well.

The separation of spheres of activity into 'religious' 'political' 'agricultural' 'meteorological' 'psychological' and so forth is a product of a very modern mind. If you read the plays of Shakespeare even, you see that the wrong king on the throne makes (the) God(s) angry, the weather bad, crops fail, people and animals go mad etc. Shakespeare was only writing 400 years ago, the Egtved Girl that's the subject of the post at Realm of Chaos was buried more than 3,000 years ago, after what seems to have been a short life (she was between 16-18 when she died) that involved several journeys between South-west Germany and Denmark, covering perhaps 3,000km in the last year or so of her life and being buried it seems in the summer of 1370BC.

There is an intrinsic connection between our behaviour and the workings of the universe. I think this was accepted by people in the Bronze Age as much as by people that have actually left us written records - the Egyptians, Jews, Greeks, Romans, Medieval Europeans and up to the Early Modern period, as well as people from further afield that Europeans only really found out about later - and of course, some people still believe that there is a connection between microcosmic and macrocosmic systems or no-one would ever say a) that God told them to run for President or alternatively b) that using the wrong lightbulbs will make the sea level rise. This is the context I think in which archaeologists, but probably not non-specialists, think of 'ritual'. When we say it, we mean something like 'part of life bound up with ideas of the relationship between community and the cosmos' or 'codified actions designed to facilitate the smooth running of the universe'. We mean the actions that people take that are regarded as 'right behaviour'. Archaeologists tend to believe that 'right behaviour' is culturally-specific: what is 'right' in 18th century East Africa would not be appropriate in China in 500BC or Milan in 1450. Though the details of the rituals change, human societies have rules about what is 'right behaviour' in terms of death, birth, coming-of-age, establishing family units and such like. We send each other cards for passing driving tests or getting new jobs. Archaeologists call that 'ritual'. If all you had was a pile of cards saying 'congratulations' and 'sorry you're leaving' archaeologists would still have to try and reconstruct what they meant. Probably they'd come up up with some explanation about rituals involving socially-defined stages of life in the community. And if they did, they'd be right, because that's what those things represent in our society.

When people outside of archaeology hear us taking about 'ritual' however, I think they often assume we mean 'some irrational mumbo-jumbo of which we are guessing at the details'. They then conclude that archaeology itself is a 'ritual' in this second sense, as it seems to be merely irrational mumbo-jumbo of which they can only guess at the details. It isn't, but if we don't communicate what we mean very well, it's hardly surprising that sometimes people think we're just making it up out of nothing.

I had the privilege to see the Egtved Girl's burial when I went to the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen earlier this year. It was one of my main reasons to go to the museum (one of the others being to see the Trundholm Sun Chariot - I would have linked to the National Museum of Denmark's web-pages on these but when I do so it crashes my internet connection for some reason) and I'm really glad I did. It is an amazing museum (and city, and country from what I saw which admittedly wasn't much). The displays helped me towards some new insights about prehistoric societies, about anthropology in general I suppose, and I like to feed that stuff back into gaming. Thinking about how society worked, what people's beliefs might have been, in the European Bronze Age or Ancient Egypt or Late Antique Italy (or whatever/wherever) helps in thinking about how a community works in Carcosa or Thyatis or Gondor. In fact, my specific interest in the Egtved Girl came from finding out about her because I was interested from a gaming point of view to find out what people were actually wearing in the Bronze Age - research for some way of adding a bit of verisimilitude to a 'barbarian' settlement led me down a rabbit-hole of fascinating information about the 'Nordic Bronze Age' (by the way, apart from the Egtved Girl, Denmark has some other really well-preserved prehistoric clothing, some of the best examples in Europe, and a goldmine of information for anyone wanting to re-imagine what a low-tech 'barbaric' society might look like).

The research into isotopes trapped in her hair that has been carried out also has thrown up really interesting questions about society in Northern Europe 3,300 years ago. It seems the the Egtved Girl was probably born in South-West Germany, in the Black Forest region, and travelled to Denmark when she was approximately 14-16 years old. Then, after a short period, she went back to Germany. She stayed in Germany for a few months and then journeyed back to Denmark. A short time, maybe about a month, after she arrived back in Denmark, she died, aged around 16-18.

I've long been a supporter of the notion that there was a lot of moving about in prehistoric societies. Not so much the idea, prevalent in English-speaking academic circles up to the 1950s, that 'waves of X-people drove out the less-advanced Y-people with their new technological innovation of the Pointed Stick and introduced Pottery and Cricket', but not 'no-one before the invention of the horse ever went more than 4 miles from the place they were born' either. I'm pretty sure that people knew that 'those islands over there' were where the tin/gold/amber/wine/furs or whatever came from and that 'those people up the river' were really good at making rugs but beyond them 'the other people' sang strange songs but had mad skills with doing archery. I'm from Britain (so I think that this bit is important), and Britain is thought to have been the major source of tin in the Mediterranean Bronze Age. There's an awful lot of Bronze Age bronze, so people in the Mediterranean must have known about Britain even if only as a source of tin (though that doesn't seem likely to me). Likewise (as I mentioned it and we're talking about Denmark) almost all European amber comes from the shores of the Baltic, which is quite a hike from the Mediterranean, and yet amber turns up in a lot of places in southern Europe. Jet, obsidian, particular sorts of axes or other objects turn up a long way from their sources. Beakers, a set of forms of pottery vessels, are part of a cultural complex that stretches from Morocco to Denmark, Hungary to Ireland. 4000 years ago, people were engaging in long-distance travel around the coasts of the Mediterranean and Black seas, out into the Atlantic, up the rivers... it was an interconnected world. And I think that's really interesting.

So anyway I don't know whether I'm saying 'go to Denmark, they've got great museums' or 'read some anthropology/archaeology/history books, they might spark gaming ideas' or probably a bit of both. I'm pretty sure I'm saying 'don't be too hard on archaeologists, they have to get unfamiliar ideas over in 10 seconds on the news or some popular history programme, there's probably more to it than it seems'. And it can be both fun and intellectually rewarding to find out what does lie behind the headlines.


  1. Great post! Very good points all around. I think it's very healthy to research history from a gamer perspective, because you'll always end up asking what you can get away with instead of what is canon. In my opinion it makes for a better understanding about where we are coming from and how those people of old had been very different and not so different at the same time.

    It's also generally good advice to go beyond what the headlines tell you :)

  2. Thanks Jens, glad you liked it. I think the idea people from other cultures (whether in the past or geographically remote) were and are "very different and not so different at the same time" is really important when the pressure to regard 'different' as being the same as 'frightening' is as strong as at present.

    And I've been a big fan of trying to use historical examples in gaming for a very long time (as you know, I've told you enough about my AD500 campaign!). But even in an established setting (like Middle-Earth) having some idea about how things might have happened in history can really help.

  3. A good read, which I tremendously enjoyed (while waiting for the train). I wholeheartedly agree that the meta-language archaeologists use is not very well communicated to non-archaeologists. A lot of nonsense that is reported could be avoided that way. So thank you for the effort!

  4. Thank you Fincas, I'm glad you enjoyed reading it. I'm not sure it's always the fault of the archaeologists - it's difficult to control how things are reported - but I think as a profession we don't help ourselves sometimes. We talk to other archaeologists too much and forget non-specialists not only don't share our interests, they don't even share our language.

    Hmm, that reminds me of gamers somewhat!