Ritual and Rationality

While reading up on the subject, I’m writing the introductory remarks for a study of Bronze Age sacrificial sites. In January I put a couple of paragraphs up here about the possibly redundant distinction between retrievable hoards and irretrievable sacrifices. Here’s some more, about ritual and rational behaviour.


Ritual and rationality

As Richard Bradley has argued at length (1995), the distinction between ritual and domestic behaviour is not very helpful when dealing with prehistoric societies. One may easily think that “ritual” equals “irrational” and thus “functionally inexplicable”. Conversely, “domestic” would then equal “functionalistic”. But it must be remembered that it is impossible to be more rational than what your level of knowledge about the world allows. This has nothing to do with the once-fashionable epistemological relativism where there was talk of “different ways of knowing”. Simply put, in the pre-scientific era that makes up almost the entire history of human culture, people did not know very well what was real and not. It was extremely difficult for them to determine what sort of actions would produce reliable effects. Most likely, all prehistoric action was believed to be functional.

If everybody believes in the Lady in the Lake and atheism is unheard of, then it will appear entirely rational to make sacrifices to her. In fact, doing so may produce solidly beneficial effects – not thanks to any divine intervention, but because it impresses the neighbours. This view coexists easily with some level of modern-style economic rationality where rare imported goods such as bronze would be unusually valuable and prestigious and thus apt as sacrificial gifts. And conversely, it means that when we see evidence of people acting in mundane, sensible ways that we can easily explain from a modern functionalist perspective, then we are probably not dealing with behaviour that prehistoric people saw as belonging to any separate category of its own. If you really believe in gods, then sacrificing to them looks as sensible and/or ritual as digging deep post-holes to keep your house from collapsing. Prehistoric deposits look irrational to us just like today’s best medical care will look irrational to future doctors who have access to therapies yet to be invented. Every age acts upon its best available knowledge.

My own interpretation of why the deposits were made and left in place is that all were certainly left for reasons that appeared rational to people at the time, but that none, with very few exceptions, were left for reasons that make any functional sense to someone with a scientific world-view. A belief in the supernatural was clearly involved. We will most likely never know whether we would classify the fictional entities to which the sacrifices were directed as gods, demons, spirits or ancestors. But Tacitus tells us that people believed in gods in 1st century AD Northern Europe, and the Mediterranean written evidence for godly beliefs at the time of the Scandinavian Bronze Age is extensive indeed.

I have in fact yet to see a convincing argument for why we should interpret a given retrievable prehistoric metal hoard as mundane from a modern perspective. Christoph Huth (2009) makes the valuable point that the metal deposits of the Late Bronze Age and the Viking Period are similar in most respects but have been interpreted very differently. I agree, but while Huth hints that he favours a mercantile interpretation for both classes of finds, I instead hold the opposite view. Few Viking Period hoards were buried for mundane reasons and even fewer were allowed to remain underground for such reasons.

Note also that “irrational” does not have to mean “random”, particularly when we consider that rational behaviour depends on your level of knowledge about the world. Rituals, while irrational to someone with a scientific world-view, are in fact anything but random. It is part of XXXX’s influential definition of the term that a ritual is structured and proceeds according to certain rules that allows it to be repeated in a recognisable form. And for this reason, archaeologists should not dispense with the entire concept of ritual action. All human action was very likely perceived as rational. But much of it is nevertheless likely to have been ritualised.

*

Selective artefact deposition at specialised locations was part of South Scandinavian culture before, during and after the Bronze Age. We should thus understand it as a collective tradition that many or all people at the time knew about and chose to act upon for reasons they deemed important. From that perspective, I find the neo-Marxist interpretation once advanced by Kristian Kristiansen and others untenable. Kristiansen (REF) noted that the Bronze Age elite’s position very likely rested on control of trade (be it mercantile or prestige gift-based) in scarce commodities, notably bronze. He pointed out that the system would break down and the elite lose their advantage if bronze became ubiquitous. And so he suggested that permanent deposition in wetlands was a way to keep the bronze supply down and ensure the continued scarcity – and value – of bronze.

Permanent deposition in lakes and rivers did of course have this effect on the economic system to some extent. But in my opinion it is out of the question that people had this goal in mind when they deposited bronze. Because to the individual aristocrat who controlled bronze, scarcity was only desirable when it happened to somebody else. Nobody would ever let go of bronze for the common abstract good of the aristocratic system. And so the neo-Marxist model cannot explain the conscious reason that people chose to deposit bronze. And learning the conscious motivations of people in the past is in my opinion one of archaeology’s prime objectives.

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Comments

  1. #1 Akhôrahil
    March 24, 2010

    If you perform expensive sacrifices, and if they result in heightened social prestige, and if the value of this prestige is higher than the value of the offerings, can they truly be said to be irrational?

    I’m not sure that bronze age offerings need to be interpreted any differently than conspicous connsumption today – you use your wealth in a manner that would seem to be irrational, were it not for the social status it buys you.

    Of course, this can become a social problem when more and more people attempt it, as social prestige is a zero-sum game.

  2. #2 tenine
    March 24, 2010

    I would say I support the notion that these depositions were ritual. Is there ever a suggestion made that they were intended to appeal to a particular supernatural figure? The deposition in the ground would appear to imply at sacrifice to an earth goddess or god.

    A similar phenomena in North America is the projectile point cache. There is argument over whether these caches are storage or sacrifice.

  3. #3 Martin R
    March 24, 2010

    Bronze Age Scandinavia is entirely prehistoric. No way to know what they called their gods. But the depositions are largely in lakes, rivers and bogs. Possibly an early version of the goddess named Nerthus by Tacitus.

  4. #4 cicely
    March 24, 2010

    Because to the individual aristocrat who controlled bronze, scarcity was only desirable when it happened to somebody else. Nobody would ever let go of bronze for the common abstract good of the aristocratic system.

    No more than than Spanish aristocrats would have been willing to leave New World gold and silver in the New World, for fear that inflation would price goods further out of reach for their economic inferiors.

  5. #5 Jonathan Jarrett
    March 24, 2010

    Only three things here, the first of which is that this sentence:

    Prehistoric deposits look irrational to us just like today’s best medical care will look irrational to future doctors who have access to therapies yet to be invented.

    mainly makes me think of Woody Allen’s Sleeper. I think dear Dr Goldacre would hope that our current best medical care will at least look scientific, even if benightedly so, to future generations, and I wonder if there might be a better sphere to make the analogy in, like conspicuous consumption as suggested by Akhôrakil above.

    Secondly, I would like to urge that Philip Grierson get name-checked in the ‘not all Viking hoards were traded’ section, but I should also mention that my boss, more or less single-handed, is now trying to argue that actually many of them were, because the distribution of coin types in hoards in Viking-Age Scandinavia is more or less even over time, whereas it should cluster around known Danegeld dates. If this perspective interests you I can provide references.

    And, er, thirdly, is this being done in English? I can’t remember. If it is, this section:

    Permanent deposition in lakes and rivers did of course have this effect on the economic system to some extent. But in my opinion it is out of the question that people had this goal in mind when they deposited bronze. Because to the individual aristocrat who controlled bronze, scarcity was only desirable when it happened to somebody else.

    is stylistically awkward because of the two sentences beginning with conjunctions. I would rephrase as:

    Permanent deposition in lakes and rivers did of course have this effect on the economic system to some extent. In my opinion, however, it is out of the question that people had this goal in mind when they deposited bronze, because to the individual aristocrat who controlled the metal, scarcity was only desirable when it happened to somebody else.

    If it’s in Swedish, and you’ve just translated for us, then of course this hardly matters (and thankyou!).

  6. #6 Jonathan Jarrett
    March 24, 2010

    Only three things here, the first of which is that this sentence:

    Prehistoric deposits look irrational to us just like today’s best medical care will look irrational to future doctors who have access to therapies yet to be invented.

    mainly makes me think of Woody Allen’s Sleeper. I think dear Dr Goldacre would hope that our current best medical care will at least look scientific, even if benightedly so, to future generations, and I wonder if there might be a better sphere to make the analogy in, like conspicuous consumption as suggested by Akhôrakil above.

    Secondly, I would like to urge that Philip Grierson get name-checked in the ‘not all Viking hoards were traded’ section, but I should also mention that my boss, more or less single-handed, is now trying to argue that actually many of them were, because the distribution of coin types in hoards in Viking-Age Scandinavia is more or less even over time, whereas it should cluster around known Danegeld dates. If this perspective interests you I can provide references.

    And, er, thirdly, is this being done in English? I can’t remember. If it is, this section:

    Permanent deposition in lakes and rivers did of course have this effect on the economic system to some extent. But in my opinion it is out of the question that people had this goal in mind when they deposited bronze. Because to the individual aristocrat who controlled bronze, scarcity was only desirable when it happened to somebody else.

    is stylistically a bit awkward because of the two sentences beginning with conjunctions, which English doesn’t like very much because our conjunctions are used much more as joins between ideas than orientations for a following one the way German employs them (and maybe also Swedish?). I would rephrase as:

    Permanent deposition in lakes and rivers did of course have this effect on the economic system to some extent. In my opinion, however, it is out of the question that people had this goal in mind when they deposited bronze, because to the individual aristocrat who controlled the metal, scarcity was only desirable when it happened to somebody else.

    If it’s in Swedish, and you’ve translated just for us, then of course this hardly matters (and thankyou!).

  7. #7 Jonathan Lubin
    March 24, 2010

    Well, I think your writing is perfectly idiomatic in an informal way. But much more important, I find your argument very convincing. Tak for det!

  8. #8 Art
    March 25, 2010

    If the intent was to remove bronze from the market to maintain the price wouldn’t the bronze sunk tend to be less worked, less ornate, have less invested labor. Dropping simple ingots of bronze would be as effective if the goal was to simply get the metal off the market. It would be more cost effective IMO.

    It would be interesting to closely examine the items to see if they were manufactured in such a way as to magnify the apparent value. Thin foils can look like much more valuable heavy castings. If the intent was to impress the neighbors apparent value would be more important than considered value.

    On the other hand, if the offering was being made to impress or buy off a deity or other supernatural figure there would be no point in dropping cheaper items gussied up to look more expensive. A deity could, presumably, tell the difference between top quality goods and cheap knock offs.

  9. #9 Martin R
    March 25, 2010

    Jon, you’re right about the medical analogy. Comparing pre-scientific religion to current scientific medicine is apples and oranges. I wasn’t sure about it, and you have convinced me to change it.

    I have no problem with mercantile trade in the Viking Period. I just think they a) buried the silver and b) refrained from digging it up for non-mundane reasons. Look at Gotland: hoards in every fucking building! Everybody must have known. If they were driven by economic rationality, then the heirs would be lifting floor-boards before grand-dad was even cold.

    Many thanks for copy-editing! The blog entry is copy & paste from my manuscript. Beginning sentences with conjunctions is informal and I do it deliberately. Much of my copy-editing for Fornvännen is also geared towards de-formalisation and de-jargonification. For instance, I usually exterminate the passive voice and make the authors speak as “I” and “we”.

    Art, most of the deposited bronzes are used or useable goods. But there are occasional huge axes consisting of bronze over a clay core.

  10. #10 Jonathan Jarrett
    March 25, 2010

    I have no problem with mercantile trade in the Viking Period. I just think they a) buried the silver and b) refrained from digging it up for non-mundane reasons. Look at Gotland: hoards in every fucking building! Everybody must have known. If they were driven by economic rationality, then the heirs would be lifting floor-boards before grand-dad was even cold.

    Here, that’s a good point that is. I shall try and raise that with the boss when possible, though I don’t think it affects what he wants to argue.

  11. #11 Martin R
    March 25, 2010

    I find it useful to keep in mind that the person making an object, the one adding it to a hoard on a shelf in a house, the one burying the hoard and the one refraining from digging it up may be different people with different agendas.

  12. #12 codero
    March 25, 2010

    Every age acts upon its best available knowledge.

    I wish that were true of ours…

  13. #13 Martin R
    March 25, 2010

    Hehe, yeah, I realised I had to re-phrase that. Now it’s “With the exception of people clinging to old belief systems, every age acts upon its best available knowledge”.

  14. #14 cicely
    March 25, 2010

    Art @7:

    A deity could, presumably, tell the difference between top quality goods and cheap knock offs.

    Not necessarily! After all, in Greek mythology, Rhea fooled Cronus into swallowing a stone instead of Zeus, who himself was later tricked into choosing less-than-prime cuts for the gods’ portion as sacrifice.

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