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.