Structured deposition and the interpretation of ritual in the Near Eastern Neolithic: a new methodology

Hughes, Erica
Structured deposition and the interpretation of ritual in the Near Eastern Neolithic: a new methodology. Doctor of Philosophy thesis, University of Liverpool.

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Ritual is an issue of wide importance in archaeological discourse and interpretation of the past. An understanding of ritual connects the traces of activities preserved in the archaeological record to the embodied experiences of human practice. Very few theorists have proposed methods to approach ritual, and those methodologies that do exist (e.g. Renfrew 1985; Richards and Thomas 1984) suffer from irreconcilable weaknesses. One of the primary methodologies for looking at ritual in prehistory -called Structured Deposition- has been developed in conjunction with evidence from the British Neolithic, and has barely been applied beyond this narrow field. The lack of models available for archaeologists studying ritual must be rectified, and, as previously proposed models and definitions have been inadequate in scope, there is a real need for a new method and model. This thesis introduces a new methodology in the archaeology of ritual, using the Neolithic of the Near East as a case study. Through a focus on the methodological element of studying ritual, a subsidiary goal of a better understanding of ritual in the Near East can be reached. Other subsidiary goals are to provide a logically valid basis from which to attempt interpretation as well as a better definition of ritual as it is used in archaeology, in order to solidify an approach to ritual that can take into account symbolic activity without succumbing to subjectivist criticism. The starting point for the new methodology is the idea of Structured Deposition, one way British archaeologists have tried to incorporate discussions of ritual despite a dearth of evidence. In brief, Richards and Thomas (1984) began with the premise that ritual activity involves formalized and repetitive behaviour. They then analysed the spatial patterning of particular forms of deposition, and concluded that certain deposits were too formal to be utilitarian. Just as ritual is not a single category, but a collection of categories with similar attributes, so too is structured deposition polythetic (See Needham 1975). Garrow (2012) places the many kinds of structured deposition on a continuum, naming the poles after the two most commonly discussed forms of structured depositions: “odd deposits” and “material culture patterning.” This conception of structured deposition as polythetic helps to overcome the current theoretical reluctance to differentiate between description and interpretation. Not only does structured deposition cover a great many aspects of ritual activity, it also allows for the correlation of activities that had previously been studied in isolation. Another advantage to the translation of structured deposition to a useful package to be deployed with respect to Near Eastern evidence is that the concept is only the starting point of the model. Alison Wylie reminds us that the orienting concepts do not determine what is found as analysis progresses (2002: 167). As such, many “odd deposits” or “patterning” events may not be considered as the result of intentional, or ritual, activity at the end of the interpretation process according to this new methodology. This reflects upon the contextual nature of the methodology, especially crucial with the sparse excavation and survey evidence from many Near Eastern sites. In chapters 2 and 3 of this thesis I explore previous approaches and conceptualizations of ritual and of meaning on the archaeological record. In chapter 4 I introduce issues in Near Eastern prehistory that are crucial to an understanding of the emergence of new forms of ritual activity, as they both frame and support current academic discussions of ritual. The methodologies used to approach these topics are described and critiqued in chapter 5, and a new model is introduced. The first step of the new model is to contextualize the evidence from the site, attempting to understand standard practices during the major phases. Deviation from the standard practices may be the result of intentional ritualization of objects, buildings, areas, colours or deposits. Quantification of the attributes of the potentially ritualized deposit allows for statistical comparisons, then a consideration of possible avenues of symbolization. The final step, interpretation, ties together all of the previous elements of the methodology to arrive at a conclusion as to the ritual significance of a deposit. In chapter 6, this new model was applied to 640 deposits spanning the time contemporary with the Pre-Pottery Neolithic from Anatolia, Upper Mesopotamia, and the Levant. Statistically significant results were obtained from both inter- and intra- regional comparisons, as well as chronological juxtaposition of depositions. The quantity and depth of the results, described in chapter 7, underline the usefulness and relevance of this new methodology with which to approach ritual in the Ancient Near East.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy)
Additional Information: Date: 2014-04 (completed)
Uncontrolled Keywords: Neolithic, Near Eastern Archaeology, Archaeological Method and Theory, Anthropology of Ritual, Archaeology of Ritual
Subjects: ?? CC ??
Divisions: Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences > School of Histories, Languages and Cultures
Depositing User: Symplectic Admin
Date Deposited: 04 Aug 2014 08:45
Last Modified: 16 Dec 2022 04:42
DOI: 10.17638/00017513