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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Rundkvist Sibs Sing “Handy Manny” Theme Song

You know the bit in Khalil Gibran where he says that children are arrows and parents bows, not archers? The other day my kids recorded this rendition of the “Handy Manny” theme song, and then Junior edited it in Audacity. The same evening he played his first game of Agricola where he ended up sharing second place with me despite making tea and sandwiches for everyone while playing. He’ll be twelve in July…

Weekend Fun

  • Celebrated the 257th anniversary of the Academy of Letters wearing tails.
  • Had a fine sunshine brunch on Folly Hill with my wife. The place was heavily dominated by couples born in the 70s and sporting toddlers / babies / big bellies, all probably from the expensive waterfront housing area nearby. The music was all 90s hits all the time.
  • Watched The Usual Suspects (1995), an OK gangster flick featuring an almost unrecognisably slim and fresh-faced Benicio del Toro who slurs his speech beyond what I thought possible.
  • Played Agricola with friends.

And you?

Monday Miscellany


Web gems have been sent my way.

  • ASPEX, makers of scanning electron microscopes, offer to scan your sample for free and post the image on their site. Finally you can learn about the micro-structure of your tear-duct sleep gunk!
  • Pablo Zalama Torres makes lovely replicas of archaeological pottery.
  • An amateur volunteering for the Stardust @ Home project has probably discovered “the first known sample of matter ever collected from the local interstellar medium”. Space dust!
  • James Randi has come out of the closet. Congratulations, Randi! Your houdinesque escape will make it easier for other gay skeptics in the future.

Every Girl Go Crazy for a Sharp-Dressed Man

i-0efe5b39cc2bc2ef6fd6f3eb825dc3f5-P1010856lores.JPGSome time around 20 March each year, my part-time employers in The Royal Swedish Academy of Letters celebrate the 1753 foundation of the Academy. This gives me a rare reason to dress in tails. And I now look forward to performing for the first time that ultimate ritual of 20th century masculinity, leaving shirts to the dry-cleaners.

The image to the right allows anyone who is uncertain as to whether they are a girl to test this. Wise men teach us that every girl go crazy for a sharp-dressed man. Dear Reader, if you study the image and do not go crazy, then by simple logic you are not a girl.

Concert review: Mika in Stockholm


Cosmopolitan popster Mika is a great showman and tours with a great band. The audience at his gig in Stockholm last night was thoroughly charmed by the friendliness and musical mastery on offer. Mika traces his musical ancestry back to acts like the Beatles, Queen, Elton John and George Michael, which would make for a good concert experience even if the front man didn’t say a word. But he also entertained us with effortless improvised stage patter — part of it in Swedish, even though he makes only a single stop here on his tour! Psychedelic animated backdrop projections and dancers in outlandish costumes reminded me of of Montreal’s stage show. And Mika’s studio-heavy pop translated beautifully to the live format.

The audience was unusually all-ages for a pop gig and there was a fine mix of hipsters and everyday Joes like myself. It may have been my imagination or my selective Darwin-determined gaze, but there seemed to be unusually many of the big girls whose beauty one of Mika’s hits extols. Myself, I brought 11-y-o Junior and his buddy, and they loved it – which was great since neither of them had been to a pop concert since they learned to walk. Both study music, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they ended up on stage at similar events in the 2020s. We’re laying the groundwork now.

Mika has only two albums on his discography so far. But seeing him on stage last night I felt that this guy has it in him to be doing this for decades. A hard-working musician of great talent!

Up-and-coming Swedish pop act Ola Joyce opened together with his 6-piece band, and they did a fine job too. An album is in the works.

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Dendro Dissidents

How long ago was the time of Emperor Augustus? Most educated people, including professional historians and archaeologists, will reply “about 2000 years” if you ask them. But a considerable number of amateur dendrochronologists say “about 1800 years“. And because of an unfortunate peculiarity in how professional dendrochronologists work, it is very hard to convince these dissident amateurs that they are wrong. Because they’re actually thinking straight given the data available to them.

If you look at published dendro curves for the transalpine provinces of the Empire, you find that they contain two main blocks of information covering the past 2500 years or so. There’s one that extends solidly from today and back to about AD 400, consisting of many tightly interlinked samples. And then there’s a Roman-era block that is also quite solid internally. But between the two blocks is a period of about 200 years when there are very few samples. It appears to be hard to find preserved timber that grew in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. There are enough samples to satisfy professionals that they actually have the whole 2000 years covered, but the sample overlaps for the gap between the blocks are few and rather weak.

Professional dendrochronologists explain this lack of finds by reference to the cessation of Roman building projects and to deforestation during the Imperial centuries. According to the accepted model, the reason that there are so few samples covering the gap between the blocks is that few trees were of a suitable age for construction timber during that time and even fewer were used to build anything that has been preserved. Trees that fell into bogs and rivers at the time would have too few rings to be of much use to dendrochronology.

Dissident amateurs instead think that the Roman block and the recent block have been joined incorrectly, and that there shouldn’t be any gap at all between them in the diagrams. According to them, the professionals have been fooled by the early historians Dionysius Exiguus and Beda Venerabilis into thinking that the Western Empire fell 1600 years ago, using this as an axiom in their work with the dendro curves, when in fact it happened only 1400 years ago. A common idea about why this should be so is that the Church of Rome added a couple of centuries to its age to gain legitimacy: in other words, a conspiracy of early historians.

I mentioned published dendro curves. The rub here is that most dendro data are never published. They are kept as in-house secrets in dendro labs in order for these to be able to sell their services to archaeologists. So when the amateurs challenge the professionals’ opinion, all the latter can reply is “We know we’re right but we can’t show you how we know”. And that is of course an unscientific approach to the issue. The amateurs rarely get access to 1st Millennium wood samples, and basically have to work with the past 1000 years in their own studies. And so they cultivate a dissident opinion that could swiftly be laid to rest — or be accepted as fact — if wood samples and measurement databases were only made public.

My guess, though, is that any Roman archaeologist could solve the controversy quite easily, perhaps even using published radiocarbon dates. All you need are a couple of well-sourced dates for contexts known to be from about the time of the first emperors, such as Pompeii. (But if you know that a context is from that time, then you have very little reason to pay for radiocarbon dating.) Because although the calibration curve for radiocarbon depends on dendrochronology, several of the available datasets are not from European wood samples. And there is of course no inherent bias about where on the diagram the fall of Rome should be in North American dendrochronology, for instance.

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Page 17 Stamp

Anyone who uses the Library of the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters more than briefly will soon discover that its staff has a thing for page 17. Every book in that excellent library carries a stamp of ownership on that page.

Last night I was reading Frans G. Bengtsson’s 1947 essay collection För nöjes skull. A bit into his piece about Fagertärn, the little lake near Stjernsund whence the red pond liles once came, I found the stamp of the Saltsjöbaden Municipal Library — on page 17.

Is this secret tradition among librarians restricted to Sweden? To libraries of the 1940s and ones of today with long traditions? Dear Reader, please check any library books you have at hand, and if there’s an ownership stamp on page 17, tell us the name and location of the library.

Update 27 March: The page 17 thing must be pretty widespread. Only in the past three hours, at least three people have arrived here after googling “library stamp p. 17”, “why libraries stamp on page 17” and “book stamp p. 17”. Too bad they aren’t commenting.

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