Barbara Bender, Sue Hamilton, Christopher Tilley

Adapted for the internet by Paul Basu

The Rituals of Routine Practice

Once upon a time there used to be a little black box labelled 'ritual'. In it the archaeologist put anything that did not have a 'sensible' explanation, anything surplus to everyday requirements, This little black box was at the top of Christopher Hawkes's (1954) in-famous ladder of inference. It contained, he thought, the ambivalent evidence, the least easy to uncover, and the most subjective to interpret. He felt, fortunately, that being far removed from the economic necessities of 'making a living', this top of the ladder stuff was not dreadfully important. It was the icing on a technological and economic cake. And, of course, Lewis Binford in his own inimitable way, came to rather the same conclusion (Binford 1972). He argued that what we had to worry about was what people did, not what they thought. What people did was adaptive, and conformed to cross-cultural norms, what they thought about the world was particular, quirky, historical, and not open to generalisations. And so the 'new archaeology' was born with 'ritual' as a little subsystem of a wider functioning whole. And so, too, with 'landscape'. The conventional approach developed in archaeology emphasised topography, technology, resources, and land-use: what was 'done' to the land, rather than how people engaged emotionally, subjectively, and variably. The emphasis was on individual sites and their catchment areas or, more recently, on the relationship between sites. Very rarely did archaeologists lift their eyes from the ground and consider how site, field boundary, monument, and stone row related to the wider landscape. Curiously, when, on occasion, archaeologists did look beyond the site, they by-passed the landscape to consider relationships to the sun, moon, and stars.

The past 15 years of discussion, debate, and research in archaeology have led most of us to reject such a position. It is not possible to divorce doing from thinking; ritual cannot be marginalised. Indeed, it now seems very obvious that, in all societies, past or present, the ritual arena is central to the reproduction of power and authority. Consequently ritual, ideology, and symbolic meaning have been pulled back from the margins and granted an important position in our interpretations.

This shift of emphasis has been most keenly felt in the study of ceremonial monuments. There is now a rich and varied literature on the roles that monuments played in the past, and on the construction, offerings, ceremonies, and patterns of movements in and around and between ritual sites. Archaeologists have spent a lot of time thinking about cemeteries, megalithic monuments, enclosures, henges, and ceremonial ways. Latterly an exploration has begun of the ways in which processions and formal patterns of movement link ritual sites across the landscape. (eg Barrett 1994; Bender 1992; 1993; Hodder 1990; Thomas 1991; Tilley 1993; 1994). Crucial to all these studies has been the understanding that people don't just think and see things, they experience them physically and emotionally, from a particular point of view. They move around, go in and out of places, congregate, and disperse. They can move in certain directions, but not others, and at certain moments, but only when the time is right. Places and pathways, public and private places, 'backstage' and 'frontstage', and all the places in between, help to shape this world of ritual experience. Much of what happens is constituted by the past, by tradition, by what is already there. Ancient places are reused and transformed as people, through their physical encounter with particular places, rethink the past.

A great deal of the discussion of monuments and ritual practice still focuses on questions about the reproduction of authority and hierarchy. Despite our best attempts, there has still been a pre-occupation with leaders and regional elites, with vertical distinctions between people. The other more horizontal distinctions that animated life within and between communities in the past have tended to be neglected. These are the kinds of distinctions based on family and kin affiliation, whether you are a woman or a man, and all the different grades of child- and adulthood. All these social differences, and a person's sense of what would be expected of them, would have been brought into sharp relief in the course of activities conducted at the ceremonial monuments. A person's understanding of the world would be shaped by their varied and particular participation in, and understanding of the significance of, the events going on around them, and would be linked to the reproduction of power and authority.

But the great ceremonies would only punctuate the rhythm and flow of daily life. The formation and maintenance of beliefs about the world, acceptance of and resistance to authority, would be constituted in such seemingly mundane activities of collecting water from the spring, walking through a village, chatting with a neighbour over a field boundary wall, tending flocks, planting and harvesting the fields, being able to see distant hills and remembering the myths and stories about them. Archaeologists have long appreciated that building or entering a house, and the internal divisions of dwellings and their relationship to each other are imbued with symbolism. They are no less 'ritual' and 'symbolic' than stone circles or stone rows. The symbolism is just less obvious and overt, more embedded. A house may embrace, in its construction, morphology, and use, an entire cosmology of the world, an intricate network of social distinctions, an elaborate schema informing every social practice, in which the realms of 'ritual' and 'making a living' are not separated, but form part and parcel of each other.

Yet archaeologists have neglected domestic spaces and there have been few attempts to integrate an understanding of them with the use of the ceremonial monuments. Ian Hodder's (1984; 1990) work on the significance of house spaces in prehistoric Europe and Colin Richards's work on Orkney (1993) are notable exceptions. In part the reason is pragmatic. In large areas of lowland Britain and Europe settlement traces do not survive or the sheer scale of excavation required to provide even a minimal ground plan of buried post-holes and structures is enormous, But there is also another background realm of assumptions and prejudices at work. Recent approaches, mentioned above, still tend to maintain a distinction between sacred or ritual landscapes, and secular or mundane landscapes. In both conventional and more avant-garde work in archaeology there lurk, even at the moment of their denial, unwarranted distinctions, which we have used already in this paper: sacred/profane; ceremonial/everyday; public/domestic. We may try to escape these binary oppositions, but somehow they remain. Hence although we might acknowledge that houses and settlements are imbued with ritual and symbolism, we still, characteristically, tend to regard them as more profane, more 'normal', more 'practical' and more 'functional' places than stone circles or cairns.

This says a lot about 'us' and rather little about 'them', the prehistoric inhabitants. We create in our own lives a distinction between the 'religious' and the 'secular', the 'symbolic' and the 'functional', We compartmentalise the world. But these categorisations are a chimera. In the contemporary world every aspect of our daily routines are imbued with symbolic meaning - from the food we eat to the way we dress, to the way we act when we go shopping, or go to work, or conduct an archaeological excavation. Symbolism, 'ritual', 'ceremony' do not form dimensions of our lives but fill every aspect of them. There is an unbroken continuum from the act of purchasing a shirt to going to a wedding. During the wedding ceremony the symbolism will be highlighted through the words used and the material culture (rings, costumes, formal movements) employed. But it is everywhere else as well, so much part of the structuring of our consciousness, that we take it for granted. It becomes 'common-sense', a daily routine, that is all the more powerful precisely because it happens every day and is taken for granted.

Understood in this way, there is no part of a prehistoric landscape that is not mediated by people's understanding of their world. Landscapes are not inert matter sitting 'out there', waiting to be exploited, houses are not built simply to provide shelter. They are conceptualised, seen, smelt, touched, used, avoided, near or far away, in terms of people's identities and cognitive understandings.