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Ritual and Ideology


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The study of prehistoric religion and ideology emerged as part of a reaction against the emphasis on "hard" facts, environmental reconstructions, settlement patterns, and subsistence data prevalent in archaeology beginning in the early 1960s. This newfound interest in the meaning of the past led to attempts to understand the cognitive basis for social action—the mental structures and framework of ideas that people internalize and use, often without reflection. It became apparent to archaeologists that, because such mental frameworks provided the basis for everyday behavior, their traces could be found in even the most common material remains they had already studied but without realizing their significance for cognitive research. It was this linking of microlevel material culture (pottery decoration, house orientation, burial posture) to macrolevel mental structures that made the study of prehistoric religion (often glossed as "ritual") and ideology possible. In addition, this linkage demonstrates the importance of religion—as a series of principles for the understanding of both long-term structures and everyday social action.

Traditional archaeologists tended to view prehistoric religion and ideology as the Holy Grail of their discipline, and as the most difficult nonmaterial elements to be identified from material remains. Processual archaeologists were more optimistic, identifying the cognitive, which included ritual and ideology, as one subsystem within a total behavioral system of human communities. It was only in the 1980s, with the advent of post-processual archaeology, that the cognitive moved center stage and the pursuit of meaning began to dominate accounts of prehistory. This led to a different kind of archaeological writing, in which the grand narrative became less important than detailed, interpretative accounts of often small-scale patterning.

meaning of terms

Because it is difficult to find properties to distinguish ritual from secular acts, many prehistorians adopt the view of ritual as an all-encompassing phenomenon, a view that originated with the French anthropologist Émile Durkheim (1915). These authors leave themselves open to the criticism that they cannot exclude any kind of structured formal behavior (e.g., the game of cricket) from the ritual domain. The opposite problem lies in establishing a rigorous dichotomy between ritual and secular, or symbolic and practical, action, as in Colin Renfrew's 1985 study of the shrine at the Aegean Bronze Age palace of Phylakopi. If ritual is bracketed out and studied in isolation, it becomes difficult to understand how social agents moved between political and ritual domains. One alternative is to build on John Barrett's 1991 insight that ritual and symbolic knowledge is constructed from the same material conditions as daily life and that participants create ritual by situating their own bodies and the symbolic associations that color everyday life within that ritual. Similarly, Joanna Brück maintains that the beliefs underlying ritual are expressions of the values, aims, and rationales that shape everyday practical action, so that rituals represent people's practical engagement with material conditions—a way of causing desired things to happen. Thus rituals can mark important social transitions and renewals through the creation of relationships between this world and the other world, between people and time, and between people and place.

The classic Marxist position that ideologies were used to maintain relations of dominance and thus had to be concealed from the people—that ideologies promoted "false consciousness"—was challenged by the French Marxist Louis Althusser (1984), who saw the material existence of ideology in all human practice as mediating between consciousness and action. This view of ideology, however—as a particular way of understanding the world, a set of cosmological beliefs and values for getting on in the world—tends to lead to the undesirable outcome of excluding social power from consideration.

A useful distinction can be drawn between ideology as theory and ritual as practice: they are not diametrically opposed, but each creates and recreates the conditions for the existence and growth of the other. Nevertheless, a prehistoric society's ideology can be neither consistent nor unified; it will contain both internal and external contradictions and many different readings of the "same" rituals—differences that can be used by prehistoric communities and individuals as a source of power.

forms of evidence

Colin Renfrew identifies four classes of evidence pertaining to ritual: (1) verbal testimony about religious activity, (2) direct observation of cult practices, (3) study of nonverbal records (depictions), and (4) study of material remains of cult practices. The last two classes are relevant for later prehistory. Most prehistorians agree that the context of discoveries and their relationships are key elements in using material evidence; now that the meaning of ritual and ideology has been broadened, it is possible to employ a far wider range of evidence than the British prehistorian Christopher Hawkes had in mind when he established his infamous "hierarchical ladder of inferences," with religion as the most difficult stage to reach. Rather than a chronological approach, this discussion takes a biographical approach, looking successively at things, individuals, dwellings, sites, and monuments and landscapes, making use of a wide range of temporal and spatial scales of analysis.


The artifact, or item of material culture, lies at the heart of the archaeological enterprise. Until the late twentieth century, however, it was often treated as an inert result of the application of technology. Now that closer relations have been detected between things and people and things and places, the metaphorical significance of artifacts—what they can stand for—is better appreciated. An important strategy, which depends on the material persistence of artifacts, is termed "presencing": here an artifact can bring absent people and places into their immediate context. Thus an exotic Neolithic flint axe found in Austria can convey the prestige of a successful exchange and can presence its makers and traders in Scandinavia.

Each stage of transformation in the life of an object, as in that of a person, is surrounded by ritual and often secrecy. Karen D. Vitelli's study of some of the earliest pottery made in Europe—the seventh-millennium b.c. pottery from the Franchthi Cave in Greece—shows how pottery making itself was a prestige activity, based on esoteric knowledge, with each vessel carefully shaped and fired individually. Several different potters produced a few pots each year for ritual usage on special occasions rather than for everyday cooking or storage. Pottery was ideologically important because it was a completely new kind of object in the material world of early farmers, the beginning of a local tradition.

Pottery can also stand metaphorically for social relations and even architecture. In his study of the Late Neolithic pottery for the Barnhouse village on Orkney, Andrew Jones demonstrates that large decorated vessels kept in house niches for the storage of barley appear in the same relative place as the skulls stored in the niches of nearby communal tombs. When archaeologists match each stage in the making of a vessel with a stage in round house building, they also reveal the metaphorical wealth of material culture in its linking of pottery, food, dwelling, and death in the Neolithic worldview on Orkney.

Jan Apel's study of the beautifully crafted flint daggers of the Late Neolithic of Scandinavia (fig. 1) shows how a stoneworking tradition became the vehicle for the dominant social values of the community, which were transmitted from generation to generation through the manufacture of the daggers. He argues for a hereditary fraternity whose members manufactured rough forms of daggers in places near flint sources remote from the settlements; master knappers then finished them off at home, in the full view of the community. As symbols of male prestige, the daggers were traded from the Arctic to the Alps. Hence specialized craft production and long-distance trade were two ways in which tangible objects could be charged with intangible, supernatural powers that brought their owners honor and prestige.

Richard Bradley has identified a long-term trend (3500–1 b.c.) in later prehistoric Europe—the disposal of artifacts and human body parts in watery places such as bogs, rivers, and lakes. Regional practices alternated over time between predominantly dryland burial in graves and wetland disposal; these alternating practices sometimes involved changes in artifact type, from weapons to ornaments to tools, or different preferences regarding sacrifices of persons or animals or offerings of things. This practice of structured deposition perpetuates a significant relationship between people, places, and objects.

The example of miniature fired clay figurines from the fifth millennium b.c. Cucuteni group in Romania and Moldavia shows how making and breaking are conceived as part of a single ritual cycle of birth and death. The making of the figurines (fig. 2) from three equal-sized balls of clay pressed together facilitates the breaking of the body into several fragments, each standing for the whole figure and for the social relationships that link their owners and users. Most of the figurines have been deliberately broken in settlements and the fragments reused before final deposition—a negotiation of social roles using objects.


Recent research into the fundamental ideological question of what constitutes a person has recognized three possible conceptions: (1) a Western conception, in which the individual is "bounded" by her or his skin and seen as someone separate from all other individuals; (2) a Melanesian conception, in which the person is figuratively divided between all other persons with whom she or he has a social relation; and (3) an Indian conception, in which the person changes gender over the course of her or his life through the metaphorical and actual exchange of bodily fluids. Prehistorians have identified examples of such "partite" beliefs about personhood in the Neolithic of northwestern Europe, where the bones of the deceased are often moved around the landscape, and in the Neolithic of southeastern Europe, where figurines can change gender by having their sexual parts broken off.

Rituals surrounding key human rites of passage—birth, age grades, marriage, and death—are ubiquitous in anthropology, but it is difficult to identify the first three in prehistory (for birthing rituals, see Beausang 2000). Joanna Sofaer Derevenski has overcome the difficulties of sexing children's skeletons by extrapolating from the strongly gendered burial positions of adults. The result for the fourth-millennium b.c. Copper Age cemetery of Tiszapolgár-Basatanya in Hungary is a series of artifacts—tools, ornaments, or pottery—each associated with a different life stage for each gender. This shows how things can symbolically represent people, just as persons are consistently linked to objects.

It is important to distinguish between ancestor rituals, those used to transform the deceased into ancestors, and funerary rituals, those used to bury the dead. Two explanations are advanced for the piles of bones, frequently disarticulated, found in the megalithic "tombs" of the northwest European Neolithic. The ossuary hypothesis states that primary excarnation (removal of the flesh from the bones) occurred elsewhere, with burial of selected bones in the megalith. In the second explanation, the megalith was the place of primary burial, with bodily decomposition occurring in the tomb and selected bones being removed after the fact. Both explanations imply that the transition from deceased to ancestor required the loss of flesh and the survival of the bones alone.

Bo Gräslund posits the idea of multiple souls—a body soul that leaves the body at death and a dream soul that is released in the transition to the other world—to explain a set of practices in Bronze Age and Iron Age funerary ritual in northern Europe that differs from those of the Neolithic. Grave goods in inhumations are never burned, but grave goods are burned in cremations or are absent altogether. He suggests that, to be of any use on the spirit journey, the grave goods have to be placed near the corpse at the very moment when the dream soul sets out on its journey (in the grave or on the funeral pyre).

In the European Bronze Age, there is a major shift from an ideology of place and community to one privileging individual identity and personal display. A concern with the body and its appearance can be seen in the adoption of new toilet articles (razors, tweezers, and so forth) designed to fix in death the image of warrior beauty. These visual stimuli aiding in social categorization are apparent in personal costume and clothing; Marie Louise Stig So⁄rensen identifies a proliferation of ornaments designed to accentuate the body and its movements in the Middle Bronze Age (c. 1800 b.c.). The weapons, costumes, gold ornaments, and mirrors of the Iron Age accentuate the visual signs of this ideology of external appearance, often in the context of warrior graves that contain exotic drinking sets imported from Mediterranean states.


The dwelling not only embodies personal meaning but also expresses and maintains the ideology of prevailing social orders. The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan sees architecture as the "pre-text" for handing down traditions, rituals, and cosmology. In small-scale societies, localized cosmologies often embed the uniqueness of time, locality, and place in their architecture. Since dwellings resemble people in their birth (construction), growing up (use life), and death (destruction or dilapidation), the body often acts as a temporal metaphor for the dwelling. In addition, the orientation or cardinal points of the dwelling are frequently linked to cosmological schemes.

Ian Hodder's important long-term study of 1990 explores changing Neolithic social structure through the concepts of the domus—the importance of domesticity, the home, fertility, and productivity—and the agrios—the outside zone of hunting, warring, drinking, and exchange. Hodder identifies the groups in Neolithic Europe that place a high symbolic and practical value on dwellings, contrasting them to a sizable number of more mobile communities that do not build impressive structures. He interprets the tensions between the domus and agrios principles as a driving force for cultural change in much of Neolithic Europe.

One of the most remarkable sites in sixth- to fifth-millennium Europe is Lepenski Vir, in the Iron Gates gorge of the Danube in Serbia. Here pottery-using foraging communities that lived close to early farming groups constructed trapezoidal dwellings whose shape resembled the nearby mountain of Treskavac and matched the form of an unusual burial. Lepenski Vir neatly illustrates the significance of color symbolism: the dwellings' red limestone floors were metaphorically linked to the red ocher powder used in human burials, the red paint or burn marks on the monumental sculptures placed inside the dwellings, the predominantly red Neolithic pottery, and the dazzling red of the autumnal forests of the gorge. In this way, the living, the dead, nature, material culture, and architecture were integrated within a single ideological structure.

The well-preserved sandstone dwellings of Late Neolithic Orkney reveal a symmetrical plan, with a central hearth of symbolic as well as practical importance, especially during the long winter darkness. The division between the left and right sides of the house has been interpreted as a gendered division of space, based on available light and artifact disposal. As in the megalithic tomb of Maes Howe, whose passageway is oriented toward the setting of the sun on the shortest day of the year, the hearths in the houses are oriented to the sunrise and sunset of the winter and summer solstices. Thus the cosmology of Orcadian society is built into the inhabitants' daily lives, as a framework for dwelling.

An important long-term ideological concept in the British Bronze and Iron Ages is the circular house plan, which remained consistent for two millennia. Here the key architectural focus is the entrance, sometimes emphasized through a deposition of objects near the door. In the Bronze Age, the doorway faced east, toward the midwinter and equinoctial sunrise; inside the household space was divided into two gendered halves based on household activity. Nevertheless, in the Middle Iron Age, c. 500 b.c., the doorways of the more impressive houses were shifted to face the center of the hillfort, to recognize the prominence of a central person, perhaps the community leader. Thus a profound reorientation in Iron Age society is seen in a change in the orientation of the basic dwelling unit, the house.

The death of a house can be peaceful and accidental, or violent and deliberate, as in the burning of Neolithic houses in southeastern Europe. At Opovo, a Neolithic site in Serbia, each of the houses was burned down individually, with different firing temperatures and different fire paths, each requiring the addition of fuel to complete the destruction. Often amounting to several hundred objects, the artifacts in a burned house were laid out formally, probably as "grave goods" by the "mourners." House burning must have been the centerpiece of a spectacular rite of passage for the whole village.

European prehistorians have often debated the relationship between Neolithic longhouses (for the living) and long barrows (for the dead). Richard Bradley has interpreted the mound formed by the collapse of a longhouse, with its flanking clay pits, as the visual parallel of a long barrow. Hence a settlement could contain a variety of houses—some active and some dead, with enclosure ditches sanctifying the space around a dead house. Both of these examples indicate how close houses for the dead were to houses for the living.

sites and monuments

If individual houses offer a stage for the unfolding drama of ritual life and constitute the underpinnings of ideological structures, entire sites and monuments provide a wider arena for the expression of the community worldview through everyday social practices. Recent approaches to sites and monuments identify two important themes: the transformation of space (natural, unoccupied) into places (meaningful, cultural, and lived in); and the ways that communities related past, present, and future to their own lives through those places.

Many societies have "domesticated" natural caves by performing an underground ritual. Ruth Whitehouse's study of the complex Neolithic and Copper Age cult cave of Porto Badisco in southern Italy shows how people divided up the space with stone walls, left pottery to catch water from dripping stalactites, and painted almost one thousand motifs on the cave walls. The paintings comprise abstract motifs, artifacts, and handprints but especially figural motifs, both human and animal, most of them in hunting and gathering scenes. The largest and most accessible chambers featured figures, both women and men, most in scenes, while the more remote chambers featured the juxtaposition of men and abstract designs symbolizing the most secret transformations of elements in ritual narratives.

On Mont Bego, at an altitude of 2,900 meters in the French Alps, Copper Age societies engraved an estimated 100,000 figures onto an expanse of soft-colored and polished schist, thus marking a natural place with complex cultural symbols. Parallels to the motif combination of adult male, metal dagger or halberd, plow, and draft oxen are found on gravestones and in tombs in the adjacent lowlands. This suggests an ideological emphasis on male warfare and agriculture. Because of snow cover, the mountain was accessible only during the six summer months, when shepherds or pilgrims made the ascent, perhaps as part of a male initiation rite.

The Bronze Age settlement of Leskernick in southwestern England comprised a series of dry stone-walled houses and enclosure walls on a rocky granite hillside, overlooking a standing stone complex. The ritual significance of the rocks for every aspect of daily life could be seen throughout the settlement—in situ boulders incorporated into house walls, enclosure walls joining up dense boulder patches, stones cleared away from impressive rocks, and the base of other boulders surrounded by smaller stones. Communal knowledge of the significance of rocks tied the settlement to the timeless granite structure of the moors.

A very different type of settlement is the tell, an artificial mound of occupation debris rising above lowland plains in southeastern Europe. The fifth-millennium b.c. tell of Polyanitsa in Bulgaria exemplifies the practice of building one's house above where one's ancestors once lived, to link everyday action to traditional, ancestral lifeways. The higher the tell, the greater the time-depth of previous occupations, time-depth being the basis of ideological power in a tell-filled landscape. Polyanitsa also illustrates, with a clarity rare in prehistoric Europe, formalized village planning based on the axis mundi (axis of the world).

Megalithic tombs link current usage not only to the past, through the ancestors, but also to the future, through the construction of a monument made to last for many generations. This is well exemplified by the massive Neolithic monument of La Hougue Bie in the Channel Islands. The original Middle Neolithic conical cairn was faced with smooth stones and stood 19 meters high with a diameter of 60 meters, far larger than any contemporary dwelling. The cairn's monumentality was enhanced by buttresses and a perfectly symmetrical horned entrance to the forecourt. In the Late Neolithic, a single body buried in a cist within the chamber symbolized the change toward an individualizing ideology. Height and monumentality continued to attract people to the monument; two medieval chapels were built on top of the mound and were in turn incorporated into a Regency folly.

The impressive mound of Hochdorf concealed one of the very few Early Iron Age "princely" graves not robbed in antiquity; its monumental bulk masks a diversity of timescales in the funerary ritual. The wooden burial chamber itself took five years to build. Some grave goods (clothing and jewelry) belonged to the deceased in his lifetime, others were made after death, some in the actual chamber (gold coating on shoes, drinking horns); still others were introduced at the moment of burial (a wagon was dismantled to fit through the door and then reassembled). Then, long after the main burial, those seeking to be associated with the famous prince were buried in the side of the mound. The interplay of different timescales and artifacts with various biographies creates a narrative richness comparable to the material wealth in the tomb.


Felipe Criado Boado and Victoria Villoch Vázquez define four fundamental dimensions of landscape: physical space, social space (for human use), symbolic space, and perceptual space. By "perceptual space" they mean the way the landscape is sculpted and shaped, which in turn shapes individual perceptions. Many other prehistorians are equally concerned with the ways individuals understand and interpret the landscape—a major divergence from past approaches to landscapes. Both groups, however, agree that the landscape is socially constructed, shaped by people's social practices, including rituals. One elaboration of this approach is to designate landscapes dominated by public monuments as "ritual landscapes"; however, this notion simply reinstates the sacred-profane dichotomy, which Brück and Barrett dispute. An important advance is the recognition that the landscape itself, especially rocky outcrops, waterfalls, and pools, is the source of the sacred.

Criado Boado and Villoch Vázquez conclude that the placement of Neolithic megaliths in a Galician upland zone, northwestern Spain, articulates and organizes the entire cultural landscape through their permanence and high intervisibility on all major routes across the uplands. Along the north-south axis of movement, there is a series of basins with poorly visible megaliths alternating with flatland containing megaliths located for high visibility; on either side of the axis of movement are contrasting viewscapes, high, open hills to the east, low depressions to the west. The paths across the landscape connect the settlement world of the living to the megalithic world of the dead, with circular territories strongly expressing the domain and control of the megalith builders and their descendants.

An approach based more on individual perception of the landscape is Vicki Cummins's demonstration of the close visual relationship between mountains and Neolithic megaliths in southwestern Wales. Most megaliths have excellent views of dominant mountains and rocky outcrops on the skyline—views that often crystallize as one approaches the monument. The visual similarity of megaliths to skyline outcrops suggests that these monuments represent an early stage in the creation of a mythical past by the living through the appropriation of a timeless nature. A later stage of appropriation involves the removal of rocks for monument construction, such as the bluestones taken from Wales to Stonehenge.

Christopher Tilley identifies two dramatic natural features on the south coast of England—the Isle of Portland, with its immense limestone cliffs, and the 15-meter-high storm beach of Chesil Beach—as the landscape inspiration for Neolithic monuments on the nearby Maiden Castle, a high chalk "island" standing out from the surrounding low terrain at the end of a long ridge. The Neolithic enclosure on Maiden Castle hill resembles the Isle of Portland in its shape, just as the steep sides of the hill resemble the Portland cliffs. The unusual bank barrow (a linear mound 547 meters in length) on top of Maiden Castle hill so closely resembles Chesil Beach in size and morphology that the barrow can be said to represent the beach. These visual metaphors help clarify how Neolithic communities used the dominant features of their landscape to construct their own cultural worlds. The visual links between the monuments on Maiden Castle and the coastal features are reinforced by the plentiful finds of coastal shells and Portland chert tools inside the enclosure.

In the Mediterranean, fourth- and third-millennium b.c. Malta was characterized by the construction of more than thirty temples, whose thick, ocher-painted stone walls created the atmosphere of a tomb. In his investigation of the rise of Maltese temple society, John Robb suggests that the temples were the meeting place for the belowground world of the ancestors and the aboveground world of the living. Their flat, low, earth-covered exterior resembled an island when seen from a distance. Just as islands were inhabited metaphors—natural symbols of boundedness—so Maltese Copper Age communities not only lived on an island but also created one, a cultural island whose temples defined their local ritual identity.

It is not only nature that provides symbolic resources for prehistoric communities; it is also monuments from earlier periods. For example, in southwestern Ireland, there are more than one thousand known megalithic monuments, constructed in four cycles during the Neolithic and Bronze Age. William O'Brien explains that the Iron Age population of this region used the dominant orientation of all four main classes of megalithic monuments to the southwest—the sunset land of the dead—to maintain and develop the sun cult of the past. In this part of Ireland, the Iron Age inhabitants resisted most external innovations (except living in hillforts), instead emphasizing their own links to the past as represented by the ancestral monuments, which both surrounded them and provided the basis for rethinking and reinterpreting past and present.


This is not a grand narrative, a sweeping panorama of the evolution of ritual and ideology over six millennia of European prehistory. Instead, this essay seeks to identify signposts on the road, to explore how prehistorians have started to grapple with the implications of a major insight, namely, that ritual and ideology fill every aspect of our lives. The sea change in prehistoric archaeology in the last decade of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first consisted of a nuanced search for large-scale structure in everyday gendered social action. The ubiquity of ritual and ideology reinforces the key role they play in modern prehistory.

See alsoHochdorf (vol. 1, part 1); Franchthi Cave (vol. 1, part 2); Late Neolithic/Copper Age Southeastern Europe (vol. 1, part 4); The Megalithic World (vol. 1, part 4); The Neolithic Temples of Malta (vol. 1, part 4).


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John Chapman

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Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.