by Elizabeth Stell and George Prew
Very often archaeology in its perverse way will present us with an object with no obvious function. It may have been a misshapen Stone Age mousetrap, a Mayan hole punch, or a Roman cat carrier – we will never know.
When the artifact turns up in a modern day trench, more likely than not, at least one person will try to avoid the question of what it is by labelling it a ‘ritual object’. After all who are we to question the funny practices of the Romans/Mayans/Stone Age people? Feeling that this is a job well done, the archaeologists scrape off the dirt, tie a label onto it (literally this time), and head off for their tea break.
In fact, it is seldom acceptable to leave it at that.
The fact that people do leave it at that highlights that there seems to be a common perception that a ‘ritual object’ is an object that has no actual function.
But let’s consider for a moment what ritual objects, and indeed what rituals, we have in our own lives.
The term ‘ritual’ in our day to day lives often refers to those things which we do over and over again primarily for the reason that… we do them… we just do. We might need to do them, we might not, it is not this that makes them rituals but the fact that we do them over and over and over again without really thinking.
If we stopped doing them, even if we did them with any less regularity, they would not be rituals. These rituals are, therefore, glorified habits. The more we do them the more they are rituals and the less they really mean anything. The further we get through term the more they are cemented and we take them for granted.
Like the objects dug up in the first paragraph, they gather dirt and lose their meaning because we do them because we do them and without any further thought.