Tuesday, May 21, 2013

0185 – “Structured depositions” in pits and ditches

Porto Torrão ditched enclosure. Exacavation of ERA Arqueologia in 2002 (Valera & Filipe, 2004)

This is an issue present in every ditched enclosure, not only related to the ditch fillings, but also to the pit ones.

There, we can frequently find totally articulated bodies, articulated parts of bodies or scattered bones of animals (or humans). The question, for some time now is always the same: “Is it ritual or rubbish?” (Hill, 1996)

An example is the depositions of some animal bones in a pit between two ditches at Porto Torrão (Valera & Filipe, 2004). There some jaws of different animals and part of a horse limb in anatomical connection were recorded between several small stones. “Is it ritual or rubbish?”

Porto Torrão ditched enclosure. Exacavation of ERA Arqueologia in 2002 (Valera & Filipe, 2004)

The problem here is the traditional difficulty of dealing with human intention in Prehistoric Archaeology and the debate around the expression “structured depositions”.

This expression has been used to fill a semantic emptiness that results from the critics to the use of the modern concept of garbage applied to these contexts. That criticism is supported in the idea that what is today not sacred and understood as waste in a mechanical negligible way, without meaning, might, in different social contexts be of profound significance. Then, structure deposition is a concept that emerges to avoid an impetuous projection of modern reference systems to the past, allowing other reasons to emerge. Nevertheless, as Olsen (2000) stresses, it tells us little about those reasons.

The questions remains; what means an articulated limb of a horse in a pit, associated to two jaws (of a pig and of a possible sheep)?

Recently, taking into consideration the association of animal limbs to human funerary contexts, I and a colleague argued around a possible answer (Valera & Costa, in press):  

Because of these particular ontological frames, archaeology should pay equal attention to animal remains as it does to human remains in archaeological survey (Olsen 2000): orientation, position, represented parts of the body, conditions of those parts, individual attributes (e.g. age, gender, size, pathologies) and contextual associations. Only then will it be possible to detect patterns that allow us a glimpse into their world view that are not restricted to simple economics.

In this context the abundance of limbs or parts of limbs stresses the importance of segmentation, also present in practices involving human bodies, certain categories of artefacts and even the communities, so appropriately called segmentary societies.  Segmentation seems to be a social strategy of significant importance to societies in Recent Prehistory (Valera 2010).

The problem of segmentation is related to the problem of the relation between the part and the whole, and to the different value attributed to the degrees of physical integrality developed in different mental frames. As J. Chapman (Chapman 2000; Chapman & Gaydarska 2007) argued for the fragments of artefacts, we consider that the part and the whole may assume the same symbolic role (through an ontological parity), allowing that the part, by participating of the essence of the whole, to play the social role of maintaining connection between people or between people and places or events. When a part is present, that does not necessarily mean the occurrence of post depositional activities that disordered the original context. On contrary, we must consider the possibility of an intentional segmentation and that the part was deposited as so. But because of the principle of psychological participation, that part (a fragment of a pot, a paw of an animal) may be evocative of bonds between persons and events. For instance, to a ceremony involving the burial, to previous events that were important to the group, even to events to happen in the future or maintaining bonds to the social role and power of an object or animal.

As argued elsewhere (Valera 2008), this is a cognitive mechanism where the psychological principle of participation works allowing essential properties of the whole to be participated by the part, establishing a homology between them. It is the principle of the sacred water, where each segment represents the whole body of Christ and not a part of it. Segmentation is a structural process, where the need to segmentation and sharing and redistributing essences plays an important role in renewing and perpetuating the social and cosmological order (Fowler 2004).

In this context, the fragment of a body acquires a quite different social potential and presents challenging problems to our perception of the relations between the part and the whole, and to our concept of unity. To us, those relations are conformed by Cartesian geometry that establishes dichotomies between complete/incomplete; whole/part; orientated/disorientated, valuing and attributing meaning to the first and insignificance to the second.  This would not be the most appropriate mental frame to deal with other mental schemes, based in different categories and world views. Fragments should not be devalued, for they have the potential to establish and maintain bonds, assuming relevant social roles. “ (Valera & Costa, in press)

Bibliographic References
Chapman, J. 2000. - Fragmentation in Archaeology: people, places and broken objects in the Prehistory of South-Eastern Europe, London, Routledge.
Chapman, J. & Gaydarska, G. 2007. - Parts and wholes: fragmentation in prehistoric context Oxbow Books.
Fowler, C. 2004. - The archaeology of personhood. An anthropological approach London, Routledge.
HILL, James D. (1996), “The identification of ritual deposits of animals: a general perspective froam a specific study of ‘special animal deposits’ from the Southern English Iron Age”, (S.Anderson e K. Boyle, Eds.) Ritual treatment of human and animal remains, Oxford, Oxbow Books, p.17-32.
Olsen, S. L. 2000. -The secular and sacred roles of dogs at Botai, North Kazakhstan Crockford, S. (ed) Dogs through time: an archaeological perspective Oxford, Bar International Series : 71-92.
Valera, A. C. 2008 - Mapeando o Cosmos. Uma abordagem cognitiva aos recintos da Pré-História Recente, ERA Arqueologia 8 Lisboa, Era Arqueologia/Colibri : 112-127.
Valera, A.C. & Costa, C. (in press), “Animal limbs in funerary contexts in southern Portugal and the segmentation problem”.
Valera A.C. & Filipe, I. (2004), "O povoado do Porto Torrão (Ferreira do Alentejo): novos dados e novas problemáticas no contexto da calcolitização do Sudoeste peninsular", Era Arqueologia, 6, Lisboa, ERA Arqueologia/Colibri, p.28-61.

1 comment:

  1. I disagree completely with this interpretation, for several reasons:

    Colin and Richard's (1984) notion of structured deposition is too vague a notion, in fact, it is so vague that anything that does not conform to standard ideas of deposition can be considered structured deposition. For example, bone mounds outside of structures at Catal Hoyuk is considered a "structured deposition" (Rusell and Martin 2000) as are single bones within pits (Hill 1995, 1996). Structured deposition has been a term that has been used and abused to simply explain things that are beyond are explanation or that have a much simpler explanation: "Structured depositions explain atypical (sic) deposits in prehistoric contexts" (1995:95).

    The presence of bones, whether animal or human, must first be understood through formation theory - can the bones result from secondary or tertiary deposition while backfilling? The characterisitics of the deposits within the pits and ditches is evidence of artificial backflling or not - and during backfilling, soil that contains secondary material (sherds, bones, etc) could have gone into the pit unintentionally.

    By simply opposing the concept of ritual practice (structured deposition) to the one of modern discard, several other options are ignored - bones in ditches need not be necessarily ritual, in the strict sense of the term, or thrashing.