Pedersen, M. A. (2001) ‘Totemism, animism and North Asian indigenous ontologies’

This week’s paper is by Morten A. Pedersen who is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen.

Kate Leonard proposed this paper and wrote the following summary.

The paper:

The paper is structured around an investigation of three possible interpretations of North Asian ontology: totemism, animism and perspectivism. These three ontologies are explained using ethnographic examples and are linked to social organisation.


This article examines the extent to which new theories of animism advanced by Descola and Viveiros de Castro are consistent with the indigenous ontologies of North Asia. Based on a survey of North Asian ethnography and on fieldwork in Mongolia and Siberia, it is proposed that an analytical distinction between animist and totemist modalities will shed light on indigenous ontologies in North Asia. Whereas the ontologies of Northern North Asia (NNA) are predominantly animistic in nature, the ontologies of Southern North Asia (SNA) are predominantly totemistic. This opposition falls in line with established anthropological distinctions concerning North Asian societies, such as the one between ‘horizontally’ and ‘vertically’ organised social formations. Finally, adopting Viveiros de Castro’s notion of ‘perspectivism’, I address the question of why, when perspectivist notions seem to thrive in NNA, the societies of SNA do not show them.


North Asian Animism (or Animic system) is defined as an understanding that most natural entities have an “interior aspect” which may be very “soul-like” in some cases (e.g. human or bear) and more spirit-like in other cases (e.g. cooking fire), and that all of these entities exist in the same social or natural realm in that they have empathy (or “analogous identification) for each other. However, certain entities are not able to communicate with any others and are therefore isolated. As Pedersen states: “The basic shape of North Asian animist cosmology, therefore, is a whole with holes in it” (2001, p.416).

It is suggested that an animic system can only really succeed in a social environment which is characterised as horizontal: charismatic leadership, egalitarian ethos, bilaterial descent, direct exchange, etc).


Pedersen suggests that in Southern North Asia the prevalent ontology is more totemic than animic.

Totemism is defined as “a particular relationship between social entities and natural species”, in other words: “what matters, what makes a society totemist, is the fact that the difference between Species A and Species B is similar to the difference between Clan 1 and Clan 2” (Pedersen 2001, p.417). Social spheres still consists of human and non-human entities, as with animism, but in a totemic ontology there is a distinction or separation between different groups of humans as well, and only shamans can move between these spheres (as one group member stated: the shaman is the queen in the game of chess).

A totemic system is linked to a vertically oriented society: inherited leadership, hierarchy, patrilineal descent, indirect exchange, etc).


In a perspectivist ontology most natural entities have a “soul-like” quality, like animism, but the way each entity perceives the world is fundamentally different due to the fact that they are not physically similar. Pedersen considers perspectivism to be a “stronger” version of animism.

North Asian Ontologies

For Pedersen, the three ontologies discussed in the paper are closely linked to the relevant social organisation. It is not suggested that a distinct separation exists between the three, but rather they represent extreme ends of a sliding spectrum.

Main points of the group discussion:

I proposed this paper as I felt it explicitly laid out the author’s own conception of what animism and totemism entail and how they could be illustrated using examples from ethnography and anthropology. As part of my broader PhD research into ritual in LBA Ireland I am interested if it is possible to isolate and identify aspects of prehistoric ontology and cosmology, and in a related vein to see how this can highlight prehistoric social organisation.

Present at the Reading Group this week were myself (Kate Leonard), Eve Campbell, Karina Hensel, Thor McVeigh and Ros Ó Maoldúin. Most of the comments were positive (which doesn’t always lead to a lively discussion) but there were also some issues raised relating to the connections made between the ontologies and how they are linked to social organisation.

It was stated that Pedersen seems to see cultures as bounded units. This point led to a discussion surrounding cultural identity and how religious systems are not individual, they are a cultural commodity.

Another major point of discussion was Pedersen’s relation of cosmology to social structure, it was suggested that this is depicted as a ‘trajectory’ and that this ‘trajectory’ only applies to his own study area of North Asia. In particular footnote #2 was cited, which discusses an Australia example which contradicts Pedersen’s model. All group members thought it would be interesting to see if the model proposed in this paper fits or is contradicted by other cultures.

The discussion concluded with the following question (of which no answer was forthcoming): Can you have a shared cosmology between two different ontologies?


Pedersen, M. A. (2001) ‘Totemism, animism and North Asian indigenous ontologies’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 7(3), 411-427.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Damm, C. 2005 ‘Archaeology, Ethnohistory and Oral Traditions: Approaches to the Indigenous Past’

This week’s paper is by Professor Charlotte Damm and entitled ‘Archaeology, Ethno-history and Oral Traditions: Approaches to the Indigenous Past’ (Damm 2005).

Ros Ó Maoldúin proposed this paper and wrote the following summary.

The author:

Charlotte Damm was recently appointed Professor of Archaeology at NUI Galway. This is a double first, as she is the first female and first foreign Professor of Archaeology appointed at a University in the Republic of Ireland (Queen’s University Belfast got in a few months ahead, for the first of both, on the island of Ireland). Professor Damm conducted her PhD research at the University of Cambridge and most recently held the post of Professor of Archaeology at the University of Tromsø, Norway.  Her research interests include: Late Stone Age in Northern Scandinavia, Gender and other social identities in past societies, and Regional and interregional contacts.  Further details on her research interests and other publications can be found at: (

The paper:

Professor Damm’s paper is concerned with the different approaches taken toward the ‘interpretative narrative’ of the past of ‘Indigenous groups’, and the ethical challenges ‘European archaeology’ faces in being involved with projects abroad. As the title suggests, she categorises those approaches to ‘Indigenous Past’ into three groups: Archaeology, Ethno-history and Oral Traditions.  She considers each of these approaches in turn, labelling Archaeology: ‘the archaeology of us’, Ethno-history: ‘The history of other’, and Oral Traditions: ‘Indigenous History’.

Considering (European) archaeology she critiques the ‘implicit evolutionary view, with early European civilisations at the top of the ladder’ (p. 73) but suggests ‘while archaeology was late in recognising… indigenous demands for a past… these are now at last being met with increasing awareness’ (p. 74). For Professor Damm the question is ‘how is it possible to approach the past of indigenous groups, and who is best able to do so?’ (p. 74)    

Considering the North American approach of ‘Ethno-history’ she emphasises its similarities with the European based ‘archaeological prehistory of non-industrialised or indigenous societies’ (p. 74). She points out that both ‘rely… on social anthropology’ and ‘the aim in both cases is to write the past of people earlier ignored or marginalised… providing the story of the colonised as well as that of the colonisers’ (p. 74). Quoting the work of Toby Morantz (1998), a Canadian ethnohistorian, she points out how ‘both ethno-history and archaeology in many cases explore aspects of the indigenous societies that may not be central to their self perception and to their idea of history’ (p. 75) and therefore questions whether we can genuinely consider these as ‘indigenous history’ (p. 75).

Considering ‘Oral Traditions’, Professor Damm emphasises how they ‘are not static narratives, but active, social processes’ that may be ‘structured by contemporary relationships and influenced by current issues’ (p. 76) and suggests we should therefore ‘not romanticise oral traditions, claiming that they are necessarily more ‘true than western history’. ‘Story telling is… (after all) central to social and political negotiations’ (p. 77). While acknowledging that many oral traditions may bear little resemblance to ‘history in the scientific sense of the term’, Damm follows Cruikshank (1991, 13) in stating that both are ‘organised systems of knowledge’, and ‘that oral traditions may be just as important and relevant even though they do not fulfil scientific standards’ (p. 77). However, because oral traditions are constructed within their own cultural context and potentially contain ‘motifs or metaphors’ which only an insider of that culture would understand, she admits that ‘there is not always easy access to understanding and interpretation for an outsider’ (p. 78).     

This leads her to question whether there are two incompatible narratives. She begins by considering previous attempts to combine ‘indigenous knowledge and western prehistory’ (p. 78). She does not view it as necessary, as some studies have, to validate facts in oral traditions with western science, and believes this ‘only prolongs a colonising attitude toward oral traditions’ (p.78). However, she does believe western science (ethno-history and archaeology) can benefit from oral traditions in the interpretation of ‘particular… phenomena’, but emphasises that care must be taken to avoid ‘mining indigenous groups for western scientific purposes’ (p. 78) and provides Denton (1997) as an example of a successful combination of different traditions ‘carried out with respect’ (p.78).

She then explores the recent approaches of ‘Community Archaeology’ and ‘Multivocality’. Under community archaeology she considers Zimmermann’s ‘vision of an ethnocritical archaeology’ (1977) ‘where research questions and methods are negotiated’. While Damm sees negotiation operating well within the realms of cultural heritage management, despite ‘interest from the academic side to develop collaboration to cover wider interpretative research aspects’, she sees ‘few cases where research questions are genuinely being proposed or altered by the local communities’ and warns we need to consider the wider implication of integrating approaches to the past (p. 80). This is particularly apt in dealing with groups whose primary focus is from necessity ‘basic issues such as health and equal access to social welfare and jobs’, who cannot act as ‘equal partners in the debate over their history’ (p. 81). Here, for Damm, ‘Multivocality’, where ‘oral traditions and western scientific interpretations should not subsume each other, but exist side by side as equal but different’ (p. 81), is preferable. Drawing on her experience with the Sámi, she argues that ‘it is the duty of scholars working with indigenous communities in an initial phase of cultural revitalisation to encourage them to hold on to their oral traditions’, that the promotion of cultural homogeneity may at first be beneficial, and that ‘heterogeneity and merging of perspectives may only (be) possible after an initial phase of acknowledgement of indigenous values’ (p. 82)

Considering ‘insider and outsider perspectives’ Professor Damm acknowledges Morantz and Cruikshank’s view, ‘that oral tradition in its purest sense is best reserved for the local communities themselves to explore’ (p. 82) but concludes ‘co-operation may produce insights above and beyond individual contributions from either cultural context’ (p. 83). Here she introduces the ‘indigenous researcher’, who she believes, despite the potential challenges of a hybrid status represents a ‘great promise for the future’.

She is ‘sympathetic to Zimmermann’s ethnocritical archaeology which points towards a future where neither group thinks in terms of the “them::us” dichotomy’, but believes ‘for many groups this prospect is still far into the future’ (p. 83-84). However she concludes that while ‘the most fundamental problem is that we often portray groups… as essentially different’, ‘interventionist practice… to point to the silence of the subaltern and to deconstruct the institutions and regimes that have made and continue to make, the subaltern’ (p. 84) is often first necessary.

Comments from our group:

The initial reason for choosing this paper was that Professor Damm is newly resident at our department. However, judging by the increased responses (looking for the paper when we accidently sent out the wrong PDF), the issues in this paper are of interest and relevance to many of our postgraduate researchers.

The first thing to say about our meeting this week is that it was a lively discussion and that the paper probably raised more questions than comments in outright criticism or support. For that reason rather than the usual list of comments I have decided to list a few questions this week. As usual we welcome any comments….

  1. Should the past of different groups be treated differently because of modern socio-political context?
  2. Can research be conducted on the past or present indigenous groups without ‘mining’ for data?
  3. Should archaeologists be concerned with archaeological interpretation, with development of indigenous groups, or with both?
  4. What duty of care is incurred through working with indigenous groups?
  5. Since indigenous groups are not homogenous entities could oral traditions in themselves be part of an institution of repression?
  6. Should folklore or tales from Irish documentary sources (such as the Lebor Gabála Érenn) be treated as equal to scientific knowledge?
  7. What about creationism? Should religious understandings of the past be considered equal to scientific knowledge?

Where to get a full copy

A full copy of the article can be obtained through the following URL : ( If you are at a University make sure you are logged into your library account and you should have no problem with access.  For copyright reasons we cannot post a PDF of the paper but if you have problems accessing the paper let us know and perhaps we will be able to offer further advice.

Damm, C. (2005) ‘Archaeology, Ethno-history and Oral Traditions: Approaches to the Indigenous Past’, Norwegian Archaeological Review, 38(2), 73-87.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Joanna Brück. ‘Women, Death and Social Change in the British Bronze Age’

This week the article was ‘Women, Death and Social Change in the British Bronze Age’ by Dr. Joanna Brück, published in 2009 in the Norwegian Archaeological Review. Comments on the article by Mark Hall (2010), and a response to the comments by Brück, were also considered by the group.

The article was proposed by, and the following written by, Kate Leonard.

The Author

Dr. Joanna Brück is a Senior Lecturer at the UCD School of Archaeology, where she has been employed since 1999. She is active in Bronze Age and Material Culture studies as well as exercising an interest in theoretical archaeology. Among other activities Dr. Brück is a member of the Executive Council of the Prehistoric Society and a co-founder of the Bronze Age Forum. For more information please visit the UCD School of Archaeology web page:

Summary of Article


“Both cremation and inhumation were employed in the British Early Bronze Age, and the significance of the distinction between these practices has long been a matter of debate. Many authors have argued that the choice of mortuary treatment reflects differences in status. Inhumation burials often occupied central positions in Early Bronze Age barrows, while cremations were placed in satellite locations. In turn, the apparent gender differences between these mortuary rites – men tended to be inhumed while women were frequently cremated – is seen as indicating that women were of lower status than men. This paper will challenge this model, arguing that cremation was a strategy designed to facilitate the retention and circulation of ancestral relics by fragmenting the human body. As such, the differential treatment of men and women wits not the result of status distinctions, but reflects their different positions and roles within Early Bronze Age kinship Structures. In particular, the circulation of the cremated remains of the female dead played an important role in facilitating social, material and biological reproduction through the maintenance of inter-group relationships. The practice of cremation resulted in the construction of Particular concepts of the self – concepts that under-pinned the transformations in the technological practices and social landscapes that took place at the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age. As such, women’s roles in these changes must be considered afresh.” (p.1)


Brück sets out the development of the study of Bronze Age mortuary treatment, focusing on the accepted assumption that males were inhumed in central positions in barrows while females were cremated and placed in ‘satellite’ or ‘secondary’ positions around the male inhumation. This is linked to a predominant conception of the Early Bronze Age where males are conceived as active agents  while females are “characterised as passive” (p.2). This is suggested to be linked to a modern Western understanding of gender division as it is by the patterning suggested by the archaeological record.

Inhumation and Cremation in Early Bronze Age Britain

Following a scientific approach to the data, Brück analyses a random sample of 544 individual British Early Bronze Age burials from 62 sites published after 1960, all of which included a specialist osteoarchaeological report to ensure that the sexing of the bones was reasonably secure. Even so, there were only 141 individuals which could be accurately sexed. The available data is considered in terms of number of inhumations vs. cremations regardless of sex, by examining the proportion of cremated males vs. cremated females (and the same with inhumations), and by considering these data chronologically. From her analysis, Brück concluded that although the data points to more males being inhumed and females cremated, this is indicative of a general trend rather than a strict gender division, due to the perceived overall shift to cremation over the course of the Bronze Age.

Cremation and Social Status

Brück examines the possibility that cremation does not immediately imply low status. She suggests that the labour intensive and dramatic nature of cremation could as easily denote high status on individuals. Furthermore, she states that “ it has often been argued that mortuary rites cannot be considered a simple reflection of the social order” (p.8). In other words, various elements contribute to the manner in which an individual is treated at death, especially those individuals who perform the cremation or inhumation. No strong conclusions are made, instead Brück points to the need for further study in this direction particularly in terms of a review of incorrect sexing of Bronze Age burials that may have been made pre-1960.

Cremation and Fragmentation

The Bronze Age phenomenon of ‘token’ cremation deposits is discussed. These are those cremations which do not contain the ‘complete’ individual, in some cases this is perhaps due to taphonomic processes but in others this was likely a cultural choice. The data analysed for this article also suggested token deposition, and although it is noted that sexual dimorphism is a contributing factor the large difference in weight between the male and female cremations is described as “dramatic” (p.10). Brück suggests that this is due to fragmentation of the body: the dispersal and curation of bone fragments by other members of the deceased community. The section is concluded by stressing the further work necessary in this area of study.

The Body and the Self

The Bronze Age trend away from group mortuary treatment towards individual inhumation or cremation deposits is examined. Brück points out that there is a tendency for scholars of this subject to impose modern Western post-Enlightenment conceptions of what exactly an individual, or status, is onto the archaeological evidence. Alternatively, the concept of a ‘dividual’ self is proposed. This is a perception of the self as an amalgamation of various social elements which are developed and augmented over the course of a lifetime. Brück states “that the fragmentation and circulation of human bone indicates the development of a ‘dividual’ concept of the self rests not only on the treatment of the human body itself, but also on aspects of the production, circulation and deposition of artefacts both in and outside the mortuary context.” (p.13)

Gender and Personhood

If the data is correct in the fact that females were more frequently cremated than males, and that when cremated their remains were more extensively dispersed, what does this imply? Brück suggests that this may indicate that females were considered to be more ‘dividual’ than males in the Bronze Age, possibly reflecting patterns of marriage and an associated non-fixed or fluid concept of identity. This is linked to the social position of females who can act as ‘mediators’ between their community of birth and the community they move to upon marriage. She qualifies these points my stressing that the idea of a fluid female identity does not necessarily suggest that male identities were any more individualistic or cemented: “The fact that women’s bodies were fragmented and dispersed more frequently and to a greater degree than those of men simply indicates that the position of men and women in the kinship structures of the Early Bronze Age was, in general, different.” (p.15)

Production, Reproduction and Exchange

This section comments on the author’s previous work which has investigated other instances of fragmentation in the Bronze Age, as well as the hypothesis that these fragmentations are connected to broader conceptions of life, death and rebirth not only of humans but also of artefacts such as pots or bronzes. This idea is in turn associated with the development of networks of interaction during this period, especially in terms of the movement of people and goods (again related to marriage exchange and alliance). It is in this section that the main crux of the argument is clearly stated. Mainly that human bone was fragmented and dispersed during the British Early Bronze Age in a reflection of the “cyclical flow of life” (p.16) and an acknowledgement and reinforcement of the connections between groups which the cremated individual represented.

Women and Social Change

Brück places the trend towards increased frequency of cremation in its broader Bronze Age social context, in terms of the development of metalworking technology, landscape organisation and subsistence systems. Again these elements of the social structure are linked to a cyclical conception of life and death, for people and goods. These developments are seen as springing from the new Bronze Age perception of personhood (as opposed to the technological advances facilitating the development of individual identities) with female members of the community “at the forefront of these developments” (p.18).


‘Comments on Joanna Brück: (Norwegian Archaeological Review 42(1) 2009)’ by Mark Hall

Hall’s main criticism is that while Brück’s article “looks at issue’s of personhood and sex, she avoids discussing whether these patterns are due to chance or if they have any statistical significance” (p.77).

To assess the validity of the patterns noted in the article, Hall uses the WinBUGS software to apply Bayesian statistical analysis. He also compares the Bronze Age sex ratios noted by Brück to modern human populations. The conclusions are that that the ratio of males to females noted from the Bronze Age data presented by Brück is reflective of modern human birth ratios and that “The burial mode is conditionally independent of the sex of the deceased.” (p.82)


Reply to ‘Comment by Mark Hall: Statistics or Socio-Politics: What Gives archaeology Its Value?’ by Joanna Brück

In this response Brück stresses that the main aim of her article was not to statistically analyse and present data but to comment on the assumptions made by archaeologists regarding gender status and identity in prehistory. The purpose of the article is not to ‘prove’ that one interpretation is better or more accurate than another. She clearly states:

“Very often, regardless of what patterning is identified in the data, this is interpreted as indicating the political, social and economic pre-eminence of men. What I wanted to explore, then, was whether it was possible to interpret the same data in a different way. In other words, my principal intention was to reveal and to challenge preconceptions regarding gender roles in the Bronze Age.”

She then refers directly to the comments made by Hall and addresses his interpretation of the statistics in the context of the noted trend towards increased overall frequency of cremation over inhumation from the Early to Middle Bronze Age. Brück also again raises the issue of the small size of the available data set which must cast doubt on the significance of any noted patterning (perhaps implying both Hall’s and her own). However, it is stressed that it is the investigation of the patterning which is important, both for the archaeological investigation and for a better understanding of the present.

Opinions of our group:

I proposed this paper as my own research focuses on ritual activity in the Irish Late Bronze Age, and I am interested in the reinterpretation of traditional assumptions made about possible socio-political motivations behind many ‘non-functional’ prehistoric activities. It also seemed fitting to finish this reading group ‘season’ with an article written by a senior academic working in an Irish university who applies a structured, even processual, approach to the argument but is still highly engaged in theoretical discourse.

Present at the Reading Group this week were myself (Kate Leonard), Eve Campbell, Karina Hensel, and Ros Ó Maoldúin. Although everyone enjoyed the article (in particular comments were made that its strong structure and clear language made the argument easy to grasp), the initial comments focused on the small size of the data set and whether this limited the strength of the argument. Another initial criticism was that while group members were positive about Brück’s response to Hall, they would have preferred to have had these points made in the body of the main article.

The suggestion that the central inhumations were of higher status than the secondary or ‘satellite’ cremation burials incited a strong response. Some group members asserted that if something is central then it does indicate social importance, and it was countered that Brück did not necessarily contradict that suggestion. Also, the possibility that the central position in the barrows indicated status in life as well as in death was discussed. The exact nature of what was meant by the term ‘status’ was considered to be unclear, and it was stressed that status shouldn’t be presented as part of a larger social/cultural ‘checklist’ alongside gender, age and geographic location.

The next main issue that arose was Hall’s off-hand comment concerning female infanticide (p.81). This provoked a strong response from the group, who all agreed that this is a highly loaded term/concept which was completely out of place in this context. Furthermore, any number of other examples could have been used to illustrate possible explanations for “a skewed sex ratio in the burial record” (p.81). It was also suggested that while Hall seemed to have understood the available data to represent a portion of the whole, in fact there is no evidence to support this contention (we in fact do not know how the majority of Bronze Age individuals were treated upon death, perhaps it follows that both the inhumations and cremations at barrow locations indicate a high status).

Evidence for fragmentation and exchange, in relation to movement of women during the Bronze Age was seen to assign a measure of agency to female members of the communities in question. Brück situates women in the position of mediators or ‘brokers’ between their communities of birth and those of their marriage, which was considered to be a plausible interpretation by the group. It was also noted that it is rare for an author to be so explicit in giving females a clear social role in the past, usually there is an implicit understanding that women had agency but this is still in contrast to the distinct roles as ‘warrior’, ‘smith’ or ‘chief’ often assigned to Bronze Age males.

In contrast, some group members were not sold on Brück’s conception of personhood. It was though that although she is touching on a theme currently fashionable in archaeology there was not enough substance to the argument. However, it was maintained that she did attempt to historicise the Bronze Age in order to illustrate the length of time over which changes in the concept of personhood and identity were taking place. This incited a discussion over how archaeologists can avoid being teleological but still investigate general trends. No clear conclusions were found.

It was pointed out that the author did not necessarily get to the root of the difference between inhumation and cremation. In response it was countered that the purpose of the article was really to discuss and highlight the gender bias. This led to a discussion on whether or not the sample adequately supported the model. It was suggested that often a processual approach necessitates a data set on which to construct the argument.

Overall, the article was well received by the group. It was even suggested that Brück was overly modest and cautious in how far she pushed her interpretation. In particular, the highlighting of important/interesting avenues of further research was seen as valuable and thought provoking, especially in conjunction with the use of a model which could quite easily be applied to future research. However, some arguments were left open ended and we were all cautious about Brück’s comments in her Reply about using archaeology to reflect on modern society, although she does qualify this by stating:

“…employing the archaeological record as a means of challenging social roles, values and expectations in the present is as valid a purpose for our discipline as attempting to accurately reconstruct a ‘genuine’ past.” (p.85)


Bruck, J. (2009) ‘Women, Death and Social Change in the British Bronze Age’, Norwegian Archaeological Review, 42(1), 1-23.

Hall, M. and Brück, J. (2010) ‘Women, Death and Social Change in the British Bronze Age, Comments by Mark Hall on Joanna Brück: (Norwegian Archaeological Review 42(1) 2009)’, Norwegian Archaeological Review, 43(1), 77 – 85.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Frank J. Korom ‘Of Navels and Mountains….’

This week’s paper was by Frank J. Korom, titled ‘Of Navels and Mountains: A Further Inquiry into the History of an Idea’, published in Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 51, 1992.

This paper was proposed and the following written by Karina Hensel.

The Author:

Frank J. Korom is Professor for Anthropology and Religion at the University of Colorado. His background lies in folklore, diaspora studies and transnationalism (to pick just a few) mainly in Asia and the Middle East. He has written extensively on ritualism, myth, folklore, diaspora and pilgrimage.

further info:

Mircea Eliade was a Romanian historian and philosopher whose concepts specifically of religious symbolism and myth have had a profound, far-reaching and lasting influence on 20th century scholarship in religion, anthropology and other areas.

The Paper:

The main argument in his article is a critique of Eliade’s concept of the axis mundi as the ‘center of the universe’, which Korom sees as an incongruous generalisation of an idea that should be reserved only for certain cultural and religious contexts.

In this very well structured essay Korom introduces the uninitiated reader to Eliade’s concept of the axis mundi as a ‘centre’. He takes time (or in this case 2 pages) to familiarise the reader with Eliade’s core points as summarised in The Sacred and the Profane (1959). He also makes a particular effort to trace the scholarly traditions which influenced and guided Eliade, arguing that they “are by no means new, for there are traceable precedents”.
In the main part of the essay Korom demonstrates the reasoning behind his (and Eliade’s other critics) point of view concerning Eliade’s generalisation of the concept of the axis mundi, and his own stance towards a comparative approach, which he then in the conclusion very clearly notes down.

Opinions of our group:

When I came across this essay in the context of my research I was primarily interested in the various perceptions and connotations of the axis mundi, and also found it appropriate to suggest it for our weekly discussion group. Present beside myself were Ros Ó Maoldúin, Kate Leonard and Eve Campbell.

That we were confronted with Eliade for the second time in a row is pure coincidence, but also shows that ‘the world’s most influential historian of religion’ (Brittanica, Academic Edition) is still talked/studied and argued about by his followers and critics alike, and his concepts and approaches are still part of modern anthropological/archaeological, religious and theoretical discourse.

This paper was heavily criticised from the onset for different reasons by all but myself (at least at this point in time).
Beside the fact that I found this paper very well structured and written, Korom’s argument and conclusion seemed reasonable. Furthermore, during my research of the symbolism of the Tree of Life I often come across the term axis mundi, which I felt was too often used in a too general concept.

However, critique was laid towards Korom’s original intentions of writing this paper, for he could be perceived as using Eliade and his concepts/line of reasonings as a ‘strawman’, who, unable to respond personally (for he died in 1986), is a convenient target, and his concept of the axis mundi therefore made invalid or its value at best diminished. “This is not to say… that the concept of the axis mundi does not exist somewhere in the world, in a specific context.”
It also seems that Korom’s criticism only exists to make himself heard, for he does not supply new, fresh ideas to an already ‘aged’ debate, considering that Sacred and Profane was written in 1959.

Although it is a valuable exercise in general trying to trace the scholarly ideas and traditions which formed Eliade’s own ones, it seems rather petty when 6 out of 14 pages are ‘devoted’ to prove that his ideas and theories are actually not unique. Beside the fact that we are not living in a vacuum and are influenced by certain fashions and ideas, Korom didn’t seem to take into account the difference of scholarship/theoretical approaches. Albeit he acknowledged Eliade’s “quasi-phenomenological approach”, he failed to recognise that his own strictly processual position is naturally on a direct colliding course with Eliade’s.

“The symbolism of a stationary temple-building culture, for example, is not equivalent to that of a nomadic, tent-dwelling one. Here is where Eliade’s concept must be applied cautiously. The concept of a mythic axis mundi can be a useful analytic tool or phenomenological category only if it is grounded in specific, not in vague examples applied within an atemporal and aspatial theoretical framework.”
First, if we find common markers of the concept of the axis mundi in cultures not connected with each other and living on opposite ends of our inhabitable world, like the Mayan and the Scandinavian one, we at least have to acknowledge that this concept might be the result of a common cognitive process. Formulating this idea using an atemporal and aspatial framework seems then to be an appropriate action.
Secondly, if both stationary temple-building culture and nomadic tent-dwelling one have a common idea (like the axis mundi) which might be expressed in a pillar and/or pole, then it seems that there is the possibility that their symbolism can be viewed as equivalent.

These are only a few opinions expressed during a very stimulating debate, and now writing this summary the validity of the criticism seems very appropriate to me. Yet, I have to admit that I still have my reservations when it comes to the generalisation of the concept of the axis mundi as the ‘center of the universe’, especially when it is brought in context with the Tree of Life.

If you are interested in reading this paper and you have access to JSTOR, just click here.

Korom, F. J. 1992. Of navels and mountains: a further inquiry into the history of an idea. Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 5, pp. 103-125.

Eliade, M. 1959 (1987). The sacred and the profane: the nature of religion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mary Helms. The master(y) of hard materials: Thoughts on technology, materiality, and ideology occasioned by the Dover Boat

This week’s paper is by Mary Helms and entitled ‘The master(y) of hard materials: Thoughts on technology, materiality, and ideology occasioned by the Dover Boat’ (Helms 2009) and was initially presented at the second Dover boat conference, September 2006, Dover, England.

It was proposed by, and the following was written by, Ros Ó Maoldúin

The author:

Mary Helms is Professor of Anthropologist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the United States. She is author of numerous important anthropological text books, many of which have been highly influential in archaeology. Many northwest European prehistoric archaeologists have particularly relied on ‘Ulysses’ Sail: An Ethnographic Odyssey of Power, Knowledge and Geographical Distance’ (Helms 1988), perhaps most notably, Kristiansen and Larsson in their ‘The Rise of Bronze Age Society: Travels, Transmissions and Transformations’(2005).

The Dover boat:

The Dover boat is a Bronze Age sewn plank boat, three and a half millennia old (1575-1520 cal BC), found in 1992. It is arguably the oldest sea going boat found in Europe, is remarkably well preserved and is now on display at Dover museum. It has stimulated numerous academic papers, at least three books (Clark 2009a, Clark 2004a, Clark 2004b) and “has given physical form to the abstract notion of maritime voyaging and overseas social contact, contributing to a renewed appreciation of the nature and importance of sea travel to prehistoric communities” (Clark 2009b, 4).

The paper:

In her article, Helms concentrates her thoughts on the ‘project overseer’ responsible for the construction of the boat, the magical elements potentially involved, and the cosmological significance of the boat. Through consideration of various examples from late Antiquity, and the Middle Ages, she seeks “broad guidelines helpful in thinking about the builders and building of the Dover boat”. In these, and through drawing on the work of Eliade, she finds a common thread of belief, where “trees, stone and ore are rooted in and thus derive from the cosmological realm of the living earth” and their harvesting “requires awareness and careful management of these intangible forces”. From this she concludes that her ‘master of hard materials’ would have become “a liminal being (not unlike a shaman) who personally embodies extraordinary creative power”. She further suggests that although “the Bronze Age is recognised as an era when technological techniques and craft specialization become especially elaborated”, because of the interconnectedness between these materials “such a builder and overseer was a master of hard materials in general” (wood, stone and metallurgy) many of which would have been used in the construction of or later transported the Dover boat.

The species selected for the boats construction, Yew and Oak, are admitted of functional value, but also “recognised as cosmologically special” and imbuing the boat with “energising potency” and “magical protection”. Examples of the use of Yew and Oak, in Bronze Age and Anglo-Saxon contexts are given in support. The approach of building the boat ‘planking first’ as opposed to ‘frame first’ is also seen as “not trivial”, but rather as “giving primacy to creation of a barrier that will separate and distinguish between interior space and exterior space”. This barrier is linked to the wider concept of enclosures as “a fundamental ideological construct of the times and its cultures” as evidenced by contemporary buildings, henges and barrows, and compared with Celtic, Scandinavian and Germanic beliefs. For Helms all these factors culminated to preserve the space within the boat “in existential order and safety, from the dangers of the non-sacred or ‘disorderly’ conditions outside the boat’s perimeter” and she postulates a “ritual consecration… presided over by… our master of hard materials”.

In relation to the demise of the Dover boat she considers Pryor’s (2004) suggestion that they were ritually disposed (like other hoards of later prehistory) and wonders if her master again played a ritual role. In relation to the practice of hoarding she offers a very exact opinion “my position, simply stated, would begin with the assumption that depositional objects, like material-living wood and living ores (stone) – believed to be redolent with the cosmological life force of the earth that originally generated them. I then posit that Bronze Age people believed, as many traditional cultures have, that if human society takes living, energised materials from the world of nature for human use, then human society has the obligation to return life energy to the earth to replenish the store so that the cosmological cycle of life, the renewal and regeneration of all living things, may continue”. For Helms “the conception of every child… the seeding of every field” is a “repeat of the original cosmological creation”. She sees skilled craftsmen, through the act of creating, as replicating this process and through removing impurities, as transforming items into packages of “rarefied, purified, concentrated life force”. These then become perfect for “replenishing the energy of the earth, to act as substitutes for deities and re-create the earth’s original potency”.

Finally to consider the potential status of her ‘master of hard materials’ she describes the deference given to the Ollamh, master builders of traditional Irish society, and to the medieval monastery chamberlain (camerarius). Parallels are also drawn with the process in which a member of the Arawakans of southern Brazil become a leader through mastering all the arts and the personification of these attributes in the Celtic god Lugus and the Germanic Odin.

In conclusion she suggests her ‘master of hard materials’ was “bridging and making connections with realms and regions beyond or outside of local society proper… cosmological realms and cosmographical regions (the boat’s destinations) representative of more ‘distant’ space and time. Through his expertise, living matter, technological skills, and the energising potencies of the cosmos would have coalesced to create a vessel that, in its completed physical form and consecrated social and ideological functions, interrelated and embodied these attributes, too”.

Opinions of our group:

I proposed this paper as I am particularly interested in prehistoric maritime travel and how interaction between peoples may have affected social change. Since Mary Helms has been influential in the formulation of many recent archaeological theorists’ interpretation of interaction in Bronze Age Europe, I am especially interested in her work. Also since Helms is an anthropologist, rather than someone from an archaeological background per se (although the two are intrinsically connected humanities), I felt it more difficult to pin down her approach. I found the paper fascinating but very generalising and wondered how others would view it.

Along with myself, the proposer (Ros Ó Maoldúin), Eve Campbell, Karina Hensel, Kate Leonard and Brendan Kelly were present. After introducing the paper my colleagues were quick with their comments. One first stressed that Helms seemed to be coming from a position very reliant on the work of Eliade, which sees a common core in all belief systems, and a number of people agreed that these have been subject to much deserved criticism since first proposed. I could tell others were none to impressed by the paper either, and felt it was too generalising, especially in relation to the barriers and enclosures. In particular one felt some of the pondering on barriers, bordered on the pointless. Another seemed a little more appreciative of the paper, but I think also shared some of the critical viewpoints.

I was a little surprised with the generally negative reception the paper received. Helms’ view of hoarding received particular criticism. Personally, on first read I did think it a gross oversimplification, however, after further thought I think her point was to interpret the central meaning, and not concentrate on all the minor differences in detail that we as archaeologists normally focus. After all it is the human condition we hope to gain a better understanding of. Whether most understanding may be found in our differences or the things we share is an interesting question, but perhaps one for another day….

Helms’ paper definitely stimulated debate. I have only put a few of the opinions expressed down here. I think we discussed our views of its merits and faults for over an hour and a half, not bad for an 8.25 page article.

For copyright reasons we cannot post a pdf of the paper but I hope you can get an idea of its content from my synopsis above. If you are interested in reading the paper the reference is listed below and it is in a book available at all good Universities, or from someone you might know going to a good University.

Clark, P. (2004a) The Dover Bronze Age boat, Swindon: English Heritage.

Clark, P. (2004b) The Dover Bronze Age boat in context: Society and water transport in prehistoric Europe, Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Clark, P., ed. (2009a) Bronze Age Connections: Cultural Contact in Prehistoric Europe, Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Clark, P. (2009b) ‘Introduction: Building New Connections’ in Clark, P., ed. Bronze Age Connections: Cultural Contact in Prehistoric Europe, Oxford: Oxbow Books, 1-11.

Helms, M. (1988) Ulysses’ Sail: An ethnographic odyssey of power, knowledge, and geographical distance, Princeton: Princeton University press.

Helms, M. (2009) ‘The master(y) of hard materials: Thoughts on technology, materiality, and ideology occasioned by the Dover boat’ in Clark, P., ed. Bronze Age Connections: Cultural Contact in Prehistoric Europe, Oxford: Oxbow Books, 149-158.

Kristiansen, K. and Larsson, T. B. (2005) The Rise of Bronze Age Society: Travels, Transmissions and Transformations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pryor, F. (2004) ‘Some Thoughts on Boats as Bronze Age Artefacts’ in Clark, P., ed. The Dover Bronze Age Boat in Context: Society and water transport in prehistoric Europe, Oxford: Oxbow Books, 31-34.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Hello world!

Welcome to the NUIG Post-graduate Archaeological Theory Reading Group’s blog. Each entry is based on our discussions of a paper selected by one of our members. Please feel free to comment and add to the discussion.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment