2.2 Ritual and structured deposition

The ritualistic component evident from Roman wells is one of many examples of what archaeology can bring to our understanding of 'magical' practices (Merrifield 1987). This has received more attention recently than hitherto, both within the Roman period and beyond, as a result of the post-modernist critique of functionalism. A recent study of remains of ravens and crows found in the base of Iron Age and Roman pits, for example, shows how interpretation has moved from seeing these birds as food or killed for their feathers or when scavenging, to relating their deposition to ritual activity — birds as companions, perhaps familiars having commensal relationships with humans due to their 'voice' (Serjeantson and Morris 2011, table 6; see also Eckardt 2011, 304ff).

One facet of this post-processualist promotion of new forms of interpretation is an increased emphasis on the notion of 'structured deposition' (see Garrow 2012 for a discussion of its development as a concept). An initial, brief Neolithic study (Richards and Thomas 1984), followed by more detailed Iron Age analyses (Hill 1995), argued that placing particular sets of finds (for example pottery and flint, plus animal or human bones) in specific contexts (for example pits or ditch terminals) was indicative of complex social practices. Others within and beyond prehistory then took up the challenge to define these special deposits, placing both methodological demands on fieldwork and theoretical demands on subsequent analysis and interpretation.

In methodological terms, such studies can only work if stratigraphic and deposit information is integrated with artefactual and ecofactual studies. Excavation in carefully controlled conditions is needed to generate worthwhile datasets, conditions more likely to be fulfilled in modern fieldwork than before. Thus, for example, Fulford's study of Insula IX in Silchester (2001, 201ff) suggests links between Roman and pre-Roman ritual practices. Yet interpretation of evidence generated in late 19th/early 20th-century work is entirely dependent on more soundly based knowledge derived from his own, more recent, excavations.

Good-quality evidence is needed to research structured deposition properly, but it is not sufficient. In particular, there is the question of definition. Chadwick (2012) has recently questioned whether we should attempt to differentiate the 'technical' actions of rubbish disposal from deliberately 'placed' deposits at all, on the grounds that it is extremely difficult to do this, and that the distinction reflects an inappropriate modern dualism. Instead, he proposes, we should accept that there is a continuum from 'big' ritual to small-scale, everyday practice. Yet being difficult does not make it impossible. Also all archaeological interpretation imposes modern concepts on the past to allow interpretations to emerge that are relevant to the present. Finally, the existence of a continuum does not, in itself, remove the need to clearly define two ends of a spectrum: the existence of shades of grey does not preclude the utility of concepts such as black vs. white.

How might these limits be defined? Advocates of such investigations, when attempting to delineate suitable deposits, set out a number of characteristics that are deemed to be relevant: ceremonial, deliberate, formal, formalised, intentional, non-utilitarian, odd, peculiar, placed, ritual, selected, special, symbolic, token and unusual (Garrow 2012, 93). For that author, this diverse list 'speaks volumes about the adaptability of the original idea' (Garrow 2012, 94). Yet, for the present authors, it rather runs together three concepts that would be better kept apart: the social context in which an activity takes place (ceremonial, ritual, symbolic — vs. quotidian, presumably); associated human actions guided by motives (deliberate, placed, formal(ised), intentional); and the character of material remains that might be used to recognise such contexts and actions (non-utilitarian, selected, odd, peculiar, special, token, unusual).

In what follows, then, we accept that many, if not all, archaeological occupation deposits are a product of human intention: thus almost everything we find might be structured in some way. Ritual activity must be a product of collective intentionality, but not all intentional actions are ritualistic in character. The notion of ritual is relational and context specific (Bell 1992), but one way to distinguish this sub-set is to look for the placing of particular finds in a specific setting for reasons other than the simple disposal of material that is no longer needed in circulation.

This position, however, raises the question of recognition in more explicit form. In deciding whether a group of material has ritual associations, is it the character of particularly unusual finds within it that should count or the overall nature of the assemblage? Articulated animal bones have been used via the first criterion to suggest placed deposits, but how articulated do they need to be to qualify (Wilson 1999)? In similar vein, Cool and Richardson's recent study of deposition within a late Roman well at Rothwell Haigh, Leeds (forthcoming), was seemingly able to define abnormal aspects of that assemblage (yew bucket, ash spade with iron shoe). Yet, as they acknowledge, these items might be in common use but rarely survive — it could be the anoxic conditions, rather than the material itself, that was special. The best way to define distinctiveness systematically is to compare a defined assemblage with the 'background noise' of finds across a site: ritual as a relational concept (Bell 1992).

In order to accommodate Bell's second component, ritual as context specific, it is useful to focus on both the finds and their stratigraphic and spatial context. This demands, ideally, a detailed knowledge of deposit formation and sequence within features, especially in order to distinguish between activities representing 'commencement' from 'use' from 'termination' in ritual activity (Merrifield 1987, 48). It also requires an understanding of the general distribution of activities across a site, and perhaps comparisons within the region: all big demands on the quality of available site evidence. Finally, analyses will only succeed if diverse evidence types can be analysed as whole assemblages, requiring close collaboration between specialists.

The above represent significant barriers, especially as, in the last 20 years, commercialisation and fragmentation of the fieldwork profession, often our best source of quality data, has made such collective research increasingly difficult. Yet there are some rays of hope. Serjeantson and Morris' (2011) previously noted study of corvid burials, for example, shows how zoological and taphonomic research can be combined. Equally, Cool and Richardson (forthcoming) linked artefact and ecofact studies to make significant interpretations of the well at Rothwell Haigh, although this example also shows the challenge of working with salvage recording: its fills were recorded only by absolute depth rather than by clear stratigraphic context and its contemporary ground surface had been truncated, destroying the feature's broader context and making it unclear whether the uppermost surviving fills did actually represent final well activity.

The case study that follows does not manage to jump all of these methodological and theoretical hurdles cleanly. It does, however, provide an account of a feature investigated in its entirety, dug with close stratigraphic control and detailed deposit information, and employing a consistent approach to finds recovery. In addition, a series of diverse assemblage analyses can be deployed in relation to the site-based information, alongside a sound understanding of contemporary activities in areas adjacent to the well.


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