Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

When Expediency Broaches Ritual Intention: The Flow of Metal between Systemic and Buried Domains

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

When Expediency Broaches Ritual Intention: The Flow of Metal between Systemic and Buried Domains

Article excerpt

The current interpretation of Bronze Age metalwork deposits relies on an opposition between deposits made ritually and those made with the utilitarian objective of temporary safe keeping. Tied to this distinction were the intentions, respectively, to leave buried in perpetuity, or to retrieve. Contrasts in the character and burial location of hoard deposits are used to support the dichotomous interpretation. The article challenges this bipolar model by showing that hoard characterization often reflects a more complex spectrum and by disputing that the recovery of valuables by depositors would invalidate ritual objectives. Furthermore, in considering the flow of metal through the exchange systems of Bronze Age Europe, it is argued that flexibility of intention at and after deposition would have been an invaluable strategic device, enabling greater control over the local metal stock. To extract the full meaning locked up in these crucial archaeological deposits for the period, their interpretation is better cen tred on new questions relating to expression, occasion, enactment, and the social conditions triggering recovery.

For much of the twentieth century Bronze Age metalwork was exploited by archaeologists for its capacity to formulate chronologies, understand developments in technology, and chart the spatial extent of certain cultural manifestations. These reflections on the past promoted a conception of Bronze Age societies as economically and technologically driven, in relation to the production of objects, their accumulation or their deposition. The Bronze Age was peopled by entrepreneurs engaged in 'industry' and exploiting the trade potential of restricted resources. In short, aspects of modern, capitalist, market systems were transposed onto the prehistoric past.

From the early 1970s onwards, interpretation in this branch of archaeology, as in so many, was opened up to new influences, most especially those from social anthropology. Rowlands's (1972) enquiry into the relationship of metalworkers and metallurgy to various ethnographic societies can perhaps be identified as one key turning-point. Soon after, models of exchange, gifting, and ritual consumption were drawn from ethnographic study and applied to the European Bronze Age on the basis that here, too, we are dealing with small-scale societies operating in a pre-monetary economic environment.

With the simultaneous realization that archaeological formation processes are complex, there was a growing concern to specify the working system (the systemic record), as distinct from the selected, filtered, and distorted record of it left as archaeological evidence (e.g. Schiffer 1987). But that systemic record can only ever be inferred, and methodologies to work back from archaeological data, and forwards from physical and biological laws, were at first naive to the point of seeking universal laws that would achieve the desired transformations. In this brave new era of far-probing interpretation, yet underdeveloped middle-range theory, it was perhaps natural to grab at ready-built ethnographic models that could be held to satisfy the observations made in archaeology and thereby offer systemic interpretations appropriate to pre-state societies.

It is noteworthy that in the field of prehistoric metalwork this has tended to give us a series of diametric oppositions in interpretation, most by now having become well entrenched. Although long-standing interest in the distribution, or 'trade' of goods, has resulted in some sophisticated models (e.g. Renfrew 1975; see also Scarre & Healy 1993), at core there is a preoccupation in the prehistoric European context with the contrast between down-the-line exchange and long-distance directed trade. Enquiry into the social context of exchange came to be of equal importance and resulted in the transposition of Gregory's (1982) discrete spheres of gift exchange and commodity exchange in the western Pacific Trobriand islands to the Bronze Age circumstance (Bradley 1985a; 1985b). …

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