Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Ritual Objects

A "ritual object;" the bottom is broken, so it used to be a bigger, more impressive object.

One of the oldest jokes among archeologists (which is saying something), is that any artifact that cannot be identified is a "ritual object." On the most comical fringes of the…uh, "discipline" is not the right word, I guess,…but at and beyond the edges of what most archaeologists would recognize as their field, "ritual objects" become more and more common. There is something of an inverse relationship between the frequency with which the "ritual object" is invoked and the seriousness with which any other archaeologist takes said invoker. Like radical diffusionism, it's a gateway concept to the "aliens made it," school of "thought."

But the nature of archaeology is that we often do find things that are mysterious. Amongst ourselves, after a quick glance around to see that no civilians or Mormonist archaeologists are in earshot, we'll hold up a mystery artifact and proclaim it a "ritual object." And then laugh, before talking about who we might show it to that will come up with a real explanation.

This happened a couple of weeks ago at the Mission Spit screening session. After a brief and wishful suggestion that it might be coral (and thus, possible evidence of Hawaiians at the Mission/Tribal settlement), all we could say about the above-pictured object was that it did not look like local stone, it lacked wear indicative of use as an abrader or other tool, and that none of us had ever seen one.

So it became a ritual object.

The gods of archaeology move in mysterious ways, and after cleaning and drying the artifact, staring at it at different hours and in various states of mind, it struck me (while in a drinking beer with other archaeologists state of mind) that maybe it really could be a ritual object. As in, part of a Christian cross. After all, it was found in a beach-load of Mission detritus. After a week of showing it around, reaching consensus that the material is artificial cast stone and that it appeared to be decorative rather than functional, after gingerly suggesting to other archaeologists that it could be an actual ritual object (and getting no laughs, much less a better interpretation), I was pretty well on my way to becoming convinced.

But I know me, and I know that I am a sucker for reflexive irony, or whatever it is when the joke interpretation turns out to be exactly right, and so I didn't really go public. Skepticism is one of the few bedrock tenets of my ad hoc religion.

Then, this past Saturday, in the last bit of sediment to be screened, another one popped up. Same material, same shape and size, even the same breakage pattern. Hmm. Somewhere in the sand that we did not screen, either in the other material that was dumped as fill somewhere, or just maybe still in the part of the spit that was not dug up, I think there is another piece, the end of the third tip atop a cross. Here is my clumsy hypothetical reconstruction:

Two of the cross-topping trinity accounted for.

So yeah, there are just two of the four tips accounted for, but hey, have some faith. If you recognize these as part of a cross, or if you can debunk that theory, please let me know.

1 comment:

  1. I see the word "rebunked" exactly nowhere here. And I am all sad. ;)