Identifying residences of ritual practitioners in the archaeological record as a proxy for social complexity

Jennifer G. Kahn, College of William and Mary


Dedicated ritual specialists often had indispensable roles in ancient religions and significant impacts on political histories. Few studies have developed methodologies for recovering direct evidence for ritual practitioners in the archaeological record. I argue that the study of religious practitioners must take a holistic micro-scale approach, documenting not only the places where ritual paraphernalia (sacra) were stored, but places where priests and their assistants lived and practiced intimate and communal rituals. I begin with a discussion of ethnohistoric and ethnographic data to model what priests did in ancient societies, and what the material correlates of their dwellings and activities might look like. I then present archaeological data from two late prehistoric house sites identified as priest dwellings from East Polynesian. Utilizing multiple lines of evidence, including portable artifacts, botanical specimens, site architecture, and site distribution patterns, I argue that there is close complementarity between the ethnohistoric-ethnographic model and the archaeological remains. That priests' houses houses are often situated within corporate ritual centers speaks to the import of such sites and their associated ceremonial activities in the strategic use ideology to institutionalize social hierarchies and political status, a pattern seen in many other ranked societies in Polynesia and other case studies world-wide. (C) 2015 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.