Tuesday, May 22, 2018


Jennifer Knust, Claudia Moser (ed.), Ritual Matters: Material Remains and Ancient Religion. Supplements to the memoirs of the American Academy in Rome. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2017. Pp. 152. ISBN 9780472130573. $65.00.

Reviewed by Emma-Jayne Graham, The Open University (emma-jayne.graham@open.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

The editors of this volume observe in their Introduction (p. 2) that 'The disciplines of anthropology, archaeology, art history, and religious studies have each made materiality an increasingly principal focus, recentering the relations between human as actor and object as actor, enabling those who study religion to move away from inferences about beliefs and doctrines.' This volume seeks to situate itself within this wider work on, amongst other themes, 'the "thingliness" of things' and 'object agency' (p. 2). The reader hoping for a consistent or critical investigation of the agency of objects, particularly the affective qualities of the very materiality or 'matter' of objects as they entangle with humans in ritual practices, may find themselves a little disappointed. Instead, we are treated to essays covering everything from animal bones to funerary commemoration, architecture to papyri, and statues to divination, only one or two of which really attempt to grapple with the complex relationship between humans and ritual objects as material things. Nevertheless, if not quite succeeding in putting the agency of objects on a par with that of humans, the collection certainly demonstrates some of the ways in which studies of ancient ritual practices are at least beginning to find ways to bring material things out of the shadow cast by human agents. In this sense, the volume offers a useful collection of wide-ranging case studies and achieves the other aim of the editors to begin 'from the ground up, so to speak, giving voice to the diverse spaces, structures, artifacts, and organic remains' (p. 3) of the ritual phenomena of the ancient Mediterranean world.

The volume opens with an Introduction by the editors, who note its origins in a conference at the American Academy in Rome in 2013, as well as pointing towards some recent work in the realm of 'thing theory'. This very brief overview cites work by the likes of Ian Hodder, Bjørnar Olsen, and Carl Knappett, although unfortunately this theoretical background is rarely acknowledged or explored by the individual essays that follow. The conference and subsequent volume are also described as inspired by Inez Scott Ryberg's seminal Rites of the State Religion in Roman Art1, a work that several contributors reference. These two inspirations are loosely mapped onto the organising principles of the volume, which begins with largely empirical papers seeking to draw attention to objects that have previously been overlooked or undervalued in investigations of ancient ritual (i.e., objects that represent or were present in the course of ritual activities). These are then followed by essays that explore more closely the relationships between humans and objects during such activities (i.e., objects that worked with people to produce ritual or religion). Surprisingly, there is little acknowledgement here or elsewhere in the volume (with the exception of the chapter by Zsuzsanna Várhelyi), of the substantial body of theory surrounding the other element of the volume's title: ritual.

Ritual is nonetheless at the heart of the first chapter, by Valérie Huet. This contribution owes most to the legacy of Scott Ryberg in that it seeks to expand upon her original study of Roman sculpted relief scenes by collating comparable evidence from Italy, Gaul and Germania, as well as paralleling these with what Huet describes as 'the other', represented by Mithraic scenes. In what is a valuable but largely descriptive account of the relevant scenes, she suggests that provincial communities made different decisions about which parts of sacrificial ritual to emphasise iconographically, especially when it came to representing the presence of the divine. She does not comment on the significance of these observations for understanding localised Roman ritual practices more broadly, beyond noting that evidence from archaeology suggests that these different emphases were not reflected in actual practice.

The theme of sacrifice is continued in the next chapter, in which Gunnel Ekroth sets out the various ways in which the faunal remains from sacrificial activities were either disposed of, or built into, the physical landscape of Greek sanctuaries. This is the most successful of the largely empirical chapters, prompting the reader to reconsider not only the category of 'waste' in religious settings, but also—although not stated in so many words—the organic dynamism of the sanctuary itself. This enlightening chapter certainly forces the reader to rethink an understanding of the composition of sacred architecture.

Claudia Moser's chapter focuses on more traditional forms of architecture, examining the sacred area of the Republican temples at Ostia. Through a close reading of the evidence for how aspects of the material setting for rituals was actively transformed over the course of several centuries, she argues that these reflect the different forces at play within the same sacred area. Although the rituals that took place in relation to the altars that are her focal point remain largely in the background, she presents a strong case for looking closely at the relationships between different communities, space, and ritual practices, and for not assuming that these were universal, even within a comparatively small area.

The final empirical chapter by Henri Duday and William Van Andringa reports on some aspects of their recent work in the Porta Nocera necropolis at Pompeii. They offer some thoughts about the ways in which different forms of memory (displayed, erased, maintained, negative, and arranged) can be inferred from the material remains of graves, including the treatment of human remains, the presence of offerings, and forms of commemorative action. The chapter does not engage with any wider discourse concerning either ritual, memory, treatment of the corpse, or materiality, and lacks any definitive conclusion about the broader significance of their observations beyond this set of Pompeian burial enclosures.

Moving away from the primarily empirical, Zsuzsanna Várhelyi's chapter on the placement of Roman-period statues of civic individuals in religious contexts is perhaps the most successful of the volume. Situating her study in relation to scholarship on ritualization and embodied experience, she argues persuasively for exploring beyond the representational capacities of statues in order to understand them as a part of the physical environment, which not merely framed, but actively produced religious practices. Placing statues of non-divine figures alongside those of deities, and more importantly engaging them directly in the same types of religious activities, blurred the boundaries between them, serving to trigger 'a certain kind of ritualized engagement' (p. 96, original emphasis).

Jennifer Knust's study of Christian miscellany manuscripts seeks to materialise late antique texts, by spotlighting how collections such as those from Dishna (Egypt) might be described as having many of the same relational features? as traditional material objects. The papyri she considers emerge as material mediators for the choices and agency of a particular group of Christian worshippers. Her chapter leads us towards Richard Gordon's examination of inductive divination, in which the objects are often textual and as much objects of the imagination – what he calls 'materialities of the mind' (p. 119) – as of the physical world. He suggests that objects offered ancient people engaged in divination a way of gaining a purchase on an otherwise virtual religious world, not least because these objects are open to varying modes of comprehension and action.

The volume closes with David Frankfurter's reflective Afterword, an excellent demonstration of the value of bringing an objective eye to bear on a set of collected papers. He teases out the deeper implications of each chapter for a 'materiality of religion' approach (p. 145) in which the agency of objects is foregrounded. Indeed, the cases he makes for the papers as contributions to, or examples of the value of. such an approach are in some instances stronger than those made within individual essays.

These case studies prompt new ways of thinking about apparently familiar things and, individually, each chapter offers a useful addition to scholarship in its own particular area within the wider study of ritual practices. The chapters that stand out are those that explicitly attempt to engage with the relationships between humans and objects, although even here human agency is often still dominant, and rarely does the actual 'matter' of ritual objects fully surface: Várhelyi, for example, takes it for granted that her reader can imagine the physical statues that she writes about, providing no images and largely overlooking the materials from which they were made, their dimensions, and their multisensory qualities. Only rarely do the essays explicitly consider the strengths and limitations of approaching ritual via material objects, or address the bigger questions concerning material agency described in the Introduction. Indeed, some chapters make no attempt at all to acknowledge a bigger picture, or to suggest how the material under study might contribute to these debates. The bibliography for the chapter by Duday and Van Andringa, for instance, contains only four items, three of which are written by the authors of the chapter themselves (one of which is forthcoming). So, while it is refreshing to see the breadth of material under discussion being expanded to encompass animal and human bones, spatiality, even texts and imagined objects and, in the process, attention being drawn to new ways of considering the boundaries of the material culture of ritual, the agency of ritual matter itself remains underemphasised. This lack of attention feels like a missed opportunity, since the questions raised by the editors and the examples under discussion are particularly pertinent to the recent material turn in the study of religion, past and present. These tensions perhaps arise from the volume's origins as a conference designed for multiple purposes. On the one hand, it was trying to spotlight the value of this emerging theoretical work concerning human-object and object-human action to understandings of ancient ritual performance, while, on the other, seeking to cite the much more traditional approach of Scott Ryberg to material representations of ritual. As a consequence, the volume presents itself as a collection of individual studies united by the loose concept of 'material evidence', rather than a coherent affirmation of the 'materiality of religion' approach described by Frankfurter.

Despite these issues and its unevenness, Ritual Matters offers an overview of current work concerning the material aspects of ancient cult. The volume reveals the persistence and continued value of empirical studies, as well as a burgeoning, if yet to be fully realised, interest in finding new ways to understand religion as the product of human-object interactions. It is certainly likely to prompt new work on both areas.

Authors and titles

1. "Ritual Matters: An Introduction", Claudia Moser and Jennifer Knust
2. "Roman Sacrificial Reliefs in Rome, Italy, and Gaul: Reconstructing Archaeological Evidence?" Valérie Huet
3. "'Don't Throw Any Bones in the Sanctuary!' On the Handling of Sacred Waste in Ancient Greek Cult Places", Gunnel Ekroth
4. "Differential Preservation: The Changing Religious Landscape at the Sacred Area of the Republican Temples at Ostia", Claudia Moser
5. "Archaeology of Memory: About the Forms and the Time of Memory in a Necropolis of Pompeii", Henri Duday and William Van Andringa
6. "Statuary and Ritualization in Imperial Italy", Zsuzsanna Várhelyi
7. "Miscellany Manuscripts and the Christian Canonical Imaginary", Jennifer Knust
8. "'Straightening the Paths': Inductive Divination, Materiality, and Imagination in the Graeco-Roman Period", Richard L. Gordon
9. "Ritual Matters: Afterword", David Frankfurter


1.   Scott Ryberg, I. Rites of the State Religion in Roman Art, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, vol. XXII (American Academy in Rome, 1955).

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