Change you can believe in? — Pilgrimage as an event

Newark Earthwarks from Squier and Davis (1848)

Southeastern archaeologists are second to none when it comes to identifying continuity and change in the archaeological record. By carefully documenting material culture variability, generations of culture historians have isolated regionally and temporally specific cultural traditions that have served as a basis for relatively dating sites and for recognizing interactions between them. The importance of identifying such changes (or lack of changes) can’t be overstated, but, now that these culture history frameworks are fairly well established, we can start to ask not just what happened in the past, but how and why it happened.

One of the ways that archaeologists have been tackling “how” and “why” questions is through the concept of “the event,” which appears to have gained some traction in the Southeast as evidenced by a symposium dedicated to “the enigma of the event” at SEAC in 2011. [Full disclosure here: my advisor is Rob Beck, a major proponent of event theory. We talk about “the event” a lot. Just figured readers should be aware of any resulting biases.]  Derived from the work of sociologist William Sewell, Jr.,  “eventful archaeology” considers how particular episodes of crisis (i.e., events) lead to disconnects between resources (the capacity to command actual/material things or people) and schemas (generalizable, overlapping rules that guide and are guided by the allocation of resources, and that enact and reproduce social life). Because resources and schemas together constitute social structures, their disarticulation is a big deal, with the potential to critically undermine existing forms of social, political, economic, and ideological organization. Since this sort of disjunction can’t be tolerated for long without a social breakdown, events encourage social actors to creatively articulate resources and schemas in new ways, resulting in potentially profound changes in social structure.

Though I admit to rolling my eyes if I hear the words “resources and schema” too often, in general, I find an eventful approach to change in the archaeological record pretty compelling.  In my mind, it recognizes the constraints and opportunities afforded by social structures while still leaving room for agency. Moreover, the materiality of the articulations between resources and schema render events well suited to identification and interpretation by archaeologists.  The concept also is flexible enough to address many different kinds of events, from encounters with foreigners to the adoption of novel subsistence practices (e.g., Beck et al. 2007; Beck and Brown 2012).

One kind of event that I find myself considering these days is pilgrimage. Though it’s not a one-to-one match, Victor Turner’s description of the social dynamics involved in pilgrimage do, I think, resonate well with Sewell’s approach to events. Specifically, Turner stresses “the opposition between social life as it is lived in localized, relatively stable, structured systems of social relations – such as village, town, neighborhood, family, etc. – and the total process of pilgrimage” (1973:192). As I read it, this opposition might be characterized as an “event” in which the everyday articulation resources and schema go out the window, and become rearticulated to suit the pilgrimage experience. Turner elaborates (193-194) that the “direct, immediate, and total confrontation of human identities” during pilgrimage drives “the need to mobilize and organize resources to keep the members of a group alive and thriving and the necessity for social control among those members in pursuance of these and other collective goals.” What I’m left wondering is: what (if any) of the re-articulations between resources and schema that take hold in the context of a pilgrimage persist once the pilgrimage is over?  Can the “event” experienced by pilgrims lead to change in broader social structures, and if so, how?

Objectively speaking, I’m not sure… but my hunch is that yes, pilgrimage can have far-reaching effects on social structures. Consider, for example, the Middle Woodland Hopewell episode. Bradley Lepper (2004, 2006) has suggested that the Newark earthworks in Ohio do, in fact, represent a Hopewell pilgrimage center, given the labor pool necessary to construct its monuments, its diverse assemblage of exotic artifacts, and the presence of the so-called Great Hopewell Road extending out past the site. If pilgrims were in fact visiting Newark, where did they come from, for what reasons, and what happened after the pilgrimage was over? Did they take anything – objects, ideas, spouses, information – back home with them? If so, how were these incorporated (or not) into local social structures? We already know that Hopewell material culture (e.g., exotic raw materials, particular artifact types, certain forms of ceremonial architecture) is widely distributed across the Eastern Woodlands. Perhaps some of this spread results from the movement of pilgrims to and from Hopewell pilgrimage centers, rather than or in addition to the movement of Midwestern Hopewell travelers across the continent. This latter position has dominated the literature on Hopewell interaction for many years, and while it is certainly applicable to some cases (e.g., all that obsidian), I think it’s worth considering how other sorts of events may have contributed to social or religious change during the Middle Woodland period, particularly outside the Hopewell core.

At this point, I’m curious as to how to evaluate this idea against archaeological evidence. Turner’s recommendation that socio-cultural anthropologists study pilgrimage by first mapping total “ritual topographies” of pilgrimage centers, waystations, shrines, origin points, and trails. For better or worse, this seems out of reach for archaeologists, but there have got to be other options. If there are any thoughts on this front, or other comments, I would really like to hear them!

In particular – Maggie! You guys have been working on pilgrimage with regards to Poverty Point, yeah? How’s all that going?

Last, some references:

Beck, Robin A., Jr., Douglas J. Bolender, James A. Brown, Timothy K. Earle (2007)  Eventful Archaeology: The Place of Space in Structural Transformation. Current Anthropology 48(6):833-860.

Beck, Robin A., Jr., and James A. Brown (2012) Political Economy and the Routinization of Religious Movements: A View from the Eastern Woodlands. Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 21(1):72-88.

Lepper, Bradley T. (2004)  The Newark Earthworks: monumental geometry and astronomy at a Hopewellian pilgrimage center. In Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian art of the ancient Midwest and South, edited by Richard V. Townsend and Robert V. Sharp, pp. 72-81. The Art Institute of Chicago and Yale University Press, New Haven.

Lepper, Bradley T. (2004)  The Newark Earthworks: monumental geometry and astronomy at a  2006. The Great Hopewell Road and the role of the pilgrimage in the Hopewell Interaction sphere. In Recreating Hopewell, edited by D. K. Charles and J. E. Buikstra, pp. 122-133, University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Turner, Victor (1973) The Center out There: Pilgrim’s Goal. History of Religions 12(3): 191-230.


2 comments on “Change you can believe in? — Pilgrimage as an event

  1. Meg says:

    First of all… Alice, how are we ever going to get people to post freely when your posts are so fantastic!?! 😉 Just kidding, you will inspire us all to greatness I’m sure… once we stop being intimidated.

    So, first a general theoretical comment…. you stated “In my mind, it recognizes the constraints and opportunities afforded by social structures while still leaving room for agency. Moreover, the materiality of the articulations between resources and schema render events well suited to identification and interpretation by archaeologists.” and I couldn’t agree with this more. Focusing on the event really does allow for a fluid and beautiful marriage of structure and agency. Agents have the ability to cause events, events happen in certain ways due to structures involved, agents interpret the way that those events happen in unique ways, and then structures change based on these interpretations…. to me it shows the relationship between structure and agency to be an iterative cycle instead of an either-or. Now, I know that most archaeologists would no longer argue for this sort of either-or scenario, but what is often missing from this admission is a way to truly and productively combine the two. Events and perhaps even “moments” may be a way to do this.

    Now for a more pilgrimage-specific comment. Pilgrimage is usually thought of as a journey to a sacred place for religious reasons (in the OED, etc.). This definition relies completely on knowing the REASONS for the trip. Of course, given the nature of the archaeological record, this is easier said than done. So, in archaeology, how do we define pilgrimage? Merely as a person or group of persons going to a sacred place away from where they spend the majority of their time? Is there something that must result from this journey in order for it to be rightly called a pilgrimage? I wonder about these things largely because reading your post made me question whether or not I should call Feltus a pilgrimage site. In general, I have not…. but reflecting on it for the last week or so, I realize there is no real reason for that. It is a place where no one seems to live, but lots of people go to on certain occasions and perform certain activities such as feasting, mound building, and burying their dead. Of course, I also assume that many more mundane activities also took place… finding marriage partners, trading news and perhaps goods, and of course, building a community of people that share something. Rather than pilgrimage site, however, I have been drawn to using the analogy of a modern day fairgrounds… but it seems unsavory somehow to say that state fair grounds are all pilgrimage sites. But why? Does distance matter? Do people not come from far enough? I would certainly assume that the people coming to Feltus were coming from within the Natchez Bluffs and not much further. Or is it something else?

    And finally, I have been frustrated in thinking about your question of how to include the entire ritual topography. You’re right, the idea of finding Middle or Late Woodland paths or waypoints seems unlikely (heck, I can’t even find the Coles Creek villages around Feltus!), the origin points doesn’t seem AS impossible. I believe that sourcing studies completed on materials found at pilgrimage sites will potentially reveal that interaction spheres, trade networks, etc. are often biased towards two locations: the locations closest to where the pilgrimage site itself and the location from which particularly rare materials are brought. Here, I am thinking of the Ohio-centric Hopewell complex which often emphasizes things like obsidian from the Rockies or copper from the Great Lakes. But what about other copper sources? The almighty Wikipedia lists copper mining statistics for 27 states! My thinking on this is coming from my honors thesis work on sourcing pipestone from Tremper Mound in Ohio. We found that nearly all the pipestone which had always been assumed to have come from nearby was actually from northern IL. What about clay or other more common materials? If we knew where the COMMON rather than the RARE materials were coming from, we might have a much better picture of the origins of the most common or repeated pilgrimages that are being taken to a given site.

    OK, this has gotten long and is of course not answering any questions! But great food for thought, Alice.

  2. Alice Wright says:

    Thanks a million for the comments Meg! I think you are spot on that pilgrimage implies religious motivations. I wonder if we’re dealing with a square/rectangle distinction — i.e., as all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares, maybe all pilgrimage sites are aggregation sites but not all aggregation sites are pilgrimage sites. I’m not sure.The more I think about it, the more I am wary of drawing a line between religious (i.e., pilgrimage) and non-religious (i.e., non-pilgrimage/aggregation) practices and processes. If reading Robert Hall has taught me anything, it’s to NEVER underestimate the mythological/cosmological/religious significance of patterns we see in the archaeological record of North America.

    So, if that’s the case, it might be that for the Eastern Woodlands at least, “distance traveled” might be the handiest way to identify pilgrimages. As you note, sourcing is one way to evaluate that variable; looking at labor catchments may be another. Wesley Bernardini argued a few years back (a 2004 American Antiquity article, I think) that from an energetics stand point, there’s no way immediately local groups could have erected the Scioto Hopewell earthworks by themselves. Now, I guess we need to consider just how big a catchment we’re talking about, with regards to the folks building, visiting, and interacting at these earthworks. And obviously, this doesn’t even take into the engineering issues involved, as Sarah and T.R. talk about in the DaVincis of Dirt article (nice choice by the way!!).

    LONG STORY SHORT: we might have more questions than answers at this point, but I think the discussion is worth having, and (gasp!) may even be on the right track. Consider these paragraphs from Jim Brown (in press):

    “But are these [Woodland interaction] networks actuated by exchange? Or are these nodes something else? I have in mind here the way exchange is customarily modeled as a reciprocal activity. The quite evident conjunction of large groups (at least periodically) and an abundance of raw material and finished artifacts of exotic origin make this a plausible conclusion. Where access to exotics is envisioned in this way, various distant locales contributed materials to a single locale from sources they had access to. Lost sight of here is the possibility that bearers from the source came to the locale in which the exotics were interred.

    At one time the social and economic underpinnings of exchange would have been unquestioned. Struever and Houart (1972) explicitly made major mound centers located in logistically critical places as ‘transactional nodes’ in a subcontinental network called the Hopewellian Interaction Sphere. While their interpretation of the Hopewellian Interaction Sphere had the advantage of being grounded in well-sourced material remains, it had the unfortunate effect of downplaying the morphological similarities present among wide-flung mound building programs. The movement to ceremonial centers of small groups of peoples, sometimes from long distances, for the purposes of large-scale religious renewal, as well as a range of other activities, helps explain certain archaeological facts. It also brings in other motivations (e.g., marriage alliance making, socializing, exchange of goods) and the all-important pooling of labor, even for very short periods of time (Beck 2003; Bernardini 2004). As long as the appearance of exotics are divorced from the scale of local aggregation, we will retain the atomistic focus that prevents a vision of connectivity associated with the Hopewellian Interaction Sphere.”

    PS — Already this year, two major journals (Journal of Anthropological Archaeology and American Antiquity) have featured articles on pilgrimage in prehistoric North America. Maybe it’s time to co-author a complementary case study(ies) from the Southeast? Thoughts?

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