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Problem definition

«The qualities of performance can be analyzed in terms of several overlapping features. First of all, performances communicate on multiple sensory levels, usually involving highly visual imagery, dramatic sounds, and sometimes even tactile, olfactory, and gustatory stimulation. By marching with a crowd, crying over a tragic drama, or applauding an unconvincing politician, even the less enthusiastic participants of the audience are cognitively and emotionally pulled into a complex sensory experience that can also communicate a variety of messages. Hence, the power of performance lies in great part in the effect of the heightened multisensory experience it affords: one is not being told or shown something so much as one is led to experience something. And according to the anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff, in ritual-like behavior “not only is seeing believing, doing is believing”» (Bell 2009, p. 160).

In archeology all or almost all the emotional perceptions and multi-sensory referred by Bell are intended irreversibly to vanish without a trace that might have left any material importance. The performance component of funerary ritual of past civilizations, therefore, despite its conceptual and symbolic significance, is the most elusive, reconstructed only on the basis of the few, and often modest evidence left on the ground in those cases where the deposition place coincides with the ritual and/or it is possible to have some knowledge of the entire “topography of the ritual”.

Such contingency collides, then, with the growing awareness that for a proper understanding of the “ritual” is necessary to know, at the same time, the “context and the act”, as it has been recently highlighted by the archaeologist T. Insoll: «Yet to recognise the subtleties and complexities of ritual will require definition on a case-by-case basis: ritual can be both odd and routine, it can be undertaken within the prism of the “focusing lens” or elsewhere; it is both the context and the act which are crucial in understanding ritual.” (Insoll 2004, p. 12).

This results in archeology or at least, should result, in a greater focus on those ritual attitudes that imply just as many intentional actions that contribute to articulate beyond simple appearance the symbolic context of the burial. The reconstruction of these aspects, as well as providing a useful critical support for the interpretation and reading of other surviving sources, allows to penetrate the logic of those behaviors that, often, tend to flatten by regulation of the funeral ritual, smoothing out differences and/or masking as superstitious, blasphemous, antinomian or oppositional was not considered adequate to represent the common perception or, rather, the “dominant” perception of the ritual.

In order to reach a better approximation from restorative framework of funeral practices through the filter of their archaeological reflection is necessary, however, that the attention of archaeologists spreads beyond the primary objective of their interest, represented, of course, from grave and its proximal accessory elements, as mounds and grave markers.

This means not only to put to analysis the plan of burials for the encoding of any logic that could preside over the “construction” (social and/or ideological; internal and external) of burial space and its wider dialectic with the surrounding area: paraphrasing the concept of “constructing death” of the anthropologist C. Seale (Seale 1998), we could define “constructing deathscape”. In order to understand, at least in part, the essence of the “funeral beyond the grave” (which often represents only the final spatial dimension of a far more complex ritual process), it’s necessary to extend the stratigraphic exploration to entire ritual landscape, including in the analysis all those traces of activity that could have characterized it, as it happens in practical excavation of living contexts but with (almost) obvious awareness of being in front of a reality that’s profoundly permeated with the ritual, at least limited to those cases where the spaces assigned for burial practices result conceptually and operationally separated from those reserved to the everyday residential and/or production activity.

The same problem, of course, lays also in the field of anthropological research, where the funeral landscape or, more broadly, the ritual, for its intrinsic logics and dynamics, can hardly fit in the everyday of ethnographic observation, for reasons that cannot be simply or logistically related to available time but could also being related to accessibility itself and/or intelligibility of performed ritual actions, with significant changes from culture to culture, often pervaded by filters and/or interdictions difficult to penetrate from an “emic” point of view.

On a practical level this presumes a waste of resources and time often unusual for ethnographic investigation and/or for the dig of a necropolis. In archeology, in most cases, this approach is rather conditioned by circumstances which are essentially epistemological, related to a vision of the discipline aimed at favoring internal and and/or external material appearances of funeral evidence, ignoring the overall picture in favor of a limited vision of substantively, historically or artistically more perspicuous aspects.

On a specifically methodological level is now sufficiently clear how often the reconstruction of the ritual landscape is essential for a correct interpretation of ritual and symbolic aspects of burials, integrating reading on a sociological and on ideological level, as the ethnographic research has already highlighted earlier. The last one, in fact, has repeatedly highlighted the complex dialectic semiotics that can be hidden behind every single ceremonial act, before, during and after the burial of remains of the deceased, especially in the case of complex practices such as those incineratory, whose performance can assume, very often, distinct localizations and a conceptual separation more or less marked among its various stages, with all the difficulties that this may result from the point of view of the perspicuity of their archaeological “residues”.

It is, more broadly, about key elements for a proper understanding of «that kind of dialogue that could have been established between the living and dead» (Ortalli 2008, p. 140), made of gestures more or less unexpected or ritual practices regularly repeated such as, for example, the practice of libation and/or the “destruction/killing” (with fragmentation and dispersion) intentional of objects during the funeral ceremony of which there is ample evidence both on ethnographic and archaeological level.

Based on these assumptions, in this section we will try to deal problematically the conceptual definition of the spatial and emotional aspects of the ritual, with attention to the anthropological and/or archaeological approach to issues concerning reconstruction/interpretation of ritual landscape and performance as well as their mutual relations and interference.