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Problem definition

Among the constants of the latest theoretical reflection on performative aspects of ritual stand out in particular those related to the cognitive and perceptual factors of “agents”, on one hand, and “observers” on the other. Within these terms archaeological criticism began to move from the ‘80s, thanks to incitement from a tighter and dynamic comparison with the contemporary social and cultural anthropology debate which allowed, proceeding by approximation, to assess critically, and so to speak, “dismantle” the main “western” intellectual categories (such as those based in particular on oppositions object/subject, culture/nature, intellect/material etc.), showing relativity in terms both historical and contextual, from the wider field of ideologies to the most specific of gender, social age , ethnicity etc.

Archaeology, in recent years, has variously attempted to adopt from anthropology and sociology some conceptual tools that can “direct” analytically and constructively the research. On the processual front, attention concentrated, mainly, on the reconstruction of the cognitive aspects of the past societies as well as can be learned from their material remains (so called “materiality”) through what C. Renfrew has recently defined “material engagement approach(Renfrew 2001, Id. 2004, Rethinking Materiality 2004, Renfrew 2005, Id. 2012).

A similar attention to cognitive aspects of material reality and the overall theme of “relationship/bind/dependence man-thing” (“human-thing entangled” or “Entanglement Theory”) occurs also in post-processual approach but, rather than privileging in functionalist ways, analysis and reconstruction of the past mentality, is reversed on both “observed object/subject” and on “observer” and their mutual “interaction”, based on a broader reflection on the mind mechanisms taking into account the most recent findings of neuronal-science, has highlighted how the neuronal processes that govern the perception are the same that determine the conceptualization of what is perceived. The investigation was therefore shifted from historical and contextual encoding of the symbolic meanings of gestures, objects or images, to the analysis of the dynamics that govern their formulation and are based, first, on their interaction with the reality (the last Hodder 2011, Id. 2011a e Id. 2012).

The centrality of the body in this interaction is one of major acquisitions of post-processual archeology in the ‘90s (with large shares also in terms cognitive-processual), which may give rise to a specific theoretical branch called “Embodied archeology(Sweeney, Hodder 2002, Hamilakis, Pluciennik, Tarlow 2002, Meskell, Joyce 2003, Nilsson Stutz 2003, Gilchrist 2004, Fowler 2004, Joyce 2004, Sofaer 2006, Joyce 2008, Nilsson Stutz 2008, Fahlander, Oestigaard 2008, Rebay-Salisbury, Sørensen, Hughes 2010, Sørensen, Rebay-Salisbury 2012, Gowland, Thompson 2013). The dynamics through which our body interacts with the surrounding environment, determine, inevitably, the way in which the body is perceived and conceptualized, with results which, of course, can vary depending of multiple internal conditioning (psychological, physical, emotional, neuronal etc.) and external (environmental, ideological, geographical, historical, cultural, etc.).

This has resulted in recent times in a general rethinking of the concept of “materiality” and led to focus attention on the network of relationships that it presumes, with specific regard to the “physicality” and its inevitable “transversal” position between the funerary field and the living field (Fahlander, Oestigaard 2008a).

Under these assumptions, therefore, the body, as well as the notion of “individuality” and the resulting “person”, assume always more blurred boundaries, to the point of making “equivocal” the biological perception of corporeality, viewing objectively “culturally and historically” the apparent analytics: «Different cultures and ages not only attribute personhood to different things (and not all biological humans are guaranteed personhood), but construct different criteria for where a person begins and where a person ends. In other words […] the boundary around the self is not isomorphic with the biological body, which is itself culturally and historically mutable.» (Hodder, Hutson 2003, p. 104).

This theoretical perspective was further developed by J. Chapman (particularly Chapman 2000, Chapman, Gaydarska 2007, Iid. 2010 e Iid. 2011) who was responsible for the introduction in our discipline of the concept of “enchainment” («a chain of social relations achieved through exchange») and to that closely related of “fragmentation” («to divide, for the purposes of distributing relations either through enchainment or accumulation») (Gamble 2007, p. 137). These theories are inspired by anthropological discussion on the topic of “dividuality” and the “partibility/fragmentation” of the person, the subject of specific attention especially thanks to the investigations of Marilyn Strathern in a wider reflection on the dynamics of goods and gift in the Melanesian community, turn to relativize the essence that usually became paradigmatic in modern western cultures (Strathern 1988; cfr. inoltre Ead. 1992, Ead. 1992a, Ead. 1999 and Ead. 2004). For Strathern the Melanesian personality is the direct result of a “concatenation” of social relations, the same that supervises relational mechanisms of the “gift” on which is based their economy and Strathern has defined “enchainment”; referring to the notions of “objectification” and “personification” and the central role in this process held by the relation between “objects” and “persons”, the anthropologist achieved in to a relativization of the notion of “property”, demonstrating its inadequacy to represent a system disconnected from those mechanisms that in the Western world are conventionally related to “individuality”.

As a result of such «partibility» each person could therefore be considered a dividible entity and, at the same time, in itself constitute the synthesis of the larger “set” of which it makes part (such as, for example, the clan); in this way it simultaneously embraced all relational concatenations that countersigned it in the relational dimension “unique” as well as in the “plural” of its essence, so that a “part” became sufficient to represent the “set”.

Subsequent research has shown that the Strathernian concept of “partibility” could not be defined on the basis of a comparative debate limited only to Western cultures, but should be verified in terms even more relativistic and historically contextualized, as summarized recently by C. Fowler referring to the various epistemological issues raised by this argument and by operating an interesting comparison between the thesis given by Strathern on Melanesian “system” (“Dividual and partible”) and investigations of C. Busby in South India (“Dividual and permeable”): «Partibility operates through isolating and extracting parts of the person, and permeability circulates quantities of substance between discrete yet pervious people. Both exhibit features different from the indivisibility that characterizes the western individual.” (Fowler 2004, p. 32).

Despite the undoubted difficulties related to alterations of this type, Strathern’s intuitions have proven highly effective for in-depth analyses of “materiality” issues and, more generally, for a reevaluation of potential links between things and people, as seen clearly from the reflections of anthropologist J. Hoskins about the “biography” of objects and about their centrality to the recomposition of life and the “story” of men, where these weren’t able or willing to tell, as she has been able to verify in her research experience among Indonesian Kodi’s as its customary for archaeologists (Hoskins 1998).

The idea of “life cycle of things”, as referred by J. Chapman and B. Gaydarska opening of their essay in 2007, significantly entitled “Parts and Wholes” (Chapman, Gaydarska 2007), is inspired directly by the theoretic assumptions mentioned above, to integrate the concept of «social life of things» (Appadurai 1986) with the Strathernian notion of “enchainment” and diminish the effects on archaeological practice. On the methodological level this was made possible by identifying in the documentation of the recent Balkan prehistory of behaviors related to intentional fragmentation of specific “material realities” (and, more or less, consequently, also their subsequent “re-use”), often with a particular symbolic importance (such as anthropomorphic statuettes, decorated ceramics, the so-called “pintaderas” or, even, the skeletal remains of deceased) or related to certain contexts with rich ritual values (such as burials, the repositories or places of worship). Ritual fragmentation could therefore constitute an extreme metaphor of human “partibility” and the system of relations connected to it, obtained by splitting certain objects in “parts” that are capable alone, as well as through the whole, to represent the “whole”.

The outcomes of these hypothesis in the field of funerary rituals are quite obvious and have been variously developed by Chapman himself, especially regarding performative implications of gestures related to intentional fragmentation, allowing to transpose directly in on-the-spot practice a large body of theoretical speculations through which it became possible to consider alternative responses to gestures and behaviors otherwise left without adequate explanation. This occurred, for e.g, regarding the interpretation of some peculiar forms of manipulation of the skeletal remains, often compared to incidental disorders or deviant practices of necrophobic type, but after a closer examination have been potentially attributable to specific ritual beliefs such as those related to the logic of “Enchainment Theory”, that is - desire to create a tangible connection between the deceased and the survivors through the fragmentation of their skeleton and/or objects variously related to their sphere of identity.

This inserted in metaphorical logics of archeology a new possibility of interpretation, based on a conceptual equation between the behaviors related to the material body of the deceased and those characterizing their material culture, meaning the one as the projection of the other one, and vice versa, and including in the matter that network of relationships (“enchainment”) that could connote “fractionally” a specific person, the person’s group and their various possible cultural expressions. The analysis, therefore, ended almost inevitably to invest broader discussion on the individuality theme, in its anthropological dynamics as well as in its material evidence, at least limited to the way they tend to stratify and to be understood in their archaeological size/projection.

The main challenge consisted in clarifying a shared methodology in order to detect material residues of that “dividuality” theorized by Strathern, assuming that even in archaeologically observed realities could exist those peculiar identity and relational dynamics encountered ethnographically in India or Melanesia, as regarding the perception of the existence of a metaphorical relationship between people and objects as well as regarding the very concept of the community in the forms given above with “fractality”, “partibility” or “permeability”, as an alternative to the canonical opposition between “individuality” and “community” that the Western mind is traditionally accustomed to.

According to Chapman this purpose could be achieved by developing reliable operating methods for the reconstruction of the “biography of things” through the collection, verification and interpretation of cases of voluntary fragmentation and systematic use of defunctionalized objects; an aspect, this one, on which, almost inevitably, critics of “Fragmentation Theory” would be more focused to highlight the difficulties related to the recognition of a deliberate awareness in acts that could have been alike due to random factors or related to a simple need for reuse or as the direct result of involuntary mechanisms related to the post-depositional dynamics and/or method of formation of the deposit and, last but not least, to the circumstances of the discovery and the characteristics of dig’s procedures and the quality of documentation, very often such that don’t allow an extensive and thorough investigation of the complex subject of study or, even a comprehensive reconstruction of its diagenetic process.

The records collected by Chapman are quite wide and complete, although not always marked by an appropriate statistical survey to make it representative of a codified ritual and shared collectively. However, there are situations in which observed behaviors are undeniably attributable to an explicit symbolic desire, as occurs in those cases where parts of the same object are placed in separate graves in the same necropolis (“inter-burial re-fits”), with a time interval such that makes us presume estimated long-term storage in the time of the fragment found in this recent context. The aim of establishing a “material connection” between two or more individuals identified by parts of the same object (or, even, from portions of the same bone skeleton) lets very presumptively assume that at the beginning there was an intentional ritual gesture connected to its fragmentation, resulting in the division and prolonged storage in view of its final deposition; a set of deliberate acts that lend themselves therefore to be interpreted assuming the desire to create a deep “concatenation” between the world of the living and the dead, between ancestors and descendants, invoking consequently parental type relationships through “personified objects” or, vice versa, of “objectified persons”.

An «objectification» that could also take place by means of plastic metaphors of human physicality, as the anthropomorphic statuettes in terracotta widely spread in the Balkans, on which Chapman dwells with particular attention to check the existence of parallels between rituals treating them an treating human remains. In case of manipulation, the skeletal remains could have been, in fact the subject of separate behavioral strategies (not necessarily alternative), all related to their “modularity”, of which Chapman provides the following outline:

«fragmentation – the sub-division of the skeleton into different and major parts (e.g. the torso), some or many of which were never buried in the context of the “final” burial [...]

addition – the deliberate incorporation of human bones from another skeleton of the same age/biological sex identity into a burial of a more or less complete burial [...]

removal – the extraction from the grave of a largely complete skeleton of one human bone or a small number of human bones for removal to another context [...]

re-combination – the creation of a hybrid body by the placing of part of one human body in juxtaposition to that of part of the body of another human of different age/sex or another species [...]

substitution – the replacement of a human bone in an otherwise complete burial by the bone of another species or by a material object [...]

re-integration – the completion of a partial skeleton by placing the missing bone back in the anthropologically correct place but clearly without the previously destroyed articulation [...].» (Chapman 2010, p. 33).

Of course, because the contexts characterized by such “behavior” may be relevant for the “ritual” it’s necessary that there are indications sufficiently insightful to reconnect the formation to a real cultural awareness, difficult to recognize not only in the presence of any unintentional post-depositional interferences, but, especially, in all those cases where such burials have secondary character, resulting in unintentional “fragmentation”, “selections”, “removal” or “contamination” of skeletal remains, as physical anthropology and, at last, archaeothanatology have shown, even with the support of a wide ethnographic documentation.

Despite these theories - next to adhesions more or less passionate - have raised critics, at least in part, embraceable (see about it Fowler 2004, pp. 66-71, 114, Sofaer 2006, pp. 12 ss., Rebay-Salisbury, Sørensen, Hughes 2010, Knappett 2012, pp. 199 s. e Brittain, Harris 2010), however, they raise a number of issues which, in our opinion, cannot be neglected in a mature reflection on the issues of ritualism and of funeral ideology; they, in fact, don’t just limit to introduce in archaeological context some achievements of anthropological criticism regarding the concepts of “personhood” and “(in)dividuality”, but develop at the same time a series of methodological and heuristic tools for a more careful and accurate perception of the various trends associated with ritual gestures such as those related to fragmentation, establishing important cognitive and symbolic parallels between “bodies” and “objects” and, especially, between material outcomes of attitudes related to concepts of “personification” and “objectification” and their dialectics.

The aspect that, however, seems oversensitive to further developments is linked to the concept of “concatenation”, in its assumptions as well as in its results; an issue that, independently, was simultaneously analyzed in-depth by funerary archeology inspired by “philosophical-anthropological” current of “‘Actor-network-theory”, replacing the concept of “enchainment’ to the similar one of “network”.

The destabilization and the relativization of the concept of “individual/person” has caused, since the early 80’s, a progressive and almost inevitable decline of resulting theories centered on the notion of “social person”, essential for the processual interpretation of the social dimension of funeral practices. In this gradual process of deconstruction of Western thought categories the only concept that still preserved some “validity” was related to several times evoked “interaction”, on which the philosophical and anthropological critics had begun to dwell their attention, from the first theories on “agency” and “social life of things” to the most recent developments in the so-called “actor-network-theory” (“ANT”).

The essential point of this thesis focuses on the idea that reality is articulated by a complex system of interactions in which are involved not only men (individually and/or in groups), but also their cultural products (objects, images, concepts, words, etc.) as well as the natural and/or artificial surrounding around them.

Born from a post structuralist reflection of historical and ethnographic type about evolution of the scientific method and about the relationship between science and culture, and between scientists and phenomena from these discovered and observed, the ANT, in its later developments by its main theorists (especially M. Callon, J. Law and B. Latour), has gradually expanded to cover the entire plot of possible relationships between men and surrounding universe (see., in particular, Latour 2005, for more prospective critics, Saldanha 2003). The “agency” that all objects have, means that they can interact with the reality, helping to alter and/or modify it, but this interaction doesn’t exist by itself (in the abstract or absolute sense, as it is usual to insinuate in structural-functionalist or processualist context), but only as a result of their contact with a human counterpart; the “agency”, is also not fixed in time but can vary depending on the historical context, on the prospect of the counterparty or of the observer’s and/or, in the last case, on the tools that are used to examine it.

For ANT theorists, therefore, this “network” determines the notion of “society” and on it should linger the “sociological” search, starting from an overall rethinking of the nature and essence of the categories for which is customary to assume that they compose the “social”.

It is, of course, a reflection in many ways paradoxical and unsettling that prompted its own theorists in the years to take back and precise their first formulations, in order to mitigate the excessive relativism, the “fluidity” or absence of orthodoxy by many attributed to their theories.

This, however, has not diminished the good fortune, as revealed by the application of ANT principles to most different disciplines from geography to medicine, to economy, to anthropology, to archaeology, to computer science, with implications not always faithful to the original intent but just as much potentially productive at a time when the concept of “network” has been proteically implemented thanks to the universal success of instruments based on “increase” and “exploitation” of “relationships” as “Internet” and “social networks”.

The opening of new heuristic perspectives, then, although not supported by a specific “methodology”, has the great value of having allowed the overcoming of insidious prejudices, directing research towards new cognitive objectives whose potential is yet to be fully explored. After all, as the same Latour specifies, «ANT is first of all a negative argument. It does not say anything positive on any state of affairs» (Latour 2005, p. 141); but it is precisely the absence of an argument constructed as the sum of “positive” observations, for ANT’s theorists, that becomes possible to overcome those characteristic anthropocentric preconceptions on which it is customary to base the perception of social, to allow then to anchor it in an actually “objective” perspective even though, as he had at first assumed, not more literally “symmetrical” (Latour 2005, p. 76; for the “archaeological” prospect on the topic see. Preucel 2006, p. 151, Olsen 2007, Shanks 2007, Olsen 2010, Olsen et Alii 2012, Hodder 2012, p. 94).

In this sense, therefore, can be embraced, what Latour says about the fact that no “interaction” can legitimately be considered “isotope”, “synchronic”, “synoptic”, “homogeneous” and “isobaric”.

Through the deconstruction of the social, as it is commonly understood, Latour arrives to its recomposition in a new perspective, which assumes importance not the abstract idea of the social itself but what relationships/associations produce as effect, helping to actively transform reality or - to use the term adopted by Callon borrowing it intentionally from linguistics and then reclaimed by Latour - to “translate”, giving rise to the “sociology of translation” (where the term “translation” is to be understood as «a relation that does not transport causality but induces two mediators into coexisting») which, for its theoretician, is the most suitable definition of “actor-network-theory”: «I can now state the aim of this sociology of associations more precisely: there is no society, no social realm, and no social ties, but there exist a translations between mediators that may generate traceable associations» (Latour 2005, p. 108).

And it’s exactly in the traceability of such associations/translations and in the understanding of their meaning and their effects that, in the wake of ANT, began to deal with archaeological investigation both in the “cognitive-processual” as well as in the post-processual approach, stimulating a general reunion of theoretical perspectives.

The implications of this almost unexpected convergence, however, need yet to produce significant results but their potential, at least for what concerns the rethinking of the categories of social and interpretation of the relationship “human-things” are undoubtedly worthy of attention as highlighted recently by C. Knappett supporting an integration between the methodological tools of the “Social Network Analysis” (“SNA”) and theoretical ones of ANT: «By combining SNA with ANT we can bring together people and things both methodologically and theoretically» (Knappett 2011, p. 8).

It is easy to imagine how one of the areas in which this approach can give most interesting fruits will presumptively be the area of “funerary sociology”, in which the “interaction” (understood in a “performative” sense) between the deceased, those who participate in funeral ceremony, the context in which its various parts are held (inhabited, grave, necropolis, landscape etc.) and objects that materially take part in it, create all together a group of associations with strong symbolic connotations that, moreover, are enhanced by virtue of their reciprocity.

The main novelty of the quickly described approach above can consist in the acquisition of awareness of the role of the dead as “network” communication vehicle of the relations of the group to which belongs and a “non-human actor” of such relationships; a kind of process of “materialization” of the deceased as an ancestor who, through his new status, continues to express his “agency” and to be an interpreter and actor of the reports of his “network”. The effort of the interpreters is, therefore, in a codification of such “transformations” in the sense of that «sociology of translation» theorized by Callon which causes reassembling of the categories traditionally static of social in a perspective in which prevail the dynamism and the fluidity typical for “human-thing relationships.