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Ritual Analysis: What Archaeologists Can Learn From Ethnologists


Admission requirements

  • This is a seminar with a limited amount of participants (20 students), for Archaeology students exclusively;

  • This is not an optional course for the Archaeology BA3 programme. If you want to take this course as an extra-curricular course in your programme, you should ask permission from the Board of Examiners. You can only be admitted with permission, with proper argumentation, and only if there are spots left.


This seminar introduces 'symbolic anthropology' and related approaches to ritual which can be helpful to archaeologists when dealing with any remains of ritual behaviour such as shrines, graves and religious art.

We will discuss these approaches both on a theoretical level (with attention for their strong points and limitations) and in terms of a number of case studies, illustrated with footage.

The seminar concludes with an assignment in Museum Volkenkunde in week 7 in which you apply some of your acquired expertise on a ritual item of your own choice.

Course set-up

Week 1
Some basic theoretical angles: defining "ritual"; emic and etic, meaning and function; structuralist analysis; symbolic anthropology.

Week 2
Headhunting and second burial among the Dayak of Borneo.

Week 3
Subarctic bear ceremonialism (in particular among the Ainu of Hokkaido).

Week 4
Liminality 1: Victor Turner on rites of passage.

Week 5
Liminality 2: Mary Douglas on pollution and taboo.

Week 6
Ritual violence: Iconoclasm on the Christian frontier, including 16th-century Mesoamerica.

Week 7
Visit to Museum Volkenkunde with a museum assignment comprising a 800-900-word description of a ritual item of your own choice, which you link to one of the theoretical angles discissed in the seminar.

Course objectives

  • You will get familiar with these ethnological approaches, both on a theoretical level and in terms of a number of case studies;

  • You will explore theoretical/conceptual issues to do with making sense of ritual (and its material remains);

  • You will learn to find and apply a number of conceptual tools offered by these approaches which are applicable in both archaeology and anthropology, all the while remaining conscious of their strong points (heuristic value) and limitations.


Course schedule details can be found in MyTimetable.
Log in with your ULCN account, and add this course using the 'Add timetable' button.

Mode of instruction

There are 6 meetings of 2 hours each, featuring interactive lectures and, where feasible, class discussions. Meeting 7 comprises a museum visit with assignment.

Assessment method

  • Written exam (75 %);

  • Museum assignment (25%).

Assessment deadlines

All assessment deadlines (exams, retakes, paper deadlines etc.) can be found in MyTimetable.
Log in with your ULCN account, and add this course using the 'Add timetable' button. To view the assessment deadline(s), make sure to select the course with a code ending in T and/or R.

The museum assignment is due within 3 weeks after the museum visit.

Reading list

  • Two brief chapters from Alan Barnard 2006, Social Anthropology (Abergel: Studymates): Ch. 6, Belief, Ritual and Symbolism, pp. 73-87; and Ch. 10, Anthropological Theory, pp. 129-143.
    A pdf will be made available, with permission of Prof. Barnard;

  • A number of entries (to be specified on Brightspace) from A. Barnard & J. Spencer (Eds.), The Routledge Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology, London: Routledge, 1996 or 2010, including Emic and Etic - Ritual - Rite of Passage - Symbolic Anthropology - Pollution and Purity (see Brightspace for a complete list ; this publication is available at the Leiden University Library as well as online through the Leiden University Library);

  • A number of (mostly corresponding) entries from the English-language Wikipedia, including: Symbolic anthropology - Ritual - Rite of passage - Purification rites - Liminality - Marcel Mauss - Victor Turner - Mary Douglas;

  • Raymond Corbey 2003, "Destroying the graven image: Religious iconoclasm on the Christian frontier", in: Anthropology Today 19(4): 10-14;

  • A number of items from the internet with background information on the ethnographic case studies - to be specified on Brightspace.


Registration start dates for the BA2 seminars differ from the registration dates of the regular courses.

Registration will take place with the use of Jotforms, which will be e-mailed to all BA2 students shortly.


For more information about this course, please contact prof. dr. R.H.A. (Raymond) Corbey.


Compulsory attendance.