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Ritual Analysis: What Archaeologists Can Learn From Ethnologists


Admission requirements

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

  • BA3 students who want to take this course: please contact the Administration Office. You can only be admitted if there are spots left, BA2 students will have priority.


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, religious art and, in particular, graves.

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.
In the process, you will acquire (or deepen your) knowledge of some basic theoretical angles, in particular: defining "ritual"; emic and etic; meaning and function; structuralist analysis; symbolic anthropology.

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

Course set-up

The first six weeks:
Case studies, including:

  • (1) Headhunting and second burial among the Dayak of Borneo;

  • (2) Ancestor cults in W. New Guinea;

  • (3) Funerary ritual among the Kuba of Congo(-Kinshasha),

  • (4) Ritual violence on the Christian frontier in European colonies

  • (5 and 6 to be announced).

Week 7:
Visit to Museum Volkenkunde with a research and writing assignment. You will learn to use its Reference Library, choose a ritual item and write a description-cum-analysis comprising ca. 800- words, linked to one of the theoretical angles discussed in the seminar.

Course objectives

  • You will get familiar with several ethnological approaches which are applicable in both archaeology and anthropology - 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 become more aware of the strong points (heuristic value) and the limitations of said approaches.


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 six meetings of two hours each, featuring interactive lectures and, where feasible, inspection of objects brought into in the classroom and discussions.
Meeting 7 comprises a museum (and museum library) 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 two weeks after the exam.

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;

  • Brief texts (ca. 10 pp. each) on the case studies.


Enrolment for all components of your study programme through MyStudymap. is mandatory. This applies to both compulsory elements and elective credits. If you are not enrolled, you may not participate.

General information about registration can be found on the Course and exam enrolment page.

Exchange and Study Abroad students, please contact the exchange coordinator for information on how to apply.

All information for those who are interested in taking this course as a Contractstudent is on the Contractonderwijs Archeologie webpage (in Dutch).


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


Compulsory attendance.