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Prehistoric Ritual

I am a folklore historian with degrees in history. Within every story is a seed of truth.


Daily Ritual

In the Prehistoric period, ritual was entwined with every day, domestic life. It is believed that the construction of domestic, or living, spaces was influenced by astrology and sacred influences, as demonstrated through the evidence of burials and ritual deposits within the foundations. For example, Europe, there were several sites in which human bones and offerings have been discovered in the foundations of prehistoric homes. Around a hearth structure (AD 20-350) in an excavation site in Ballyvergan West, County Cork, there were found objects such as beads, flakes, blades, and scrapers. It is believed that such offerings were meant to provide protection. In Yarnton, Oxfordshire, England, animal bones were combined with human cremains in three of the postholes that supported a dwelling. Interestingly, while most early settlements were transitory, the structures at Yarnton appeared to have been used year-round. One might infer from this information that the longevity of the Yarnton structures, and the use of remains in post holes; was a symbolic offering for protection in an isolated area during a time of transience. This can also be viewed as a transition in mortuary rituals for prehistoric peoples.


Domestic Ritual

Early evidence suggested inhumation and excarnation in early mortuary rituals. However, during the Neolithic period, the custom of burying the dead under homes was common. This ritual had been found at archaeological sites across Europe, in Asia, and the Mediterranean. Still, mortuary rituals are not the only marker of domestic ritual. Richard Bradley stated ritual is a form of action. At the Neolithic temples of Malta there was physical evidence of animal sacrifice, and female goddess statuettes found throughout the island. Beyond this, little is known about ritual in action. Despite this, there was some evidence that can provide clues. For example, the chambers of the temple are small that indicated that mass worship would not have taken place. Further, the construction layout of the temple suggested that it was laid out in human form. This can be paralleled with the Maori Meeting House of New Zealand, which was constructed to represent a human body. It is believed that this representation was meant to symbolize the house as a living organism and ancestor. The Meeting House was a sacred building for the community that saw numerous events from religious, daily, and political proceedings.


What Ritual Means

In the Prehistoric period, ritual was entwined with every day, domestic life. The lines between the spiritual and daily were blurred. Departed loved ones often were buried under homes and remains and used in postholes to offer ancestral blessings and protection to a home. Neolithic temples and meeting buildings were built to represent the human form that gave an inanimate structure a life force of its own. While determining the significance of artifacts as secular or ritual can be a challenge, perhaps they can be both. Ritualistic scarification has been practiced for over 8,000 years to mark important transitions such as into adulthood. The tools used for this ceremony could be any sharp implement, thus such an artifact would be both common and spiritual.

Works Cited

Bradshaw Foundation. “The Temples of Malta and Gozo.” Bradshaw Foundation. Accessed

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October 14, 2019.

“Maori Meeting House, Ruatepupuke II.” Field Museum, September 17, 2018.

“National Roads Authority Archaeological Discoveries.” National Roads Authority

Archaeological Discoveries. Ballynacarriga, UK, 2005.

library/archaeology/Brochures and Posters/N25-Youghal-Bypass-Co-Cork.pdf.

“Oxfordshire History.” Oxfordshire History. Oxfordshire History, n.d. Neolithic and early bronze age.pdf.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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