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The Power of Ritual in Prehistory
Secret Societies and Origins of Social Complexity


  • Author: Brian Hayden, University of British Columbia, Vancouver
  • Date Published: November 2020
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9781108445108

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About the Authors
  • The Power of Ritual in Prehistory is the first book in nearly a century to deal with traditional secret societies from a comparative perspective and the first from an archaeological viewpoint. Providing a clear definition, as well as the material signatures, of ethnographic secret societies, Brian Hayden demonstrates how they worked, what motivated their organizers, and what tactics they used to obtain what they wanted. He shows that far from working for the welfare of their communities, traditional secret societies emerged as predatory organizations operated for the benefit of their own members. Moreover, and contrary to the prevailing ideas that prehistoric rituals were used to integrate communities, Hayden demonstrates how traditional secret societies created divisiveness and inequalities. They were one of the key tools for increasing political control leading to chiefdoms, states, and world religions. Hayden's conclusions will be eye-opening, not only for archaeologists, but also for anthropologists, political scientists, and scholars of religion.

    • Proposes a new view of ritual and religion
    • Summarizes the material aspects of secret societies in each chapter and gives examples of archaeological applications to prehistoric sites in one of the final chapters
    • Offers general discussions followed by full documentation of the characteristics of secret societies organized by specific topics
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    Reviews & endorsements

    'This is a strong book and a fascinating account of practices … It gives us clear examples of secret societies in a variety of cultures and helps us get an appreciation for how they might have functioned in the past as well as how this undermines perceived notions of the role of religion in ancient societies.' Joanne M.A. Murphy, American Journal of Archaeology

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    Product details

    • Date Published: November 2020
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9781108445108
    • length: 410 pages
    • dimensions: 254 x 178 x 21 mm
    • weight: 0.712kg
    • contains: 64 b/w illus. 4 maps
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    1. The secret
    Part I. The New World:
    2. The complex hunter/gatherers of the American Northwest
    3. California
    4. The American Southwest and Mesoamerica
    5. Plains secret societies
    6. The Eastern woodlands and others
    Part II. The Old World:
    7. Oceania
    8. Chiefdoms in Central Africa
    9. West Africa
    Part III. Implications For Prehistory:
    10. Archaeological applications
    11. Conclusions.

  • Author

    Brian Hayden, University of British Columbia, Vancouver
    Brian Hayden is a Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia and Professor Emeritus at Simon Fraser University. In addition to excavating sites on three continents, he has conducted ethnoarchaeological research in Australia, British Columbia, Guatemala, Mexico, Polynesia, and Southeast Asia. These studies have resulted in new models of domestication, feasting, social inequalities, and now ritual and religion. Hayden has been recognized for this pioneering work as a member of the Royal Society of Canada. His other works include The Power of Feasts (Cambridge, 2014), Shamans, Sorcerers, and Saints: A Prehistory of Religion (2003), and Archaeology: The Science of Once and Future Things (1993).

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