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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Piety, Practice, and Politics: Agency and Ritual in the Late Bronze Age Southern Levant

  • Author(s): DePietro, Dana Douglas
  • Advisor(s): Feldman, Marian
  • et al.

Striking changes in the archaeological record of the southern Levant during the final years of the Late Bronze Age have long fascinated scholars interested in the region and period. Attempts to explain the emergence of new forms of Canaanite material culture have typically cited external factors such as Egyptian political domination as the driving force behind culture change, relying on theoretical models of acculturation, elite-emulation and center-periphery theory. While these approaches can be useful in explaining some dimensions of culture-contact, they are limited by their assumption of a unidirectional flow of power and influence from dominant core societies to passive peripheries. As a result, they are unable to adequately explain the wide variety of complex interactions and changes that characterize the archaeological record of the LB IIB southern Levant.

In this dissertation I argue for a new approach to the region and period, one that recognizes the equally important role of the individual in dictating the terms of cross-cultural interaction, as well as the recursive relationship between those individuals and the social structures within which they operate. I hypothesize that instead of simply emulating or adapting to foreign powers, a process of cultural entanglement took place between the Levant and its neighbors. This process resulted in new hybridizing practices emerged and existed in constant state of renegotiation, with participants actively choosing specific cultural elements to adopt, maintain and transform altogether.

To investigate this, I argue that ritual activity is ideally suited to assess such processes, given that it engages with the realm of ideas, making them manifest through practice and accessible through the archaeological record. Incorporating new archaeological evidence from the southern Levant, I evaluate change and continuity within three distinct, yet complimentary lines of evidence relating to ritual activity in the LB IIB: temples and their assemblages, mortuary traditions, and Canaanite "bowl-lamp" deposits. By evaluating change and continuity over time, each case study examines how identity and relationships of power were facilitated, enforced and negotiated through ritual activity at both local and regional levels.

Abandoning traditional morphological typologies, the results of this contextual study show a remarkable degree of uniformity in ritual practice across the LB IIB southern Levant. I conclude that these overlapping patterns of practice suggest shared emic notions of what specific forms of ritual practice entail, indicating a higher level of cultural cohesion during the period than has been previously assumed. At the same time, the study shows that degrees of local variation in each ritual practice exist as well. This combination of regional patterning and local variation indicates that while a general process of Canaanite cultural coalescence was taking place during the LB IIB, it played out differently in various locales according to local interests. The evidence therefore indicates that this process, along with the emergence of new and unattested ritual practices, is the product of both local agency and the structural conditions within which it operates.

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