ActaAth-4°, 55: Bones, behaviour and belief (2013)


Front cover of Gunnel Ekroth & Jenny Wallensten (eds.), Bones, behaviour and belief. The zooarchaeological evidence as a source for ritual practice in ancient Greece and beyond (Skrifter utgivna av Svenska Institutet i Athen, 4°, 55), Stockholm 2013. ISSN 0586-0539. ISBN 978-91-7916-062-3. Hardcover: 272 pages.Now available for purchase and free download at Also available at,, and

Bones, behaviour and belief. The zooarchaeological evidence as a source for ritual practice in ancient Greece and beyond

Edited by Gunnel Ekroth & Jenny Wallensten

The importance of the zooarchaeological evidence as a source for ritual practices in ancient Greece is gradually becoming widely recognized. Animal bones form the only category of evidence for Greek cult which is constantly significantly increasing, and they can complement and elucidate the information provided by texts, inscriptions and images. This volume brings together sixteen contributions exploring ritual practices and animal bones from different chronological and geographical perspectives, foremost ancient Greece in the historical period, but also in the Bronze Age and as early as the Neolithic period, as well as Anatolia, France and Scandinavia, providing new empirical evidence from a number of major sanctuaries and cult-places. On a methodological level, the complexity of identifying ritual activity from the zooarchaeological evidence is a recurrent theme, as is the prominence of local variation visible in the bone material, suggesting that the written sources and iconography may offer simplified or idealized versions of the rituals actually performed. Although zooarchaeology needs to and should be integrated with other kinds of sources, the independent study of the bones in an unbiased manner is of utmost importance, as the bones can provide a different “reality” than that encountered in our other sources.


‘Table of contents’, 5

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‘Preface’, 7

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Jenny Wallensten & Gunnel Ekroth, ‘Introduction: bones of contention?’, 9-13

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Gunnel Ekroth, ‘What we would like the bones to tell us: a sacrificial wish list’, 15-30

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Armelle Gardeisen, ‘L’assemblage osseux comme un dernier état de la présence animale en contexte archéologique. Gestuelle et comportements vis-à-vis de l’animal’, 31-49

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Maria Vretemark, ‘Evidence of animal offerings in Iron Age Scandinavia’, 51-59

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Katerina Trantalidou, ‘Dans l’ombre du rite : vestiges d’animaux et pratiques sacrificielles en Grèce antique. Note sur la diversité des contextes et les difficultés de recherche rencontrées’, 61-86

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Valasia Isaakidou & Paul Halstead, ‘Bones and the body politic? A diachronic analysis of structured deposition in the Neolithic–Early Iron Age Aegean’, 87-99

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Peter R.W. Popkin, ‘Hittite animal sacrifice. Integrating zooarchaeology and textual analysis’, 101-114

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Ola Magnell, ‘The taphonomy of ritual bone depositions. An approach to the study of animal bones and ritual practice with an example from Viking Age Frösö, Sweden’, 115-127

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Michael MacKinnon, ‘“Side” matters: animal offerings at ancient Nemea’, 129-147

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Dimitra Mylona, ‘Dealing with the unexpected. Unusual animals in an Early Roman cistern fill in the Sanctuary of Poseidon at Kalaureia, Poros’, 149-166

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Hélène Brun & Martine Leguilloux, ‘Rituels sacrificiels et offrandes animales dans le Sarapieion C de Délos’, 167-179

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Deborah Ruscillo, ‘Thesmophoriazousai. Mytilenean women and their secret rites’, 181-195

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Tatiana Theodoropoulou, ‘The sea in the temple? Shells, fish and corals from the sanctuary of the ancient town of Kythnos and other marine stories of cult’, 197-222

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Sabine Sten, ‘Sacrificed animals in Swedish Late Iron Age monumental mound burials’, 223-231

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Gerhard Forstenpointner, Alfred Galik & Gerald E. Weissengruber, ‘The zooarchaeology of cult. Perspectives and pitfalls of an experimental approach’, 233-242

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Scott Scullion, ‘Bones in Greek sanctuaries: answers and questions’, 243-255

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Stella Georgoudi, Véronique Mehl & Francis Prost, ‘Archéozoologie et pratiques rituelles: méthodes, matériaux et perspectives’, 257-260

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‘Maps’, 261-264

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‘Index’, 265-272

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Bibliographical information

Gunnel Ekroth & Jenny Wallensten, eds., Bones, behaviour and belief. The zooarchaeological evidence as a source for ritual practice in ancient Greece and beyond (Skrifter utgivna av Svenska Institutet i Athen, 4°, 55), Stockholm 2013. ISSN 0586-0539. ISBN 978-91-7916-062-3. Hardcover: 272 pages.


American Journal of Archaeology 119:3, 2015 (Nerissa Russel)
L’Antiquité Classique 84, 2015, 487-489 (A. Palamidis)
Kernos (Online), 27, 2014 (Jan-Mathieu Carbon)

Chapter abstracts

What we would like the bones to tell us: a sacrificial wish list

By Gunnel Ekroth (Uppsala University),

Animal bones comprise the only category of evidence for Greek cult which is constantly significantly increasing. The use of ever more sophisticated excavation methods demonstrates the importance of zooarchaeological material for the study of Greek religion and how such material can throw light on texts, inscriptions and images, as the animal bones constitute remains of actual ritual actions and not mere descriptions or representations of these actions. This paper outlines some areas where the zooarchaeological evidence may be of particular pertinence, for example, in elucidating the complex and idiosyncratic religious terminology of shares of sacrificial victims mentioned in sacred laws and sacrificial calendars, or in providing a context for a better understanding of the representations of animal parts on Attic vases. The role of meat within ancient Greek society, the choice of sacrificial victims and the handling of “non-sacrificable” animals such as game, dogs and equids within Greek cult can also be clarified by comparisons with the animal remains.
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L’assemblage osseux comme un dernier état de la présence animale en contexte archéologique. Gestuelle et comportements vis-à-vis de l’animal

By Armelle Gardeisen (Université de Montpellier 3),

Faunal assemblages from different archaeological contexts are presented here as examples of different methods of zooarchaeological interpretation. The aim of this contribution is to discuss the interpretation of bone assemblages according to the context and what is to be considered as relevant against the background of all species/anatomical elements present in the faunal record, in relation to religious practices or not. Emphasis will be given to specific bone assemblages from protohistorical contexts in southern France and their interpretation. The main purpose of the methodology of the zooarchaeological analyses is to give comprehensive information about human behaviour in ritual or non-ritual procedures.
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Evidence of animal offerings in Iron Age Scandinavia

By Maria Vretemark (Västergötlands museum),

Written contemporary sources of animal sacrificial rituals in Iron Age Scandinavia are almost non-existent. However, we have some rare descriptions about the people of northern Europe from Roman historians. Most famous of these is of course Tacitus who gives us valuable information about life in Scandinavia during the first century AD. Among other things we learn about fertility rituals carried out in sacrificial bogs and we understand the close connection between the goddess and water. Tacitus’ descriptions, as well as younger sources such as the Old Norse religious texts of Scandinavia, also clearly tell us about the magic role of different animals such as birds, wild boar, wolf and horse. In the archaeological material we try to recognize traces of religious acts that once took place. But how can we tell the difference and distinguish between the remains of ritual animal offerings on one hand and the normal kitchen waste on the other? This paper deals with some examples of horse offerings in bogs and ponds and with ritual deposits of animal bones in dry settlement contexts in Sweden. Zooarchaeological analysis gives us valuable data and a key to interpret the animal bone assemblages as evidence of animal offerings.
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Dans l’ombre du rite : vestiges d’animaux et pratiques sacrificielles en Grèce antique. Note sur la diversité des contextes et les difficultés de recherche rencontrées

By Katerina Trantalidou (Ephorate of Palaeoanthropology-Speleology of Southern Greece),

In all ancient civilisations, as well as in numerous contemporary societies, animals were implicated in many aspects of religion. Sacrifice and alimentary rituals regulated social life and animals underwent diverse treatments in accordance with particular cults. Zooarchaeological material constitutes direct evidence for animals that were slaughtered and often eaten in a sacred context. Also, the status of a departed person in life could be indicated by the faunal and vegetal funerary offerings that accompanied him or her to the grave.
Still, it is not possible to ascribe every zooarchaeological deposit showing unusual characteristics a religious significance, nor does all animal bone assemblages found in a sanctuary constitute the remains of a sacrifice. The interpretation must rest on the interaction between the archaeological context, the taphonomy and the iconographical and literary sources relevant for the particular society. The present article aims at exploring existing hypotheses concerning the zooarchaeological evidence by posing questions and confronting the Greek prehistoric and historical material, as ritual practices were neither static nor linear. This discussion brings to bear on the most recent discoveries, partly still unpublished.
Examination of the zooarchaeological evidence from 63 sites allows us to conclude that focus on a particular criterion can result in misinterpretations, as what was common practice in one community was not necessarily so in another. The definition of the actual length of every event is also paramount. Only a careful stratigraphic and zooarchaeological methodology, combined with a multitude of questions posed, will yield information precise enough to determine the species, reconstruct the practices and reformulate our questions.
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Bones and the body politic? A diachronic analysis of structured deposition in the Neolithic–Early Iron Age Aegean

By Valasia Isaakidou (University of Sheffield) & Paul Halstead (University of Sheffield),

The meanings of the terms “ritual” and “sacrifice” are discussed as a basis for considering whether and how animal bones might be recognized as remnants of ritual behaviour or sacrifice. These methodological issues are explored “in practice”, taking structured deposits of burnt bones from the Mycenaean “Palace of Nestor” at Pylos as a case study. The paper then places this and other apparent examples of Mycenaean animal sacrifice in a wider context, by examining zooarchaeological evidence for anatomically selective manipulation and for deliberate or “structured” deposition of animal bones from the Neolithic to Early Iron Age in the Aegean. It is argued that anatomically selective treatment and structured deposition of bones increase through time and that these tendencies are matched by changes in the treatment of human remains, in the form and deposition of ceramics associated with commensality, and in architectural organization of space. These trends reflect not only increasing elaboration of material culture but also increasing qualitative, spatial and temporal differentiation of social life. Although the precise form and meaning of Mycenaean sacrificial ritual may be difficult to discern, its material traces mirror and probably helped to promote radical social change during the Aegean Bronze Age.
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Hittite animal sacrifice. Integrating zooarchaeology and textual analysis

By Peter R.W. Popkin (Archaeological Services Inc.),

In 2008, the disarticulated remains of a young male sheep skeleton deposited within a small Late Bronze Age pit were recovered at Kilise Tepe in south-central Turkey approximately 40 km inland from the Mediterranean coast. The pit, which exclusively contained the sheep skeleton, was located within a building whose size, design and artefactual contents indicate it was associated with ritual activity. The lack of disturbance to the pit and excellent state of preservation of the bones suggest elements that are missing were not originally deposited. The carcass was thoroughly dismembered, disarticulated and filleted prior to deposition. Contextual analysis of these skeletal remains provides a significant opportunity to move beyond the limits of textual analysis when studying Hittite animal sacrifice. By demonstrating the benefits of zooarchaeological analysis conducted in a context-specific fashion this paper offers the beginnings of a methodology for Anatolian specialists interested in examining ritual behaviour. More than a simple case study, this article combines two separate strands of archaeological evidence to investigate the complex issue of Hittite animal sacrifice.
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The taphonomy of ritual bone depositions. An approach to the study of animal bones and ritual practice with an example from Viking Age Frösö, Sweden

By Ola Magnell (Swedish National Heritage Board),

In this paper an approach to studying ritual bone depositions by reconstructing the taphonomic history of the zooarchaeological remains is presented. By methodically examining the taphonomic evidence from the chain of events, from the selection of animals to the killing, from the processing and utilization of the carcass to the deposition of the bones, different stages of a ritual, such as animal sacrifice, can be studied and understood. A bone assemblage from a Viking Age cult place at Frösö church in Jämtland in central Sweden (late 10th–early 11th century AD) will serve as an example of the approach. The analysis shows that brown bear and piglets were specifically selected to be used in the rituals, while horses were not important sacrificial animals in the cult, as has otherwise been indicated by written sources. Seasonal analysis indicates that sacrifices took place at three periods of the year. Butchering marks reveal the intense utilization of the carcasses and that meat was consumed. Body part frequency shows that bears were treated differently from other species, which could be the result of an influence of Saami ritual practice. The bones were deposited on the ground beneath a birch tree and carcasses were not hung in the tree as some written sources indicate.
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“Side” matters: animal offerings at ancient Nemea

Michael MacKinnon (University of Winnipeg),

As the locus of the Nemean games, Ancient Nemea was an important Greek cult and festival center, especially during the Archaic period (6th–5th century BC). Examination of excavated faunal materials deriving from “sacred” and “secular” contexts at the site yields clues about the distribution of meat to gods (such as Zeus, the patron deity of the area), to heroes (in this case Opheltes, on whose legendary death the Nemean Games were founded), and to the mortal officials, spectators, and athletes participating in the events at Nemea. As regards “sacrificial” assemblages, most of which consisted of bone remains of burnt offerings as collected from altars and other ritual-type contexts, the data indicate a preference for sheep as the standard sacrificial animal, but show a definite preference for the hind limb sections of the left side in the case of sacrifice to the hero Opheltes, as opposed to the god Zeus. “Secular” deposits show different trends, such as the presence of unburnt bones, or the remains of wild animals and fish, taxa not typically sacrificed in Greek antiquity. Examination of zooarchaeological remains from various contexts at the site, at one level, and across other sites, at a larger level, helps develop a larger more integrated picture of animal use in ancient Greek cult practices.
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Dealing with the unexpected. Unusual animals in an Early Roman cistern fill in the Sanctuary of Poseidon at Kalaureia, Poros

By Dimitra Mylona (The Kalaureia Research Program),

The excavation of the Early Roman fill of an Archaic cistern in the Sanctuary of Poseidon at Kalaureia on Poros produced the remains of a range of animals that are not usually found together in closed contexts. Consideration of taphonomic parameters and of the specific features of the assemblage indicates that it represents the remains of ritual activities. This paper aims to explore the possibilities of using the material remains (in this case the bones and shells) to detect ritual activities of a type not referred to in the written sources. Such an exploration brings forward issues of definition and interpretation of what can be seen as sacred or profane in the context of a cult place such as a sanctuary.
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Rituels sacrificiels et offrandes animales dans le Sarapieion C de Délos

By Hélène Brun (Université Paris-Sorbonne [Paris IV]) & Martine Leguilloux (Centre archéologique du Var – Établissement de Toulon),

In 2001, 2002 and 2004 two hearth altars (escharones) were excavated in the Sarapieion C on the island of Delos in Greece. They contained remains of sacrifices, notably rich zooarchaeological evidence, which has thrown light on the rituals practised in this sanctuary. The inscriptions are silent on this matter and the study of the bone assemblage thus constitutes important evidence. The rituals involved sacrifices of poultry (Gallus domesticus), making up 90% and 70% of the bone material collected in each hearth altar deposit, respectively. These poultry sacrifices were combined with those of small ruminants and pigs. The handling of the victims differed according to the species: the cocks and hens were consecrated whole while only parts of the sheep and the pigs were offered.

The two altars excavated in the Sarapieion C do not belong to the same period and a study of the bone evidence brings out distinctions between them. The oldest altar was no doubt abandoned when the younger one was brought into use, probably at the end of the 2nd century BC. It is interesting to note such differences that perhaps are to be explained by the development of the ritual practices in the sanctuary during the 2nd century BC.

The zooarchaeological material also gives information on the performance of the sacrifices, which differed in accordance with the animal species involved. All the bones from gallinaceous birds show traces of carbonization and these burnt bones indicate sacrifices of entire animals, of the holocaustic kind. The bone evidence from the small ruminants and pigs are partially burnt and some bones are even unburnt, which indicates only a selective burning of the bodies.

One can of course compare the sacrificial practices identified in the Sarapieion C on Delos with those studied at other sanctuaries dedicated to the same divinities and thus demonstrate the presence of a possible “koine” in Isis worship. However, similar sacrifices were also performed in cults of healing deities (foremost in sanctuaries of Asklepios). Historical interpretation should thus proceed with caution.
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Thesmophoriazousai. Mytilenean women and their secret rites

By Deborah Ruscillo (Washington University in St. Louis),

During the 1984–1994 excavations on the acropolis in Mytilene, a sanctuary devoted to Demeter from the Late Archaic to the Early Hellenistic period was discovered. A series of five or more altars to the east of the site was excavated, producing approximately 5,000 animal bones. The bones of young sheep, goat and pigs predominated, in contrast with other contemporary Demeter sanctuaries in the Greek world which have yielded a characteristic predominance of pig bones. The sanctuary in Mytilene also produced figurines of Kybele, Isis, Aphrodite and Eros, reflecting the polytheistic nature of this place of worship. These different associations may provide the reason for the high percentage of bovid bones from this sanctuary. A circular ash pit at the western end of the row of altars was found filled with calcined bones of perinatal piglets. The exclusive sacrifice of piglets, particularly in this sanctuary context, is reminiscent of Thesmophoric ritual. Ancient testimonia of the rites of the Thesmophoria are examined in this paper, and compared to the faunal evidence in order to reconstruct the ancient ritual that took place on the acropolis in Mytilene. Special attention is paid to the timing of the placement of the piglets in the megara prior to their offering on the altar.
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The sea in the temple? Shells, fish and corals from the sanctuary of the ancient town of Kythnos and other marine stories of cult

By Tatiana Theodoropoulou (American School of Classical Studies at Athens),

A broad variety of animal remains have been recorded from several cult contexts across Greece. They usually involve sacrificial victims and a variety of animals, and often corroborate ancient sources on the use of animals in ancient Greek cult. Although zooarchaeological or textual evidence regarding the presence of marine faunas in this type of contexts is not missing, their specific role within the sacrificial sphere is usually not extensively discussed. This paper aims to bring together available shell and other marine evidence from sanctuary deposits from ancient Greece with the aim of exploring the role of the sea within Greek cult. In order to bring forward research questions related to this group of remains from cult places, a case study from the adyton of the Archaic–Hellenistic temple of the Middle Plateau in the ancient town of Kythnos in the Cyclades will serve as the backbone of this approach. Careful study of shell and other marine remains in their specific context aims to detect possible ritual actions related to the marine world within an island sanctuary, and to find possible links between the latter and the identity of the worshippers and worshipped deity. What is underlined by this study is the everyday, individual and personal aspect of the cult beyond the official function of sanctuaries in the Greek world. The importance of careful recovery and study of all types of remains from excavations related to cult places is highlighted.
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Sacrificed animals in Swedish Late Iron Age monumental mound burials

By Sabine Sten (Uppsala University),

Osteological analyses of prehistoric burials from Sweden often consider skeletal remains not only from the buried person, but also from animals. During the Swedish Iron Age Period (500 BC to AD 1050) cremation was common and towards the end of the period (AD 400 to 1050) many different animal species represented by a high number of individuals are often found in a single cremation grave. The skeletal remains represent animals that have been sacrificed and buried together with the dead person. Sometimes only parts of the animal bodies are found in the grave while in other instances the whole animal is present. The animal bone finds can be divided into two groups: animals that have been consumed, such as cattle, pig and sheep, and animals that were used in daily life such as dogs, horses, cats and birds of prey. Dogs are the most common animal in the cremation graves, while finds of birds of prey in particular indicate the high status of the buried person and suggest that falconry was practised.
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The zooarchaeology of cult. Perspectives and pitfalls of an experimental approach

By Gerhard Forstenpointner (University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna), Alfred Galik (University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna) & Gerald E. Weissengruber (University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna),

A broad variety of ritual behaviours involve the killing and/or consumption of domestic as well as game animals, and are functionally assigned to most important social procedures and ceremonies such as religious worship, activities of public administration or funerary rites and very often also to subsistence-oriented sacrifice. Material remains indicative of these ceremonies reveal specific aspects of the ritual procedure, but their significance is always dependent on the degree of scrutiny that has been spent during archaeological excavation and more so in the analysis of the finds. Focusing on ritual patterns in Mediterranean antiquity, the remains of burnt offerings and agglomerations of caprine horn cores are attested frequently by the zooarchaeological record. Even when literary descriptions of all of these sacrificial activities are available, obvious uncertainties about the actual procedure of burning meria and osphys and of the consecration of goat horns made experimental efforts necessary. Experimental approaches characterize a well established methodological tradition in archaeological and historical research, not only enhancing our understanding of poorly handed down evidence of ancient life, but also allowing the feasibility of reconstructive suggestions to be judged. On the other hand, obtaining evidence by means of experimental studies always has to take into account potential and maybe biasing phenomena of convergence. Talking in terms of evolutionary biology, the phenotypically similar appearance of archaeological findings and experimental results has to be understood as the outcome of two distinctly evolved and necessarily different processes.
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Bones in Greek sanctuaries: answers and questions

By Scott Scullion (University of Oxford),

The paper begins by surveying some old problems in the study of Greek ritual to which the zooarchaeological evidence has brought answers, or at any rate illuminating new perspectives (sacrifice to Herakles on Thasos, and Herakles’ identity there; sacrifice at Kalapodi/Hyampolis). The focus then shifts to the attestation by the bones of the eating of “nonsacrificable” species of animal in sanctuaries, suggesting that we ought at least to reckon with the possibility that such consumption was common, that sacrificable animals too were not uncommonly eaten without being sacrificed, and that in general the Greeks may have been less scrupulous about sacrificial feasting, and about meat-eating in general, than modern scholars have tended to suppose. It may be that in this sphere, as (I have argued elsewhere) in others, the sacrality of the central ritual “tapered off ” quite sharply, and that the banqueting, like festival events such as parades, markets, athletics, and dramatic and musical performances, was in practice felt to be essentially “secular”.
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