Accepted Papers:

Knowing what has been done: technology of ritual 'objects' amongst the Abelam (East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea)  


Ludovic Coupaye (University College London)

Paper Short Abstract:

Analysing the processes of Abelam ceremonial yams cultivation offers an opportunity to show how the power of ritual objects stems from their nature of concretion of complex interactions merging technical actions and spiritual agencies, material and immaterial, and to discuss the term “technology”.

Paper long abstract:

Developed in French ethnography, the methodological concept of "chaîne opératoire" describes the sequence of technical actions transforming materials from one original state to a finished product. While familiar in Anglo-American archaeology, this tool remains absent of contemporary mainstream approaches of material culture, not to mention of rituals.

This paper explores the ritual agency of objects as stemming from their nature of material concretions of technico-ritual processes. Long yams of the Abelam (East Sepik Province, Papua-New Guinea) are a case in point. Tubers reaching up to 3 metres, cultivated in specific conditions and with ritual requirements are revealed during annual ceremonies, adorned and decorated in a fashion that echoes with ancestral images and human initiates. Villagers and visitors evaluate the quality of the tubers displayed. At intersection of food, valuables, and ancestral images, long yams are then integrated in ceremonial exchanges between ceremonial partners, compensations for dispute or bridewealth, to be consumed and/or replanted.

By their "presence-ing" during the ritual, yams appear as the indexes of (now invisible) practices, especially the "technology" by which they "came into-being". The paper shows how a detailed analysis of technical practices, made possible by the recording of "chaînes opératoires", reveals the process by which ritual objects become imbued with properties and qualities, allowing the intertwining of medium and meaning.

In turn, the paper discusses the shifting position of technology within material culture studies and analysis of rituals, and questions the separation between rites, art and techniques.

panel P01
Thinking, acting and knowing through religious 'things': artefacts in the making of cosmology