Portfolio > Ritual

The following is a short fictional narrative that has been the foundation of both my thinking and the objects that I have designed and created for this body of work.
-Phillip Mann

The Decline of the United States and the Beginnings of the New Frontier:

The New Frontier period (2039 – 2109) followed the Second Civil War and marked a time of rebuilding and reorganization after years of warfare, famine and strife. Before exploring each of the pieces in the collection, an attempt should be made to place these pieces in their appropriate cultural and historical context, since they are very much the product of the culture and religion that rose out of the ashes of the United States in the late 2000’s and early 2100’s.
At the end of 2020, the conflict that would later become The Middle East War was spreading into Lebanon. Crude oil prices were reaching unheard of heights and threatening the integrity of the industrialized world. The economies of Europe and the United States already weakened by a decade of economic recessions, teetered under the added pressure of rising oil prices. Ongoing military entanglements in the Middle East put additional stresses on the American economy as the fighting in the region escalated.

With the dawning of 2021, the United States government was already badly divided by the faltering economy and the heavy American military loses in and around the Middle East. The Patriot Party had established itself as a new political force to be reckoned with and split the Democratic and Republican parties by appealing to a frightened American public with rhetoric that many historians regard as nationalistic and even quasi-fascist. The Patriot Party’s increasing power eventually led to a standoff in the American legislature that brought much of the government to a halt. The result was a hamstrung government that was unable to cope with the challenges that would arise in the months to come.

It is believed that foreign terrorists delivered the coupe de grace to the United States with a series of attacks culminating in the coordinated bombings of Black Thursday. While many of the particulars have been impossible to establish in light of what followed, it is clear that at least three so-called “dirty bombs” containing small amounts of radio active material were detonated in what were the cites of New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles. The year that followed would see the total collapse of the United States economy, with state and local governments finding themselves unable to maintain infrastructure, let alone rebuild the areas destroyed and contaminated after Black Thursday. This destabilization led to the fall of many smaller municipal governments, which in turn forced the federal government and the military to assume control. The result was the further stretching of the federal government’s already diminished resources. Large parts of the bombed cities were merely abandoned for lack of means to repair them. Scattered uprisings of disaffected people led to sometimes-violent retaliation from federal troops as both local and federal governments struggled to maintain order in the midst of worsening conditions. Numerous underground anti-government movements, such as the Popular Front, fanned the flames of this discontent, although the actual amount of power wielded by these groups remains a matter of debate amongst scholars.

By mid-2021 the United States government was forced to withdraw the remainder of its military forces overseas due both from a lack of available funding and because the remaining troops were needed to help quell the growing unrest at home. The result in the Middle East War was swift and terrible. The presence of American troops had kept the war from escalating, but now, with their departure the situation quickly worsened with numerous strikes and counterstrikes from both sides that reduced much of the region to smoking ruins. Oil prices spiked sharply and worldwide shortages ensued.

The effect in the United States was to worsen the popular unrest and to spark a new round of rioting and demonstrations that resulted in harsh crackdowns on the part of government. By mid-2022, the United States was under martial law, but cracks were already forming in the ranks of the military. Long overseas deployments often involving combat, followed by an unpopular mission to impose martial law at home, combined with shrinking and sometimes sporadic pay to crush the morale of the U.S. military. The end of 2025 saw mass desertions that forced major restructuring of all branches of the military. Paramilitary groups began to gain power and fill the power vacuum left by the shrinking federal government. Power struggles between the paramilitaries and federal troops and amongst the various paramilitary factions began almost immediately. By November of 2026 Canada had sealed its border to avoid the spillover of fighting onto its soil. Traditional American allies were either unwilling or unable to commit peacekeeping troops to help quell what would later be called the Second Civil War.

Scholars generally mark October 2027 as the beginning of the Second Civil War (2027-2039), although accurate dates are hard to establish. Certainly by that date the Northeastern United States was the scene of brutal factional fighting that left many major cities in the region in ruins. The Northern League, made up of radical political and paramilitary groups began an offensive early in the winter of 2028 that surprised the United States military with its efficiency and brutality. Alliances during the war shifted and re-shifted, as groups such as the New England Confederacy, and the Alliance constantly jockeyed for power. A number of cities were almost entirely destroyed by a series of battles starting in the summer of 2029, which triggered huge fires that swept through cities and even whole states unchecked. It is thought that the fires may have been the result of the use of tactical nuclear warheads by one or more of the combatants and recent archeological evidence, as well as fragments of first hand accounts certainly lend credence to this theory. Some of the cultures that survived these holocausts remember this period as the time of The Time of the Great Fires or most commonly, the Nine Fires. Imagery and myths dealing with the fires can be found in much of the art and craftwork of the later New Frontier period. The chaos that ensued found the survivors gathering in what were essentially tribal groups, often based on geography, religion and occasionally race.

As has often been the case throughout history, the plague that accompanied the fighting proved to be even more deadly than the fighting itself. Sorenson’s Disease (or S.D.), first identified in 2028, and thought to be a virus mutated by radioactive material in the atmosphere, took a huge toll on combatants and non-combatants alike, and is credited by some accounts as being responsible for half of the total casualties during the Second Civil War. Some of the radical religious groups called the plague divine retribution, and claimed that faith, not science was the only recourse against the deadly and fast spreading virus. It was in the end it was the other great tragedy of the day, the Nine Fires, along with the precipitous drop in population that is credited with the end of the plague. Like the Nine Fires, S.D. played a prominent role in shaping the myths and imagery of the New Frontier period.

The Postwar Years and the Return to Stability:

When the smoke of war had cleared, the people that remained did their best to pick up the pieces of civilization as they remembered it. This was the beginning of the period that scholars have called the New Frontier period. The population at the end of the Second Civil War is generally thought to have been less than a quarter of pre-war estimates. The former United States was now a patchwork of small governments, city-states, and tribal lands, all with varying amounts of law, order and cultural development. The United States government was now a shell of its former self and controlled only a fraction of the former United States, mainly on the southeastern seaboard, although in the years that followed it did manage to slowly reestablish its power through military and political means to include much of the eastern seaboard and is still the largest single power in the former United States. Loose confederations also formed in the central and upper Mid-West, offering a degree of stability for residents of the area.

While it is difficult to generalize about the variety of economic and physical conditions found across the former United States, it can be said that there was a wholesale shift to a primarily agrarian economic system since the destruction of much of the country’s infrastructure and energy production meant that the transportation of food stuff in particular, but also raw materials and manufactured goods in general, was slow and sometimes difficult. This state of affairs played a large role in shaping the artifacts in this collection. In the years directly after the war, the production and uses of energy more closely resembled a 19th Century rather than a 21st Century model. The United States had degenerated from a First World nation to a collection of minor Third World states. Many larger communities with access to the means and the know-how where able to use water and wind to generate limited power. As a result, these communities prospered and became important regional centers of production and commerce. In these communities we see a higher level of sophistication in art and craftwork, as the larger, more stable economies were able to support specialization and the division of labor, and generally had access to higher quality raw materials. In addition, the larger communities usually had a higher level of education and literacy that led to closer links to their cultural and material past. Artists and artisans in these communities were often the keepers of traditional techniques and methodologies. In a few cases, scholars have been able to attribute work to a particular artisan or workshop from these larger communities. In the eastern part of the former United States the guild systems grew to wield considerable social and political power through their control of craft production. In the smaller communities however, the artists and artisans still had to spend the majority of their time and energy to generate food and in some cases small amounts of surplus agricultural products for trade with the towns, and in a limited number of cases with communities in Canada. By contrast, some regions and towns went through periods of lawlessness akin to the American West in the 19th Century, which along with the general decentralization of political power and resources may have contributed to the use of the term “New Frontier” to describe the period.

Changes in religious beliefs and practices also marked this period in the former United States. Few of the established mainstream religions survived the upheaval unscathed. For many of the survivors, the old religions had failed to offer succor and explanations for the horrors that the people had witnessed and endured during the upheavals. They looked for hope and salvation amongst the ashes after seeing everything they had known destroyed. Heroes of the war were elevated to the status of holy men, saints and even messiahs. New rituals and mythologies arose based on the shared experiences of the groups of survivors, remembering significant events such as escapes, massacres and battles. Of the old religions, the Christian sects in particular not only shrank in the number of adherents, but the decentralization of the larger Christian sects allowed for an increase in peculiar new offshoots and theological hybrids. Especially of interest from this New Frontier period was the rise of new cultic religions that grew out of tribes involved in the fighting of the Second Civil War. One notable example are the so-called “warrior cults” such as the Way of the Fist, and the Circle which are still largely mysteries to modern scholars, but have been compared to the ancient cult of Mithraism, once popular among Roman soldiers. Along the eastern seaboard fire cults arose among those that had witnessed the awesome power of the Nine Fires. All of the artifacts included in this exhibition are examples of objects created within various post-war religious traditions. Like mankind has done throughout history, the people of the New Frontier period sought to find meaning in this radically altered, postwar landscape and eventually created physical expressions (or materializations) of that meaning or ideology.

Cultures of the New Frontier:

The peoples that this work represents are only a few examples of the cultures found during the New Frontier Period. The extent of scholarly knowledge of these various peoples varies greatly. In some cases written and physical records may exist while in others we may have little more than the artifacts themselves upon which to base our understanding of these cultures.

The Rio Blanco:

The Rio Blanco people are one of the best known examples of a New Frontier era nomadic band due mainly to the large cache of artifacts was discovered near the former settlement in Western Colorado from which they take their name. This loosely organized tribe ranged up and down the White River valley as well as that of the Green River in the former states of Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. While there are few written records from the Rio Blanco people, current theories suggest that as infrastructure deteriorated in the rural, western United States many inhabitants were forced to migrate due to a lack of water, arable land and road access. The few that remained struggled to maintain their ranches without irrigation and reliable access to markets for their beef and wool, and were forced to roam farther and farther from their ranches in search of pastures for their sheep and cattle. The ranchers of the high desert regions had long engaged in a transhumant system, so it is likely that the shift to a semi-nomadic system was a relatively easy one. Poor roads and limited access to gasoline made travel on horseback a logical choice for the Rio Blanco, and like horse cultures throughout history, this tribe tailored its lifestyle around what could be easily carried on pack animals or the occasional cart. As a result, the ritual objects included in the exhibition tend to be small and easily carried, or designed to breakdown for easy transport.
The Bullroarer found in the collection is an example of a portable ritual object created by the Rio Blanco, and probably belonged to an individual. The piece in the collection is carved into a tapering form with distinct facets, and is made from Beetle-kill Pine common to the Central Rocky Mountains, with a leather cord attached to one end. When swung rapidly through the air, the Bullroarer creates a low-pitched humming noise. Like many of their ancestors that lived in open spaces, the Rio Blanco made bullroarers to communicate with one another over distance, and it is thought that they were used to call tribal members to rituals and ceremonies. In addition, the whirring of the Bullroarer may have also been used to warn away the uninitiated from rituals and sacred places.

Mississippi Valley Cultures:

These people inhabited areas in the former states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Theirs was a primarily agrarian society, with some villages that seemed to have acted as traders, transporting the agricultural products of their neighbors to markets up and down the Mississippi and returning with manufactured goods and raw materials. As a result of trade, the Mississippi Valley peoples were less isolated than some agricultural and pastoral groups in the New Frontier Period. Like many rural cultures, the Mississippi Valley peoples were resourceful and independent, characteristics that are exemplified by the creative problem solving in the fabrication of their ritual objects. The study of artifacts that these people created has led scholars to suppose that their circumstances did not provide sufficient surpluses to support full-time artisans. It is thought that ritual and sacred objects were created much like day-to-day household objects, clothing, and tools, namely during the long Midwestern winters and other times when the crops and livestock did not require all of the maker’s time. While the makers of Mississippi Valley ritual objects may not have been specialized artisans, they were clearly capable of creating well-crafted objects, and their trade links to nearby towns and cities provided them with access to a wider range of raw materials than would have otherwise been available to them. The hardwood forests that graced the Upper Mississippi Valley provided a favorite raw material for the New Frontier inhabitants when they created their ritual and ceremonial objects. Like farmers and ranchers throughout the ages the people of the Mississippi Valley seemed to be ultimately concerned with the success of their crops and livestock, for in that success or failure lay their survival, and their ritual and sacred objects reflect that concern.
The Waukon Calendar in the collection is an example of the critical link that people living close to the land have with the season cycle which often results in ritual objects intended to instruct the community as to the importance and nature of this relationship. The calendar seems to be a wall-hung cabinet built from steel and oak with a mechanism that controls the access to the ritual paraphernalia contained within. The Waukon Calendar consists of a round wooden face with a diameter of 36.5”, divided like a pie into twelve equal sections. The face rotates around a central steel rod that is fixed to the center of the cabinet behind. The rotation of the face is controlled by a large steel ratchet gear with fifty-two teeth, mounted at the end of the arbor and in front of the face. One of the sections has a round aperture cut through the wide end of the wedge, allowing the user to see into, and to access the contents of the cabinet behind. One can rotate the face clockwise by turning a small round steel handle mounted opposite the aperture. Lines scribed into the wooden cabinet back mimic the radiating pattern of the face of the cabinet. The cabinet houses twelve steel canisters that measure approximately 4” in diameter by 6” in length. These canisters are mounted horizontally to the cabinet back so that only the end of the canister is visible through the aperture on the face.

The Waukon Calendar is an example of how the Mississippi Valley peoples expressed their cultural values with material objects. As a primarily agricultural community, the people that created the calendar would have been concerned with the progression of the seasons and consequently this concern would have been reflected in their rituals and ritual objects. It is believed that the calendar was a mechanism to control ceremonies and ensure that the appropriate rituals surrounding important events such as harvests, plantings and breeding of livestock were performed at the appropriate times. This ritual device is an example of how humans create objects to aid in their understanding of the world around them and then communicate that understanding amongst themselves, to outsiders, and to subsequent generations.

The Artisan Guilds:

These groups were the New Frontier’s versions of ancient craft and trade guilds. Historians often combine these organizations under the moniker “The Guilds”. Much like their predecessors, the Guilds attached a quasi-religious importance to the act of creation. The massive destruction of material culture witnessed during the Second Civil War made the ability to create useful, beautiful, and even transcendent objects an important spiritual act as well as a valuable commodity, and one that the Guilds guarded jealously. In a culture that had suffered a huge loss of its material culture and infrastructure, the role of the skilled artisan took on a new importance.
The Guilds seemed to have maintained a high level of secrecy surrounding not only their trades, but also their rites and training. This secrecy ensured that only Guild masters would have access to the knowledge of materials and methods that the allowed the Guilds to enjoy a unique status throughout the New Frontier period. The social and economic power of the Guilds meant that they controlled the remnants of the United States’ industrial infrastructure as well as the most valuable materials imported from Canada and the rest of the world. Additionally, the Guild masters seemed to have been able to secure access to the surviving electrical grids and sources of wind and water power that dotted the ante-bellum landscape, allowing them to ply their trades and increasing their influence within the broader communities in which they operated.

The Artisan Guilds knowledge of historical methods apparently extended beyond fabrication to design, as some of the surviving ritual and ceremonial objects from these groups suggest the influence of Classical mathematic proportioning systems such as the Golden Ratio, while other objects are inscribed with diagrams and other representations of these systems. The exact significance of these systems to the Guilds is unknown.

The objects that the artisans of the guild system created for their own secret rituals focused mainly around work and the visual vocabulary of tools. The Journeyman’s Ring found in the collection uses common tooling technique of “knurling” as a decorative element, thereby identifying the wearer as a guild member and tool user. Like jewelry throughout human history, this ring is thought to identify the wearer to their peers and to those outside the guild. Like most of the objects in this collection, the ring functions as a symbolic representation of the values and identity of the sub-culture that created it. The ring has a square profile and is made from common brass with a heavy knurled texture (knurling is a technique that creates a diamond pattern in metals and is often used to make tool components easier to grip) on its sides. When removed from the hand, the top of the ring can be swiveled away to reveal a black wood inlayed into the hollow interior of the ring. The wood is stamped in two places with the numbers 2 and 3. It is thought that the numbers might have served as some sort of coded identification for the wearer, perhaps to gain entrance to a ceremony or ritual.

The Tool Amulet, thought to be similar to prayer beads found in many cultures, also suggests some sort of tool. It is thought that the user of the this object would bind the “handle” element into the palm of his or her hand with a loop of leather cord, allowing the “medal” element to hang from the other end of the cord. The amulet measures approximately 2.25” in length, and construction resembles the handle of a tool such as a hammer or a knife, with a central brass tang to which brass bolsters are attached. The scales of the “handle” are made from black wood and are riveted to the tang with brass rivets. The brass “medal” element is about 1” in diameter with a small round hole through which the leather cord is run. Incised on the medal is what is thought to be a geometric representation of the Golden Ratio.

To this group of makers, objects such as the Journeyman’s Ring and the Tool Amulet were not only identifiers of the owner’s status as a guild member to the rest of the community, but also an important reminder of the Guild member’s relationship to their tools as objects of creation and as a way to understand the world around them. The artisan’s physical connection to the world was a recurring theme throughout the Guilds, and seems to be a common philosophic foundation.
One dramatic piece that has been attributed to the Guilds is the Initiation Hood, constructed from black leather and brass. The hood seems to be patterned after protective equipment, and as the name suggests, scholars believe that it may have been used as part of secret Guild initiation ceremonies. The brass eyepieces are perforated allowing the wearer a fragmented view of their surroundings. Two pairs of “lenses” can be hung off hooks attached to the eyepieces. These lenses have fewer perforations than the original eyepieces, so with the addition of each lens, the wearer’s vision is further reduced.

The Fire Cults:

Scholars have little information about these early New Frontier cults that grew out of the ashes of the Nine Fires, but the scant evidence that does exist points to a quasi-animistic worship of fire. The cults seemed to recognize the duality of fire as both a destructive force and a cleansing/ rejuvenating force. The holocaust of Nine Fires reduced huge swathes of the Upper Midwest and Northeastern United States to piles of ash, while at the same time eradicating the dreaded plague of Sorenson’s Disease. It is believed that these secretive groups had all but vanished by the later stages of the New Frontier period.
The Relic Stool is believed to have been used as a ceremonial seat by one of the Fire Cults, or perhaps an object to commemorate a culturally significant seating object that had been lost. Some scholars speculate that the nine-armed shape that makes us the seat of the stool may symbolize the Nine Fires.

Artifacts from Other Cultures:

In addition to the cultures listed above, artifacts from various lesser-known groups have been recovered from this period. However, due to the scarcity of evidence with which to place them in context, it is difficult to postulate about their uses or the people that made them.
The Healer’s Bowl found in the collection was supposedly used by a sainted healer from the days of the New Frontier period when Sorenson’s Disease was devastating the already war weary population. The bowl is carved from a single piece of fruitwood, the main body of which is ovoid in shape with a long tapering neck emanating from one end. The base is composed of a tangle of small steel rods, approximately .25” in diameter, and of various lengths. The rods appear to have been welded together. It is thought that the healer used the bowl during rituals to dispense “pills” made from pulverized paper on which prayers of healing had been written. The wooden bowl rests on the base by means of a smaller steel rod run through holes made in its sides that locates in cruxes of intersecting rods from the base. This configuration allows the bowl to pivot freely while sitting on the base, perhaps to facilitate the dispensing of the prayer pills. The story of this object is an excellent example of a population that remembered the days before the war when healing was accomplished with medicines, but was reduced to relying on a new means, in this case faith, to cure its ills.

Other objects represented in the collection include a series of processional objects from cultures throughout the New Frontier. These objects are believed to have been carried during ritual or ceremonial processions, not unlike the historical use of religious icons, flags or military standards. The variety of form and composition of objects in the collection once again reflects the differences between cultures of the New Frontier. The scale of the pieces is worth note, as two of the four measure over fourteen feet long, suggesting that they may have been used outdoors. The longest piece in the collection is the Yoke Processional, so called because its shape seems to mimic the form of ancient yokes used to carry loads or to harness animals. The Yoke Processional is constructed from a single piece of wood and has distinctive scallops cut out of its surface at irregular intervals and angles.

The lone metal processional object, know as the Bell Processional, is constructed from steel with brass wire accents. The Bell Processional consists of a 4” diameter steel cylinder six inches long, suspended by brass wire around the end of a .5” diameter piece of steel tubing 72” long. At the opposite end of the tube, seven strikers are attached around the circumference, and wrapped with brass wire to form what seems to be a handle. The strikers consist of pieces of .125” diameter steel rod of varying lengths with short pieces of .25” steel rod welded at their tops and forming a “T”. It is believed that the flexibility of these strikers caused them to sway as the user walked with the processional (as grass might sway in the wind) causing them to strike the large cylinder at the top of the processional.

The Story of the New Frontier