Theorising Archaeologies of Religion

Theorising Archaeologies of Religion

Peter Kahlke Olesen (University of Copenhagen;

This session will take a material approach to both the material and immaterial dimensions of religious phenomena, exploring a range of themes from myths and rituals to cosmologies and institutions. It will explore how religions are materially constituted and how archaeologists might recognise and approach religious aspects of material culture. There will be an emphasis on how archaeological evidence might contribute to knowledge of religious phenomena, rather than being a passive recipient of culture-historical interpretations. Furthermore, the session will theorise the relationship between material culture and other sources of evidence for religious practice and belief. It will consider how diverse materials may contribute to an integrated understanding of religion – however defined – in societies past and present.

The recent decades have seen an increasing interest in the material constitution of religious phenomena and their expression in the archaeological record. The formulation of archaeological approaches to religion have largely followed broader trends within the humanities, with practice and material affects taking centre stage, while recognising the fluidity and multiplicity of meaning. At the same time, new avenues of research are exploring how meaning is constructed in the interaction between agents and their contexts, and how such meaning may be recognised. The latter has drawn on the iconicity of materials and objects, the possibility of direct-historical approaches, and the structures and structuring of material culture.

By pushing the boundaries of what is archaeologically feasible, while remaining grounded in theory, it is hoped the session will shed new light on the intersection of religion and material culture and contribute to the formulation of archaeologies of religion.

Keywords:  interdisciplinary; materiality; meaning; practice; religion;



Performing Piety at Chester Cathedral

Matthew Hitchcock (University of Manchester;

Chester Cathedral, formerly the Medieval abbey church of St. Werburgh, has been a locus of Christian worship and a monument in the local landscape for almost a thousand years.  It comprises a space in which a diverse cross-section of Christian society could (and still do) congregate and worship in a diverse series of ways, with differing levels of formality. Some acts of piety were quiet and solitary, others were social and conspicuous, and all involved a certain degree of performance.

With a focus on the later Medieval period, this paper takes a contemporary archaeological approach to considering the ways in which the Cathedral’s architectural features facilitated and constrained the performance and sensory experience of the liturgy and other religious phenomena. It will also explore how fluid and shifting Christian ideologies and concepts have been expressed materially within the space both historically and recently.


The Archaeology of Wonder

Vicki Cummings (University of Central Lancashire; and David Robinson (University of Central Lancashire;

Wonder is a pretty powerful thing. On being asked what he could see when he opened Tutankhamun’s tomb, Howard Carter replied ‘Wonderful things’.  An experience of wonder has been explored in other subject disciplines as an intrinsic component of religions and belief systems the world over, and yet the idea has not been used by archaeologists. In this paper we present some of the ideas surrounding the concept of wonder and how it is particularly apposite for gaining insights into past belief systems. We then highlight two, very different, case studies where we think the concept of wonder is instructive for gaining insights into past belief systems. Firstly, the megalithic monuments of early Neolithic north-west Europe are considered, particularly those which use very large stones in their construction. Instead of these being simply functional burial chambers it is argued that the deployment of big stones is to elicit a sense of awe and wonder.  Second, we consider how wonderment was a significant component with mystique practices of Native California, helping us to interpret the role rock-art may have played within indigenous institutions.  Finally, we point out how wonderment today often connects modern audiences with archaeological and other academic disciplines.


Materializing a Cosmopolitan Religion. Archaeological Evidence and Visual Imaginaire of the Silk Road

Paride Stortini (The University of Chicago;

Archaeology can shed light on aspects of religious life of a local context, but it can also fuel views of broader and transnational religious connections. This is particularly true in the case of the intersection between narratives of Buddhist history and the material culture of the Silk Road. In this paper, I will particularly analyse how material objects retrieved at sites along the Silk Road and preserved at Japanese museums play a central role in the construction of a cosmopolitan image of Buddhism translated in the art and activism of Hirayama Ikuo, a leading figure in twentieth century Japanese art and a UNESCO Goodwill ambassador, who has made the preservation of the cultural heritage of the Silk Road his life-long commitment. The paper will focus both on historical issues of post-WWII Japan and international cooperation, and on theoretical considerations on religion in relation with material culture, archaeology, and the media.


Deconstructing Hoards – a Matter of Social Thoughts

Kamilla Majland (The National Museum of Denmark;

Hacksilver hoards from the Migration period in Denmark are a complex find group containing fragments of Roman silverware, ingots, nondescript silver, coins, and personal objects such as relief brooches. Commonly the hacksilver deposits have been interpreted as being representative of a smith’s accumulated scrap or raw material, cached for safekeeping but never retrieved. However, although hacksilver had utilisation in the profane sphere, circulating as e.g. currency, both the accumulation and subsequent depositing of hacksilver in environments and contexts that cannot be connected to a utilitarian sphere suggest that these deposits are representative of something else. In this paper it is argued that they are part of a somewhat uniform religious ideology and practice, and additionally that, depending on the size of a given deposit, several to many individuals contributed to a hacksilver hoard, thus making the accumulation and depositing a communal offering.


The Semantics of Visual Religion in Bronze Age Scandinavia

Peter Kahlke Olesen (University of Copenhagen;

Iconography has been considered one of the best archaeological sources for the understanding of religion in non-literate societies. Yet there is little consensus on how to approach “meaning” in visual materials, and the relevance of semiotic, linguistic, and text-based models for interpreting visual religion remains contested. Taking as a starting point the iconography of Bronze Age Scandinavia as depicted on metals and in rock carvings, I focus on the complex formal relations between motifs, and how they relate to their semantic dimension. I explore how metaphor and metonymy are employed to establish formal visual homologies, and posit that these are isomorphic with cosmological homologies. In reading the ambiguous and polysemic iconography not unlike a poetic text, it is possible to discern the system of equivalences that constitute the basis of Bronze Age Scandinavian religion. This semiotic integration of visual form and meaning opens up new ways of approaching prehistoric religion.


Remembering the Rites: A New Theoretical Approach for Learning and Transmission of Religious Rituals

Blanka Misic (Champlain College Lennoxville;

Drawing on recent research from the cognitive sciences and sensory archaeology, the present paper puts forward a new theoretical framework for explaining how religious rituals were learned and transmitted among worshippers in the Graeco-Roman world. This new theoretical framework will be tested within a case study of a healing cult from southern Pannonia. By examining material evidence of the cult and its community of worshippers, the paper aims to shed light on how the merging of interdisciplinary theoretical approaches with diverse material evidence can help us demystify which types of rituals would have taken place within the cult, and how these rituals would have been learned and transmitted within the community of cult members.


Some Thoughts on Stone Circles

Morten Warmind (University of Copenhagen;

Stone circles impress us by their obvious materiality and at the same time by their obvious uselessness which makes us almost certain that they were constructed with an immaterial purpose in mind. Many such purposes have been suggested, most often that they were observatories for celestial phenomena. Inspired by the work of Aubrey Burl, I would like to share some observations from the point of view of Religious Studies on the circles.


Religion and Ritual in the Bronze Age Grave Mound of Hüsby (LA 23) in Schleswig-Holstein

Mechtild Freudenberg (Stiftung Schleswig-Holsteinische Landesmuseen Schloss Gottorf, Museum für Archäologie; and Lisbeth Bredholt Christensen (Danevirke Museum;

In an interdisciplinary cooperation we (LBC study of religion, MF prehistoric archaeology) have been working on the development of methodological tools to identify religion on the basis of material culture and to apply method to empirical material. Our empirical material is the BA grave mound of Hüsby (LA23) in Schleswig-Holstein. On the basis of (a) the identification of a set of components of religion which are independent of texts and recognizable in material culture and (b) a processual analysis of the actions undertaken in the deposition of the dead body and the construction of the barrow and its immediate surroundings, we (c) interpret the Hüsby complex as a process of constructing religion and as centred on the creation of ancestors.