The Archaeology of Religious Practice

Organisers Nadya Prociuk (University of Texas), Morgana E. McCabe (University of Glasgow), Sophie V. Moore (University of Newcastle) and Jose C. Carvajal (University of Sheffield)

Traditionally the study of religion has fallen either to historians or theologians. Archaeologists, as a general body, have been reluctant to tackle the subject of religion head-on, and have instead preferred to approach the idea more obliquely from the angle of rather loosely defined “ritual practice”. However, as Timothy Insoll advocates, religion, both as practice and belief, has the potential to be a structuring principle in virtually all societies and time-periods. As such, we as archaeologists must begin to pay heed to religion as a potentially important element in the lives of our archaeological subjects. However, many elemental questions remain to be resolved before the archaeology of religious practice becomes a mainstream consideration in our discipline.

The most basic question must be: how do we define the term “religion” in archaeological contexts? Additionally, is there, or should there be, a distinction between what constitutes “religion” in historic and pre-historic societies? Another important consideration is the question of how to trace the material correlates of religious practices as they may have functioned in connection with the economic, social, and political practices of everyday life. Taking this a step further, are distinctions between “religious” and “every day” practices useful? Essential to our task as archaeologists is the question of how religious practices and beliefs shape the material world, as well as how they impact the body. What is the relationship between religion and society in archaeological terms, or at least, what principles can we use to establish this relationship in given contexts? Are distinctions between capital “R” “Religion” and folk religion useful or prohibitive? Is there a possibility of distinguishing between state and acephalous religions? Papers in this session will attempt to answer these and other fundamental questions regarding the nature of religion and religious practice in archaeological contexts.


Religion As The Handmaiden Of Politics In Mycenaean Messenia.

Speaker: Mark Peters (University of Sheffield)

Religion is a social phenomenon. It is both a product and a reflection of collective interaction. Hence a pre-requisite of religion is communication. Traditional approaches to its study can be characterized as descriptive. Deities, institutions, material accoutrements and ritual practices are labelled and described, and religion frequently assumes a static character within past societies. The variety of modalities, mechanisms and manipulation of human communication that make this, as with all social phenomena, dynamic are supressed. Consequently, discussions of religion become isolated from parallel social concerns such as politics. In this paper I argue that to examine past religion or religious behaviour we need to understand the mechanisms of and approaches to communication that underpin it. However, in engaging with communication we must acknowledge that it is not just multi-modal but multi-directional, extending beyond the physical world into the metaphysical arena as well as crossing traditional lines of social enquiry. Using a semiotic approach to communication I explore the dynamic, integrated nature of religion and politics in Mycenaean Messenia, and examine how the control of the mechanisms of communication was actively exploited to support the palatial institution. I conclude by suggesting that this institutionalization of religion ignored variations in social engagement, creating social tension and contributing to the eventual isolation of the palace.

Mermygkari, The Minoan Holy Mountain Of Kythera Island: A Sacred Landscape

Speaker: Mercourios Georgiadis (University of Nottingham)

The research conducted on Kythera over the last decades has allowed a better understanding of the prehistoric landscape of this island. The discovery of several chamber tombs and the excavation of a Peak Sanctuary have added another important aspect, that of the sacred landscape. Nonetheless, current research projects on Kythera have revealed an important concentration of site with potentially sacred character in an unexplored part of the island, the mountainous area of Mermygkari. A cemetery, a cave and a site on top of a prominent hill appear to form important landmarks, all belonging to the Minoan phase of the island. In this paper a new outlook will be presented on the finds, the ritual activities, the way to interpret them and the close interrelation of these sacred contexts with the local landscape. Furthermore, the contrast of finds with the better known and richer Peak Sanctuary at the eastern part of the island addresses the question of formal and rural cults on Kythera. The interpretation put forward argues that it is likely that Mermygkari Mt has acted as the holy mountain of Kythera during the 18th to 16th centuries BC, where different divinities were venerated.

Making Belief Work: Design, Aesthetics & Affects In Later European Prehistory

Speaker: Sebastian Becker (University of Cambridge)

This paper argues that archaeologists should focus more on the design of material culture to explore its role in the mediation of cosmological knowledge. Although in recent years the relationship between human agents and material culture has been theorised under various labels, the design of artefacts has received relatively little attention. Fundamentally, it is argued that the aestheticization of religious ideology via artefactual design facilitates the social reality of religious ideologies.

As a case study, this paper draws on the results of ongoing research on Late Bronze and Early Iron Age bird iconography (ca. 1300-750 BC) from Central Europe. A hallmark of this period, two and three-dimensional bird representations occur on a wide range of artefacts; so far, however, the relationship between motifs and artefacts has received little attention. A review of the material suggests that bird symbols informed the sensory perception of objects by becoming part of their functional design: to use the artefact was to engage with the bird. Thus, archaeologically, the flourishing of bird iconography in later European prehistory may be partly explained by the creation of homologous links between an artefact’s anticipated function and symbolic connotations, affording particular types of sensory engagement with cosmological knowledge.

Function Versus Meaning In Religious Monuments Of the Norman Period

Speaker: Anne Sassin (University of Nottingham)

The Middle Ages were a period where the integration of artistry and function were essential to its constructions, whether the context be defensive, comfort, or for the purposes of this paper, liturgical, leading to a scholarly obsession with differentiating between what was ‘functional’ and what was imbued with ‘religious symbolism’. However, by analysing social space and its use, structures/monuments can be regarded as both the medium and outcome of social practices, making neither the ‘form follows function’ or ‘function follows form’ claim mutually exclusive. This paper intends to explore precisely how ecclesiastical monuments were used as an expression of identity through the interaction between religious practicality and meaning, as well as artistic decoration, during the Norman period in Britain. It therefore includes not only assessment of the iconographic range and ideology displayed, but their place within their surrounding landscape, determining the context of the monuments in relation to the people themselves involved, whether patrons, craftsmen or ‘spectators’, and considering the meanings which they held.

Religious Practice & A Sense Of Self In Roman Occupied Territory

Speaker: Marjolijn Kok (Maatschap ILAHS)

In this paper I want to explore why it is relevant that religious practices should be analysed within a perspective of religion also within pre- or protohistoric societies. Religion is how people view their world and their position within it and includes culturally postulated superhuman agents. Although we may not be able to outline the details of these religions it must make us aware that ritual practices do have effects on how people perceive of themselves and their world. Here I will try to explicate this point by showing how religious practices can inform us on how the inhabitants of the region of Midden-Delfland in the western Netherlands viewed themselves and their relations with the Romans. Midden-Delfland lies at the edge of the empire and the Romans founded a small city nearby. Furthermore for tax purposes the Romans imposed a new field system. By analysing the ritual practices the local inhabitants performed we can see how they tried to keep their identity and at the same time the prosperity of their agriculture. It shows how they altered elements to keep their religious worldview intact and simultaneously not side with the Romans.


The Archaeology Of Religious Practice In Mid-Byzantine Anatolia: The Curation Of Relics 

Speaker: Sophie Moore (Newcastle University)

This paper will examine the curation of relics as a mid-Byzantine mortuary and religious practice.

Within my research I use the term ‘religion’ to refer to experienced ritual, a combination of practice and faith. I intend to investigate the relationships which link human remains, concepts of the saintly body, and the use of reliquaries together as a small part of a larger and continuous network of actants.
I do not intend to search for the faith of individuals. Although I think that the interplay between a perceived ideal life and how faith is experienced are integral to religious practice, I do not think that analysis of religion at the individual level is useful or achievable within archaeology.  Rather I will attempt to discuss a number of possibilities for the experienced practice of individuals in a specific context: the curation and translocation of the relics of a saint. This analysis aims to follow the processes by which the saint’s body is produced as a religious object, and will ask how it gathers meaning and impact by its curation and translocation.


The Reuse Of Ancient Monuments In 1st Millennium AD Scotland

Speaker: Adrián Maldonado

It is well-known that early medieval elites creatively reused prehistoric monuments and material culture to create a sense of political legitimacy. However, the religious underpinning of this phenomenon is often assumed rather than demonstrated empirically. The recent availability of a large database of radiocarbon dated burials from Scotland now allow this phenomenon to be studied with more chronological depth, and indicate that the reuse of prehistoric monuments for burial is a long-lived phenomenon extending from the Iron Age into the early Christian period. Furthermore, it is not always a strategy of elite statecraft, and less prosaic reasons for this may usefully be explored. This paper summarises the evidence for the reuse of prehistoric monuments for burial in Scotland across the first millennium AD. Using recent advances on archaeological approaches to religious practice, it will approach the landscape setting of reused burial monuments in order to study the way funerary events focused attention on a place and structured movement through a space. Taking a long-term perspective allows us to see the way these practices developed before, during and after the conversion to Christianity.


Religious Affects: Understanding the use of symbols as markers of religious practice in the Castro Culture of north-western Iberia”

Speaker: Nadya Prociuk (University of Texas)

How do religious practices and beliefs shape the material world? Using this question as a starting point, it can be argued that symbolic imagery, which is often tied to religious belief systems, can communicate meaningful information to those who are invested in a given cultural framework, through material mediums. Archaeologists are unable to directly access the full spectrum of meaning that symbolic imagery may have held for the people who created and interacted with it. However, archaeologists can attempt to interpret the significance of the contexts in which these symbols appear, and infer the possible social implication the display of symbolic imagery may have had in those contexts. Using preliminary data gathered from research on the Iron Age Castro Culture of north-western Iberia, I will attempt to work through how archaeologists can map the imprint of religious beliefs, as expressed in symbolic imagery, on material culture.


Islam In Iberia Or Iberian Islam? The Use Of Activity-Related Skeletal Modifications As An Indicator Of Religious Practice & Identity

Speaker: Sarah Inskip (University of Southampton)

Islamic identity is often regarded as monoreligious both in the past and presently. Religious doctrine defines central practices and observances core to Muslim identity. However, while these key practices form a recognisable structuring principle for Islamic life, diachronic and spatial variation in rites and adherence exists globally.  This difference is usually linked to other regional or customary traditions. Accordingly, contextual and temporal analysis of religious custom is critical to interpreting Islamic identity.

Islam, a historic world faith, lends itself to archaeological study as overall ideals and regional reality can be compared. As material culture is produced, social norms and boundaries are adhered to but are also constructed. Differences in material culture can therefore highlight identity variation. In particular bones adapt in response to activity and can be viewed as shaped by society. Contextual analysis of activity-related changes therefore has potential to inform about practice. Comparison of pre, early and late Islamic individuals assesses the impact of Islam’s arrival and development in early Medieval Iberia. It demonstrates that while Islamic customs appear, diachronic variation is visible which is related to other social influences in the region. This will demonstrate that religious identity, like all other forms of identity, is malleable.


Religious Practice & Social Scales: The Case Of Early Islamic Iberia (Al-Andalus)

Speaker: Jose C. Carvajal (University of Sheffield)

We all know what we mean when we are talking about Islam. Or do we not?

In Archaeology, the acceptance of the concept of religion as a social practice involves the acknowledgement that it has to be enacted through social practice, and that means that religion has to be manifested in materiality. This gives the chance to consider that a widespread religion like Islam has to be expressed in different materialities corresponding to the different social groups that it encompasses.

In the 8th century, Iberia became a part of the vast territory under the political hegemony of Islam. Like in most of these lands, conversion took a slower pace than political submission, but it far overlasted it. Like in these lands, Islam spread over completely different regions and a variety of societies, and it had to appeal to each one of these in a particular way. In my presentation I will introduce archaeological and historical evidences of this divergent approach in territories as close and yet as diverse as Cordoba, the capital of the Umayyad state, and Granada, a region with a strong Arab influence. These evidences point to a deep division in between the understanding of the same religion in each area. The expansive process of the Cordobese state found resistence in this alternative enactment of Islam in Granada, but it had overcome it by the 10th century CE. This can again be explained with the observed changes of material culture in Granada.


Being Is Believing: Between ‘Religion’ & ‘Folk Belief’

Speaker: Morgana E. McCabe (University of Glasgow)

Archaeologists struggle with defining religion and its fundamental component, belief. When we do catch a glimpse of belief it is most frequently in the periphery of another topic with which we can more readily identify: economics; state building; politics; social structures. However, belief is not an irrelevant by-product of more significant processes: it underlies them and co-reacts with them. Belief constitutes the very fabric of what people are, sitting at the very heart of knowledge definition. Believing is doing. As archaeologists we must take religion seriously, but perhaps to achieve that we need take some of our own thinking out.

By exploring how the doings of every day beliefs typically classed as ‘folk’ in the context of early modern Scotland, such as rag well visiting and the use of magical charms, interact with officially sanctioned practices, this paper examines how human beings and being human emerge from ‘doing’ belief in its entirety. Recognising the artificiality of the distinction between ‘folk’ and ‘official’ opens up new understandings of the body in the early modern past that contradict those favoured by historians and theologians, with far wider implications.


Divine Right Of Kings: Religious Practise As Political Tool In The Jacobite Wars, 1688-1750

Speaker: Jennifer Novotny (University of Glasgow)


In 1688 James VII (II) fled to France after the Glorious Revolution.  The exiled Stuart monarchs spent the next 60 years attempting to regain the British throne.  One of the (many) ways in which the Stuarts sought to retain influence and inspire loyalty amongst their followers was through the continuation of healing ceremonies.  From the time of Edward the Confessor, monarchs were believed to be able to heal ‘the King’s evil’, or scrofula (Tuberculous adenitis), by their touch.  Throughout the centuries, this ceremony developed into a highly scripted series of actions and recitations.  Integral to the process of healing, however, was a specially minted touchpiece of precious metal.

This paper explores the appropriation of religious practise for political ends, specifically, the Stuarts’ use of the healing ceremony and its paraphernalia as a way to legitimise their claims to the throne.  Furthermore, it examines how this religious event is mediated by a specific piece of material culture: the touchpiece.  It will reflect upon the nuanced role of the touchpiece both as a religious tool and as a powerful piece of propaganda in order to shed light upon these fascinating yet neglected artefacts.


Terms and concepts in archaeology of religion

Poster Presenters: Ester Oras (University of Cambridge), Tõnno Jonuks (Estonian Literary Museum) & Kristiina Johanson (University of Tartu)
Emails:, &

Religion related topics have been of interest in archaeology since the very beginning of the discipline. Often anthropology and history of religion with their terminology and theories were taken as examples and guides. It resulted in a decades-long situation, where archaeologists were using terminology and concepts that derived from different social sciences. It was only during the past decades that the questions of theory and methodology of archaeology of religion were discovered as a separate research area. Although since the 1990s there has been quite a lot of discussion on these matters, it still can be followed that the main terms like ‘cultic’, ‘magic’, ‘ritual’ etc. are used rather vaguely. The latter has sometimes lead to situations that it is not only a reader who does not understand what these words mean, but they have remained mysterious for an author as well. In the current paper we introduce some examples of most favoured terms and concepts in archaeology of religion, and discuss their possible usage or even uselessness. The discussion is based on our current project about religious artefacts in Estonian archaeological collections. We do not propose any final definitions to any of the terms, but would rather like to encourage researchers to elaborate on the concepts and terms that are used in the study of religion in archaeology.

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