Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association

Beyond Belief: The Archaeology of Religion and Ritual



Until recently, the study of religion and ritual by archaeologists was typically found among those studying “world religions,” particularly those with the benefit of texts. Building upon a renewed interest in archaeological explorations of ancient religion and sacred ritual, the authors in this volume construct new understandings of the material forms of religion through the combination of multiple perspectives and differing methodological approaches. By using a variety of strategies applied to widely divergent regions and time periods, these scholars demonstrate how the archaeological study of ancient religion and ritual is methodologically and theoretically valid.

Despite the long and illustrious history of research into religion by social scientists, archaeologists are typically dissatisfied with current theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of ancient religion. The objective of this volume is to offer a step forward in the effort to produce useful theoretical and methodological approaches to the archaeological study of religion. In this endeavor, we join a growing number of scholars exploring new paths to developing an archaeology of ancient religious belief and practice.

Is it possible to build connections between theory and archaeological data despite the complexity of ancient religious life? What is needed and what this volume attempts to do is, first, further the process of building methodologies for middle-range interpretation of ancient religious belief based on the archaeological evidence and, second, reassert the importance of the role of religion as an active agent for continuity and transformation alongside factors such as environment, the economy, the individual, and so forth. In order to do so, a definition of religion or ritual was not dictated to contributors, nor was it demanded that contributors follow a particular methodological approach or theoretical perspective. Instead, the goal was to highlight perspectives that engage aspects of materiality over purely theoretical studies without grounding or connection to material culture.

How might archaeology reveal the spiritual? How can we hope to illuminate the structure of the immaterial? One factor working in favor of using archaeological evidence to understand ancient religious belief is the human need to materialize the ethereal, to render concrete the immaterial, and to provide tactility to praxis. Dynamic, continuously shaped, renegotiated, and sometimes contested, religion is often expressed through ritual performance. This is manifest in a variety of ways in the archaeological record: ritual paraphernalia, iconographic representation, or sacred natural and built space and landscapes. With increased attention to these concerns the notion that religious belief and practice may be studied in the past has become more apparent in the archaeological literature, evident in the recent spate of conferences, volumes, and reviews dedicated to the topic (Barrowclough and Malone 2007; Fogelin 2007a; Insoll 2004a; Kyriakidis 2007; Whitley and Hays-Gilpin 2008).

These and other studies suggest that archaeology has the potential to make a unique contribution to the study of change in religion and ritual practice because of the long-term view of society it provides. Through such a longue durée perspective, an archaeology of religion may provide insights valuable to ethnographers interested in the materiality of ritual practices. Given the difficulty modern ethnographers face representing modern religious belief and practice, however, such optimistic statements must be tempered by the recognition that the full range of complexity of meaning and belief in the past may never be achieved in many cases.

Establishing more powerful theoretical constructs for the study of religion is essential because many elements of life may be structured by religion beyond the typically recognized archaeological domains of mortuary contexts and sacred sites. Mortuary beliefs and practices are not the sum total of religion, and the need for humans to deal with death is not the sole reason for the existence of religions. Disposal of human remains typically involves rituals, often rites of passage (Bell 1997; Turner 1967; Van Gennep 1960), and numerous studies and synthetic treatments of mortuary ritual are available (Laneri 2007; Pearson 2001; Tarlow 1999; Williams et al. 2005) and need not be treated in depth here. The distinction and separation of religion from other “institutions,” daily life, and the individual attests to a modern scholarly perspective, one that led to Asad's (1993) critique of Geertz's (1973) popular definition of religion.1 Rather than treat religion as a separate analytical category, such as “economy” or “kinship,” these and the many other aspects of life may be placed within, or viewed through understandings formed by, religious belief (Insoll 2004a). In other words, if we wish to come closer to an indigenous “emic” perspective, those analytic categories must be reconfigured (Meskell 2004:37).

At the same time, two problematic assumptions underpin such an approach when applied to archaeological interpretation. One is that the opposite may be true: the assumption that ancient societies are more analogous to “traditional” societies than modern ones, and thus likely to be dominated by religious belief, is not always accurate (Barth 1961; Douglas 1982; Insoll 2004a). Modern “secular” industrial societies do not operate independently of religious belief and practice, and as Fogelin (2007a:60) points out, any assumption of the universal centrality of religion is also unwarranted. The second is that the sharp distinction drawn between sacred and profane common since Durkheim (1995[1912]) is blurred; particularly for those interested in small-scale societies or domestic ritual practices (Bradley 2003, 2005), secular and sacred rituals may overlap and operate within the quotidian. Moreover, places where ritual activities take place may not categorically exclude more mundane activities—the reverse is true as well (Kyriakidis 2007:17). Yet if we accept that religious belief may imbue most aspects of life, the challenge of identifying such ephemeral areas through material remains leads to pessimistic outlooks for the future of an archaeology of religion. Perhaps religion is a concept too large to link directly to specific aspects of prehistory and archaeological materiality? What then is the distinction between religion and culture? Do archaeologists who do not work on literate societies or contact-period sites have something to contribute to the discussion? The authors in this volume demonstrate that they do.

The history of research into religion has been summarized elsewhere (e.g., Bowie 2006; Evans-Pritchard 1965; Morris 1987), and the anthropological study of religion and ritual extends back to the pioneers of anthropology (e.g., Durkheim 1995; Frazer 1990; Hertz 1960; Van Gennep 1960). These discussions suggest that the diversity of religious belief and practices precludes simple and concise definition. As a result, achieving a consensus on the definition of religion, as well as the best methodological and theoretical approaches to its study, proves difficult even within anthropological scholarly research of modern eras. Understandably, then, religion as a word and a concept was shunned by many archaeologists until recently—if broadly conceived to encompass all cultural manifestations it seems difficult to understand how it might help interpret the past. As an alternative, the term ritual is frequently employed, possibly in the hope of avoiding the ambiguity of a term as vague as religion. These terms are not interchangeable, however, and ritual is no less difficult to define (Bell 1997, 2007). All ritual is not sacred, and ritual does not represent the totality of religious belief (Bell 1997; Brück 1999), so that ritual is not solely the performance of religion. Moreover, distinctions such as sacred versus profane or functional versus ritual behavior are not necessarily helpful, or even applicable (Brück 1999; Kyriakidis 2007; Whitley 1998). “Practical” and “ritual” are not so easily separated either, for the performance of a specific ceremony or creation of a key religious symbol may be eminently practical and functional from an emic perspective. Making an offering or a votive could be just as practical as making a tool (Morley 2007:205).

At the same time, secular rituals are common. If we consider “ritual” as constituted by a set of formal acts that follow specific rules, then not all ritual is motivated by religious belief (Rappaport 1999:24–25). Tambiah defined rituals as

a culturally constructed system of symbolic communication. . . constituted of patterned and ordered sequences of words and acts, often expressed in multiple media, whose content and arrangement are characterized in varying degree by formality (conventionality), stereotypy (rigidity), condensation (fusion) and redundancy (repetition). [Tambiah 1979:119]

Symbols are often integral to religion and religious ritual practice, but the study of symbols—symbology, in Victor Turner's terms—is difficult without understanding context. In addition, the multivocality of symbols (Turner 1967) allows a variety of meanings that create the power of a symbol. To Turner, religious ritual is prescribed behavior “not given over to technical routine, having reference to beliefs in mystical (or non-empirical) beings or powers regarded as the first and final causes of all effects” (Turner 1982:70). This polysemic quality contradicts the notion that rituals create stability, or ensure it. Bell (1992) also asserts that ritual systems do not necessarily act as regulators or controls on social relations—they are the system of social relations. Ritual practice is one that operates like other social practices. By combining various properties and actions, rituals are events that remain elusive to archaeologists because of this inherent complexity (Bloch 1986:181).

Contributors to this volume recognize that ritual is not equal to religion, although the two are sometimes conflated in archaeological literature. Such a problematic conceptualization was recognized already at the “Sacred and Profane” conference, one of the first convened to explicitly examine the archaeological investigation of religion (Garwood et al. 1991). Other volumes dedicated to similar topics have focused exclusively on Europe (Biehl and Bertemes 2001) or are limited to specific related topics, such as the archaeology of shamanism (e.g., Price 2001; Price, ed. 2001) or the identification of sacred places (e.g., Carmichael et al. 1994). Recent volumes on the general topic indicate the resurgence of interest (Barrowclough and Malone 2007; Kyriakidis 2007; Smith and Brooks 2001; Whitley and Hays-Gilpin 2008).

Religion is a concept that, in the past, was frequently divided between those of the “primitive” people of the world and those of the “world religions” (Bowie 2006:26; Edwards 2005:111; Insoll 2004a:8). The former was considered the province of anthropologists, while the latter fell under the purview of specialists in the history of religion or comparative religion. This division between these two putative classes of belief—primitive versus world—often led to quite different scholarly treatment, either explicitly or implicitly; religion of “tribal” peoples was examined using different terminology of phenomena such as magic, witchcraft, shamans, and animism while “world religions” included priests, temples, and gods. Attempts at further classification have at times led to typologies with neoevolutionary underpinnings, and these approaches may correspond to national or scholarly traditions (classics, anthropology, Near Eastern studies). Such a fundamental division between “traditional” and “world” religions continues, wherein archaeologists view ancient societies as more traditional and, by implication, less changing, more stable, and static. Assuming such stable continuity over long periods of time is convenient for archaeological interpretation, but ethnography does not necessarily support such static formulations. More recently, archaeologists have also challenged presumed continuity of historical observations into prehistory with little evidential support (Fogelin 2007b).

There has been a tendency among archaeologists to use terminology that perpetuates this dichotomy of primitive versus modern religious belief and practice. For instance, terms still in common usage among archaeologists such as magic and cult (e.g., Gebel et al. 2002; Renfrew 1985, 1994) further underscore an implicit understanding that these practices represent superstition as opposed to religion (Insoll 2004a:5; however, see recent comments by Renfrew 2007:9). Similar criticisms fueled much of the recent debate concerning the use of the term shaman in which critics suggested that this contributes to a continued, implicit primitivism or neoevolutionary interpretation (Bahn 2001; Kehoe 2000). Some might argue that archaeologists have been guilty of similar essentialist formulations.

With renewed interest in revitalizing a “scientific” archaeology, initial processual approaches did not generally embrace the problem of how archaeology might approach understanding material evidence for religion. Early processual archaeology theorists largely ignored religion as epiphenomenal, falling within the “ideational” realm of “paleopsychology” (Binford 1965:204; Fritz 1978:38), although there were important early statements concerning the need for an archaeology of religion (Renfrew 1985). Despite initial omission or oversight of religion and ritual, the more inclusive theoretical perspectives of post-processual archaeologies, such as the recognition of the archaeologist's subjective role and the role of agency in post-processual archaeologies, encouraged a contextualized archaeology (Hodder 1992:245). More recently a shift of focus is apparent and religion, or ritual, is more frequently incorporated and debated within archaeological circles (Barrowclough and Malone 2007; Fogelin 2007a; Hays-Gilpin and Whitley 2008; Insoll 2004a, 2004b; Kyriakidis 2007; Renfrew 1994, 2007). Reflecting the more comprehensive rhetoric concerning method and theory that stems from post-processual archaeologies (Lesure 2005), contributors to this volume draw on a variety of methodological resources, exhibiting the “theoretical pluralism” (Meskell 2001) necessary for robust archaeology. Thus, the volume does not reflect one specific overarching theoretical paradigm, nor was one mandated.

Nevertheless, broad theoretical themes are evident in the contributions to this volume. Concerns with materiality are fundamental to most authors, mirroring larger concerns across the discipline and within modern scholarship in general (e.g., Appadurai 1986; Keane 2008a; Kopytoff 1986; Miller 1987, 2005). The study of material culture is not equivalent to understanding materiality. Studies of materiality move beyond empirical analyses of artifact form, materials, and manufacture and instead focus on the relationships between the social and the material; the set of cultural relationships behind objects is the primary focus (Meskell 2004). Rather than viewing people as active and artifacts as passive (Gosden 2005:194), material culture is now recognized as fundamental to an investigation of agency in the recognition that any understanding of the past, whether of social power, ideology, or religion, must be grounded in the materiality of human life and activity (Dobres and Robb 2005). Even in the ethnographic present, we cannot observe kinship systems, economic relationships, or religion; these are theoretical constructs observed through people and their interactions with each other and material culture (Walker and Schiffer 2006:70), for it is material culture that constitutes social relations and allows the creation of meaning (Keane 2008a, 2008b:230). The ongoing recentering of material culture occurring over the past two decades is thus reflected in these contributions, and the problems of multiple possible interpretations are also underscored.

This volume attempts to set aside the perception that ritual or religion may be separated, or that the former is more tangible and enduring than the latter. In a recent synthetic review, Fogelin (2007a) succinctly outlines this dialectical tension between perspectives on religion and ritual. He notes that whereas scholars who emphasize the structural elements of religion highlight the symbolic aspects of ritual, those interested in ritual practice concentrate on understanding the past ritual experiences and actions of ritual actors through material remains (Fogelin 2007a:56). Emphasizing practice theory (Bell 1992, 1997; Bourdieu 1977; Humphrey and Laidlaw 1994) archaeologists are drawn by an approach that stresses human action and ritual. Arguably, the emergence of, or return to a focus on ritual performance and practice over structure, in conjunction with emphases on the active “agency” of material objects and consumption (Appadurai 1986; Gell 1998; Miller 1995), signals a positive step—what Mitchell refers to as a “material culture approach to ritual performance” (Mitchell 2007:336).

Archaeological understandings of such complex phenomena may remain incomplete, and perhaps because of these inherent difficulties, the study of ancient religion is frequently entrenched in the particulars of a specific culture or region. To what extent are these models driven by the nature of particular examples? Throughout the studies in this volume, a crucial point remains cogent: specific cultural context remains a key factor to establishing interpretation, and we should not expect universalistic rules of materiality outside of practice. In some cultures and societies, sacred texts are the key instruments at the very core of religious practice, while in others shamanic or ecstatic experiences form the heart of spiritual matters; in still others, cultic practice is the norm (Meskell 2004). Moreover, the limitations placed upon understanding prehistoric ritual through formal classification leads some to reassert a need to examine life histories of artifacts rather than rely on formal artifact design to infer function (Appadurai 1986; Kopytoff 1986; Meskell 2004; Miller 1998; Schiffer 1972, 1995; Walker 1998). These concerns were established long ago through seminal studies of intentional “structured” deposits (Bradley 1990; Richards and Thomas 1984; Walker 1995).

For this volume, sections are defined based on similar methodological and theoretical approaches, with a final chapter summarizing the essays. The bulk of the volume comprises case studies arranged into three main sections. The first section, “Theorizing the Spiritual,” includes two chapters (Kus, Aldenderfer) after the present introduction. Chapters in this first section share a specific interest in establishing the linkage between archaeological evidence and broader constructs, the pragmatic and middle-range theory that connects material culture with theory. Using a case study from Madagascar, Kus understands local knowledge and belief to be embodied in material culture, which serves as a basis for establishing investigations into the relationship between local ritual action and place-making. Ethnographic work by Kus moves beyond cautionary tales and indicates the materiality of local belief and practices, materiality that may be made more redundant on a larger scale when made accessible by the state for a larger audience. Aldenderfer focuses on pragmatic theoretical and methodological issues of place-making, practice, and the landscape. Both chapters consider the relationship between the symbolic content of local praxis and the relationship to larger political entities.

The second section, “Materializing the Spiritual,” includes chapters (Barndon, Blakely, Beck and Brown, Ilan and Rowan, and Luke) that focus on the understandings of religion and ritual practices through material culture. Blakely and Barndon, for instance, concentrate on the communication of key information through small finds and productive technology that elaborates on sacred themes. This complex interplay between hidden or privileged knowledge and the necessity to disseminate or communicate the possession of that knowledge in order to demonstrate power and ritual authority is integral to their analyses; perhaps not coincidentally, both examine the powerful and mysterious role of metals. Blakely's “archaeology of secrecy” aims to explicate the generative nature of prestige for the cult in the political arena, through the iron rings, whereas Barndon, guided by a chaîne opératoire approach, attempts to move beyond the established procreative symbolism of traditional African iron smelting practices to reemphasize the material world in understanding people's engagement in and local perceptions of technological processes and religion. While Blakely and Barndon approach their case studies from the “bottom up” through examination of specific objects and technological processes, chapters by Beck and Brown and Ilan and Rowan rely on material culture to investigate the entangled nature of political economies and religious practices at the level of polities. In particular, the problems of neoevolutionary typological classifications, particularly when political economic types are applied to interpretations of religious practitioners within middle-range societies, are examined. Specifically focused on the varieties of ritual practice and experience, these two essays emphasize how poorly suited such typologies are to furthering an understanding of religious praxis in such societies and offer alternative ways of seeing ritual actions and actors in non-state, nonegalitarian societies. Ilan and Rowan see the order in which our knowledge is established as formative to the development of explanatory narratives, arguing that structural regularities emerge that demand a new, more inclusive narrative that encompasses previously separated realms of evidence.

Offering a unique perspective on recent landscape studies (e.g., Basso 1996; Bradley 2000; Knapp and Ashmore 2000; McAnany 1995; Thomas 2001), Luke examines the complex polysemic variability of place as seen through artistic representations of public, built space and conceptual landscapes depicted on Late Classic Maya white marble vases from the Ulúa Valley in northwestern Honduras. Construction of spaces—whether household or monumental—was intimately connected to the natural world, and thus the built environment reflects an effort to ensure engagement and participation with the ancestral spheres. Her detailed analysis reveals that Ulúan carvers portrayed sacred landscapes of local mountainous terrain typically found on architectural facades and monuments in the central Mayan area, creating ritually charged objects that could be gifted in long-distance exchange as well as used in local performances.

This point is one with great relevance to those in the third section, “Experiencing the Spiritual,” in which Biehl, Schoenfelder, and Anderson elaborate on the role material culture plays to further enhance ritual practices and aid in experiencing the spiritual. Building upon a range of evidence, from glyptic to architectural, each of the contributors in this section is particularly interested in the process of sacred crafting and the relationship of the materiality of those creations to aspects of society writ large. Examining the Neolithic enclosure of Goseck in Germany, Biehl views places as the focal points for ritual practices that shape experiences and foster human action. Although enclosing empty space, he argues, the approach, access, and experience in this sacred space represent a metaphor for seasonal and annual regularities in people's own lives, reinforced through communal ritual experiences. In similar fashion but on a different scale, Schoenfelder has an interest in the experience of ritual performance through the materiality of architecture and associated remains, which not only define ritual space, but also embody the relationship to power and legitimizing authority. Schoenfelder relies on indexical signs to recognize that ritual configurations may reflect group affiliations as much as they serve as expressions of power and authority. Combining evidence of inscriptions and indexical meanings of structures of the candis (temples) at Gunung Kawi, he argues that rather than reflecting notions of social hierarchy, affiliation and relative equality are stressed through the equivalence of monuments that underscored the importance of alliances. Schoenfelder and Anderson use very different forms of material culture, but both are interested in semiotic communication. Engaged with discussions of agency through the incorporation of both the symbolic communication inherent in glyptic evidence and the contextualization of the nonsymbolic elements, Anderson emphasizes that recognizing human decisions behind these manifestations provides deeper understandings than those based solely on isolated symbolic expression.

This volume provides archaeological and anthropological case studies of ritual practice, religious belief, and sacred places from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Mediterranean, and Central, South, and North America. Case studies offer the discipline an opportunity to move forward not through the application of theory, but by constituting theory in their own right (Dobres and Robb 2005:161–162). Those included here approach topics ranging from semiotic understandings of modern and ancient Balinese temples to evidence for individual and community ritual practices at Neolithic enclosures, reflecting the diverse backgrounds and research topics of these submissions.

Perhaps of necessity, not all theoretical currents are represented by contributors to this volume; phenomenological approaches (e.g., Thomas 1996; Tilley 1994) are not the primary concern of most authors, although Barndon specifically acknowledges such a possible approach to the study of metalworking among Tanzanian groups and Biehl hints at similar interests.

Divisions assembled for the volume are not the only possible configurations given the overlapping themes that crosscut other methodological or theoretical boundaries. For example, Kus and Schoenfelder both examine state societies, but Kus’ ethnographic insights pertain directly to the interpretation of non-state, nonegalitarian societies such as those examined by Beck and Brown as well as Ilan and Rowan. Alternatively, one could stress the similarity of contributors who examine the tensions between local religious belief and praxis, and the attendant material symbols engaged by the larger centralized entities, as studied in varying degrees by Kus and Blakely. Here, the authors underscore the dialectic between local ritual practices, places, and symbols versus the co-optation of those symbols and domination for the purposes of imperial or state religious authorities.

Debates concerning belief, ritual, and religion long focused on the functional aspects through social integration as first inspired by Durkheim. From an archaeological perspective, ritual practice represents a nexus for examining the intersection of performance, emotion, and belief made manifest through material culture and its context within built and natural environments. The shift toward greater interest in the active nature of material culture in the ritual and symbolic dimensions challenges archaeologists to establish methodological approaches despite the futility of expecting to elucidate the full meaning(s) of any object or symbolic practice. No single volume can encompass decades of archaeological thinking, but these essays constitute an essential rung in reinvigorating what Hawkes (1954:161-162) viewed as the hardest inference of all—those about ancient religious institutions and spiritual life. The next step is an important one, building upon the resurgence of interest in the archaeological evidence for ancient belief and practices that eventually led to the diverse religious beliefs, practices, and symbols witnessed and recorded in historical and ethnographic accounts. As a collection of contributions by archaeologists, anthropologists, and classicists concerning the methodological and theoretical challenges to understanding past belief and practices, this volume seeks to explore the identification of ritual and belief linked to a wider holistic study and to consider the implications of an archaeology of past belief.


  • 1

    According to Geertz, “A religion is: (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (Geertz 1973:90).