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The Archaeology of Religion and Religious Experience

Panel Chairs: Rubina Raja, Jörg Rüpke | Thursday, August 27, 3:30-5:30 p.m.

This session considers and review various approaches to the archaeology of religion and of religious experience. Through the last decade publications on religion and rituals as expressed through archaeological evidence have increasingly expanded. Centrally to the session is the question of how to approach religion through archaeological material, the main trends being “archaeology of religion” and “archaeology of religious experience” (among others represented by Raja and Rüpke). Today, archaeological data pertaining to religion and ritual actions are taken as seriously in Religious Studies and History of Religion as religion is taken seriously within Archaeology. In this field archaeological and religious respectively historical research meet, even if they have two very different lines of ancestry in scholarship. For the ancient world, "archaeology of religion" has established itself as a field of interdisciplinary research that presupposes basic methodology on the part of the archaeologists and basic knowledge of the history of religion on the part of ancient historians and scholars of religion during the past decade. On the other hand “archaeology of religious experience” aims at grasping lived religion, a concept coined for modern religions, and therefore not without possible flaws when adapted to non-living societies. These sessions aim at bringing together in fruitful discussion approaches to the archaeology of religion and the archaeology of religious experience.

Luther H. Martin

Caves, Rituals, and Minds: The Archaeology of (Religious) Experience and the Roman Cult of Mithras

Various species have always been drawn to caves for shelter, protection, refuge, or simply out of curiosity for what they might conceal. Homo sapiens are no exception, from the Paleolithic to the spelunkers of modernity. It is, consequently, unsurprising that religions, from their social origins, have exploited this attraction for their own purposes. In this presentation, I will exemplify this attraction with the Roman Cult of Mithras, who universally met in speleae, whether natural or constructed, for their ritual activities. I will argue that these ritual activities incorporated techniques and strategies (e.g., sensory deprivation, controlled environmental stimuli such as architectural designs, symbolic representations, and behavioral augmentations such as masks or ritual threats, etc.) that enhanced or suppressed everyday cognitive functions to deliberately induce altered (non-ordinary but predictable) states of consciousness. Such experiential responses were interpreted as “religious” from within the cult context.

Gunnel Ekroth

The Terror of the Text. Why We Need Archaeology to Understand the Complexity of Ancient Greek Religion

The trust put in the written word in the exploration of ancient Greek religion tends to overshadow all other sources. Texts are seen as providing specific and accurate information, while archaeology is more imprecise due to its need for interpretation, as archaeology is “mute”. The use of archaeological evidence is often considered as requiring no particular skills or training and archaeology is seen as a vast resource to dip into for illustrating texts, often taking one particular passage and matching it with one particular archaeological situation or item. This “terror of the text” has led to some skewed perceptions of ancient Greek religion, especially ritual practices. A closer study of the archaeological evidence for a particular cult or religious element reveals that the ritual reality was vastly more complex than what our written sources tend to let us know. This paper will discuss some such examples concerning altars and sacrificial installations.

Ditte Maria Damsgaard Hiort

Lived Ancient Religion: Experienced Through ‘A Companion to the Archaeology of Religion in the Ancient World’

This work is in many ways not only much needed and helpful, but also offers the reader a whole new offset, framework and perspective. “A Companion to the Archaeology of Religion in the Ancient World” enables scholars to be, who in the process of learning how to master their projects, have a seldom opportunity to frame the concepts of studying religious aspects of archaeology and history in a whole new mind and setting. The methodological approaches presented in this work open up for the investigation of both a narrow and also wider conceptualization of ancient religious practices, experiences, spaces and expressiveness. “Lived Ancient Religion” further and stimulate our research possibilities by not dematerializing or decontextualizing the material. My own dissertation evolves around altars from the region of the Decapolis in the Roman period. Though a thorough analysis of the typology and iconography is forming the basis of this study, it is concepts like “Lived Ancient Religion” that allow the (real) deep and full contextualization and understanding of the archaeology and history.

Alexandra Plesa

Is it all lost? Post-excavation reassessment of burials at the Late Antique and early Islamic Matmar and Mostagedda, Egypt and the reconstruction of past religious affiliations

The Matmar and Mostagedda sites were excavated by a British archaeological team in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and an abundant material ranging from Pre-Pharaonic to early Islamic times was shipped to museums all over the world. A large section of it comprised the grave goods and personal belongings pertaining to approximately 100 Byzantine and early Islamic tombs at both sites, dispatched without proper investigation and photographing. Most aspects related to the appearance, inventory of burials, as well as the investigation of rite and ritual were left unanswered. The paper attempts a post-excavation reconstruction of several Late Antique and early Islamic burials at Matmar and Mostagedda whose grave goods show Christian religious symbolism. By using the data from the original monographs, in conjunction with an analysis on the surviving artifacts in museums, and study of the archival material, I aim to visually reconstruct the appearance of the burials, and inquire into the religious affiliation of the deceased, as well as into the rite and rituals performed. Considering the developments in archaeology as to accommodate the study of the rites and rituals, as well as religious experience, I aim not only to discuss how can such a data inform us about religious affiliation in the cosmopolite and multi-religious society of Late Antique and Early Islamic Egypt, but moreover, to problematize the validity of incomplete, post-excavation data in the attempt of reconstructing past religious experience, and the extent to which we can rely on it.


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