Sunday, November 20, 2016


Rubina Raja, Jörg Rüpke (ed.), A Companion to the Archaeology of Religion in the Ancient World. Blackwell companions to the ancient world. Ancient history. Chichester; Malden, MA; Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2015. Pp. xiii, 502. ISBN 9781444350005. $195.00.

Reviewed by Anna Collar, Aarhus University (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

[Disclaimer: Anna Collar works as part of Troels Myrup Kristensen's 'Emergence of Sacred Travel' project in the same department as Rubina Raja.]

It is clear from their introduction what the editors set out to achieve in this collection of 35 essays: in line with their research agenda at Erfurt, "Lived Ancient Religion", their aim is to overturn the traditional bias towards the systematic and the dogmatic in the treatment of religion in antiquity, and focus instead on the material evidence that shaped the 'practices, expressions, and interactions' (p.4, p. 446) of religion as people experienced it in the past. While the editors acknowledge the virtual impossibility of understanding the specific cultural meanings of past religious behaviour, they posit that "lived ancient religion" offers a framework for describing the influences of philosophical and literary works alongside those of religious professionals, socialisation, social networks and performances in the construction of ancient religious context, and therefore for the reconstruction of situational meanings (fluid though these may be), from the evidence for religious practice as part of everyday life in antiquity. The focus on religion as it was experienced is strongly appealing; nevertheless, perhaps it is the job of a Companion to offer a more balanced picture of the ways religion in antiquity can be understood archaeologically (for example, the editors mention the cognitive approach, but have no place for this here). It is frustrating that, after a strong opening to the introduction, the editors cut and paste sections of the papers rather than offering a coherent analysis of their content.

That said, I found much of the book compelling and the quality of the essays generally excellent: there is, of course, not space enough for details, so I will go through the thematic sections, looking at the papers that prompt further reflection.

Part I explores some broad methodological issues within the Archaeology of Ritual, which the later sections elucidate more fully. Given Rüpke's call towards the end of the volume for an archaeology of individualisation, it is slightly jarring that Van Andringa advocates the dismissal of smaller offerings such as terracotta figurines, often found in backfill or pits at sanctuaries, as too diverse to be of use in deciding what is 'consistent and normative' in a given religious context (p. 38). The urge to categorise is at the heart of Luginbühl's paper (pp. 41-59), in which he delivers a taxonomy of ritual activities. He acknowledges both the reductionism inherent in such a process and the flexible nature of the categories of data (p. 43); however, despite my initial scepticism, I found this a stimulating attempt to integrate these categorisations with the archaeological evidence for processions and pilgrimages, and to identify and reconstruct the embodied elements of such journeys. He should be applauded for highlighting the role that topographic analysis and survey techniques can play in revealing such ephemera as shoe hobnails and networks of ancient footpaths, for his sensitive use of ethnoarchaeological comparanda from Hindu pilgrimages in Nepal and India, and for his experimental participation in processions in order to enlarge his own imaginative and experiential perspectives.

Weiss (pp. 60-70) outlines three devices used to communicate with deities in ancient Egypt – written speech, speech, and images – and in so doing highlights differentiations between public and domestic spaces, between acts intended to perpetuate offerings and those that were more ephemeral. She argues that these categories could then be used in other cultural situations to predict what kinds of religious information might be retrievable in a given context, and as an interpretive method where provenance is unknown. Such differentiations between what was appropriate for 'public' or 'private' has been often used to categorise and interpret religious life in antiquity: here Parker (pp. 71-80) calls these tools 'blunt' (p. 72), demonstrating how there is always a public domain within religion, even if it is considered 'private' or 'domestic'. This theme is picked up in a number of contributions.

Lived ancient religious experience, as manifested internally and externally through the concept of embodiment, is explored in four essays comprising Part II. The first two look at physical embodiment, as demonstrated through the personal use of amulets and the wearing of ancient religious dress; the second two at more ephemeral aspects – dance, and the lived, internal interplay between gender and religious experience. Naerebout's chapter (pp. 107-119) on dance and its accompanying music, an almost completely lost element of religious embodiment, encourages us to be satisfied that indirect evidence for performance space, the accoutrements of dancers and representations of dance add up to only a general understanding of the importance of the kinetic and acoustic elements of ancient religion. Although we have no insight into 'specific kinetic language in a specific cultic context' (p. 117) to enlighten us as to how ancient people ordered their world through bodily techniques, the ordering of society through perceptions of the body is at the heart of Várhelyi's (pp. 120-130) discussion of the changes our scholarly society has undergone in its perception of ancient gender and its role in understanding the physical embodiment of ritualised behaviour: from the idea of a generalised, gendered body towards a subjective, lived experience.

What lived ancient experience involved is the subject of Part III. We explore polychromy and Judaism (Fine pp. 133-143); the practical as well as symbolic roles of water in ancient sanctuaries (Cazanove, pp. 181-193); and how different forms of temporary deprivation (for example, fasting, celibacy, short-term loss of autonomy, illness) had as rules for admittance to public or private sacred areas or in initiation rituals; and how the 'endangered' body is subject to the deprivation of health, symbolic of failure to comply with sacred rules or as a result of curses (Gordon, pp. 194-206). Sacrifice forms a core theme: Huet argues for the reflexivity and performativity of images of sacrifice, partly constituting, partly memorialising the sacrifice, and Méniel for the important role of osteoarchaeology in reconstructing religious practice (pp. 155-166). In an extremely interesting paper, Martens examines the communal sacred feast that followed sacrifice, drawing on three case studies from the Flanders town of Tienen (pp. 167-180), and demonstrating the immense value of precise archaeological work in illuminating local and regional variations in religious practice. For me, the emphasis on the multiple senses as part of ancient religious life is welcome. For example, although Huet's contribution (pp. 144-154) is entitled 'watching ritual', she rightly argues that watching cannot be separated from other sensory experiences of ritual – hearing/listening, smelling, touching and tasting – although she falls into the trap of judging the quality of smells.1

Ambiguous, non-sanctuary space which was (sometimes) used for religious experience is explored in Part IV. Bowes (pp. 209-219) echoes Parker in her exploration of religion within a domestic setting, something that is challenging for archaeologists not least because of the variability in ancient housing, the flexibility of the spaces and the locations for deities within them, but also for the inter-permeability between domestic and public, and indeed between living and dead. Neudecker's paper (pp. 220-234) entitled 'gardens' but including all planned groves, grottos etc., admits the religious quality of nature in general, at the same time dismissing this viewpoint as a wistful sacro-idyllic fantasy, part of 'mythical retrospective', and arguing that 'in lived reality, [religious experiences] always happened in a more-or-less ordered environment … a garden or a park' (p. 220). This may be the case for much ancient religious experience, but nevertheless this section would have benefited from discussion of truly 'wild' religious spaces, beyond the built or controlled environments of humans – mountaintop altars, the sea, or naturally numinous places such as the Cennet ve Cehennem (Heaven and Hell) sinkholes in Cilicia.

Part V moves on to more traditional arenas of public sanctuaries and purpose-built religious locations, with a focus on how the spaces shaped user experiences. Jensen's essay (pp. 253-267) is the most exciting here, emphasising the corporeal and symbolic transformative process of baptism as witnessed through the physical separation of archaeological remains of baptisteries from the main body of the church, and highlighting how the decorative schema and architectural form of baptisteries mimicked both the natural world and the tomb for powerful symbolic purposes.

For me, the standout chapters in Part VI, 'Sharing Public Space', are Stavrianopoulou on processions (pp. 349-361) and Smith on urbanisation and memory (pp. 362-375), both of which have a strong theoretical underpinning. For Stavrianopoulou, processions should be understood as communicative events that perform social institutions as well as mediate them, whether these are military triumphs or funerary journeys. Through their performance, processions constitute space and its limits; through their staging, processions create intense physical and emotional experiences which gave them meaning and generated social memory (both for actors and audience); and through this interplay between actor and audience, a community supportive of the ritual itself is formed. Smith's paper is also concerned with the central role that memory, both cultural and collective, has in the structuring of religion within community and the city of Rome in particular. He argues that the development of monumental temples helped to create time, both historical and mythical, and reads the city's monuments as part of its constructed and dissonant religious and historical narratives. He problematises the ways that the Roman festival calendar might reveal cultural or collective memory, reminding us to acknowledge the divergent personal experiences inherent in it, and how the selective destruction/preservation of monuments was part of a renewal and reinvention process, building and updating Rome's collective civic myth through the excision or valorisation of particular religious loci, because memory only matters for so long: 'as the hold of memory in lived experience weakens, history takes over' (p. 372).

In Part VII, entitled 'Expressiveness', Schörner's broad temporal and geographical look at anatomical ex votos highlights some of the differences between practice and belief in Greece, Anatolia, Gaul and Italy and raises questions about the place of these votives within differing systems of medicine. Estienne's contribution is the most challenging, deconstructing our understanding of the lines between divine image, offering, and cult statue, and suggesting we think more deeply about how the Greeks considered idolatry, aniconism and the construction of normative identities in the ancient world.

Agents, Part VIII of the volume, is a theoretical powerhouse. Rebillard (pp. 427-436) begins with an attack on the 'cliché' of the postmodern emphasis on the contingency and fluidity of identity, using this as a springboard to deconstruct groups as bounded identity categories and to focus instead on the group-making processes by which categories come to be used to make sense of the world. Drawing on the sociological approaches of Brubaker and Lahire, he maintains that 'Christian' archaeological material should not be used as a fixed category to straightforwardly identify religious affiliation, but rather as a tool for discerning multiple and possibly contradictory contexts of action and self-identification by individuals over time. Rüpke (pp. 437-450) continues this focus on identification of individual choices rather than 'solidified' or well- organised groups or cults in archaeological material, leaving us with the statement that ''religion' is to be reconstructed as everyday experiences, practices, expressions and interactions, which define religion as practice, idea and community ever new' (p. 446). Picking up themes of community creation and ritual repetition, Mol and Versluys (pp. 451-461) argue that instead of trying to use material culture to tell us about meaning, we should look at how it was used to construct ritual and create a sense of religious belonging. What is important is what material culture does in group-making processes to generate socially meaningful categories, and how it acts as a 'community identifier' for the 'imagined communities' they discuss. Material symbols play a central role in communion-based ritual experiences, enabling the community to continue to exist in memory and imagination after the ritual has passed.

Part XI, Transformations, widens the geographical scope to include temperate Europe and Roman North Africa. Woolf (pp. 465-477) outlines the problems encountered in linking the ritual practices of temperate Europe (500 BCE-500 CE) as witnessed archaeologically with the textual accounts written by biased Roman or later Christian outsiders, going on to deliver an archaeological account of some elements of the ritual and cosmology of the northern Europeans. We hear of structured deposition, conspicuous consumption, communal feasting – terms found elsewhere in the volume only in Martens' paper– highlighting the gap between the religious traditions of the Mediterranean and northern Europe as well as the terminological gap between the scholarship on the archaeology of religion of the Classical and prehistoric worlds.

Although Kindt, Smith and Woolf mention the role that the wider natural landscape may have played in religious experience, the volume would have benefited from papers which foregrounded the holistic relationships between people, monuments, objects and landscapes, which form such a solid part of prehistoric archaeological interpretation. Although the editors tell us at the start that theirs is an archaeology of the religion of the Graeco-Roman world rather than the archaeology of religion more globally, more explorations of the 'provinces' such as those seen in the final section or in Raja's contribution on sanctuaries in the Roman Near East would have been instructive. Despite these minor criticisms however, this is a strong, diverse and stimulating collection of essays with some excellent theoretical contributions as well as accounts of particular practices or bodies of material; it presents a coherent picture of religion as experienced and will be a mainstay for students and scholars of Graeco-Roman religion.

Table of Contents

1 Archaeology of Religion, Material Religion, and the Ancient World, Rubina Raja and Jörg Rüpke
Part I Archaeology of Ritual
2 The Archaeology of Ancient Sanctuaries, William Van Andringa
3 Ritual Activities, Processions and Pilgrimages, Thierry Luginbühl
4 Perpetuated Action, Lara Weiss
5 Public and Private, Robert Parker
Part II Embodiment
6 Amulets, Gideon Bohak
7 Dress and Ornaments, Laura Gawlinski
8 Dance, Frederick Naerebout
9 Gendered Agents and Embodied Religious Experience, Zsuzsanna Várhelyi
Part III Experiences
10 Polychromy and Jewish Visual Culture of Roman Antiquity, Steven Fine
11 Watching Rituals, Valérie Huet
12 Killing and Preparing Animals, Patrice Méniel
13 Communal Dining: Making Things Happen, Marleen Martens
14 Water, Olivier de Cazanove
15 Temporary Deprivation: Rules and Meanings, Richard Gordon
Part IV Creating spaces of experiences
16 At Home, Kimberly Bowes
17 Gardens, Richard Neudecker
18 Religion and Tomb 235, Henner von Hesberg, Christiane Nowak and Ellen Thiermann
Part V Designing and Appropriating Sacred Space
19 Archaeology of Christian Initiation, Robin M. Jensen
20 Oracular Shrines as Places of Religious Experience, Julia Kindt
21 Buildings of Religious Communities, Inge Nielsen
22 Sanctuaries and Urban Spatial Settings in Roman Imperial Ostia, Marlis Arnhold
Part VI Sharing Public Space
23 Complex Sanctuaries in the Roman Period, Rubina Raja
24 Temples and Temple Interiors, Henner von Hesberg
25 Theater, Susanne Gödde
26 The Archaeology of Processions, Eftychia Stavrianopoulou
27 Urbanization and Memory, Christopher Smith
Part VII Expressiveness
28 Images, Sylvia Estienne
29 Instruments and Vessels, Anne Viola Siebert
30 Anatomical ex votos, Günther Schörner
31 Monumental Inscriptions, Wolfgang Spickermann
Part VIII Agents
32 Material Culture and Religious Identity in Late Antiquity, Eric Rebillard
33 Individual Choices and Individuality in the Archaeology of Ancient Religion, Jörg Rüpke
34 Material Culture and Imagined Communities in the Roman World, Eva Mol and Miguel John Versluys
Part IX Transformations
35 Ritual Traditions of Non-Mediterranean Europe, Greg Woolf
36 Tracing Religious Change in Roman Africa, Valentino Gasparini


1.   Y. Hamilakis, Archaeology and the Senses, Cambridge University Press, 2013.

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