Archaeology and Religion

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ARCHAEOLOGY AND RELIGION . Even in contemporary circumstances, with living informants and known histories, the analysis of religion presents formidable obstacles to the scholar. It follows that the exploration of prehistoric religious ideas and institutions is even more difficult. The archaeologist must cope with the partial evidence, mute artifacts, and immature methodologies that are available. Given these barriers, it is not surprising that over the past century archaeology and the study of religion have maintained a close but uneasy relationship. Yet both of these broad intellectual endeavors have evolved slowly into more systematic disciplines, and their relationship has matured into a mutually supportive one.

Historical Perspective

Archaeology, the study of past cultures from their material remains, is a mongrel discipline, and only a few of its many heritages are respectable. The beginnings of archaeology included looting for the collection of antiquities, searches for lost biblical tribes, and excavations to verify claims of national, racial, or ethnic superiority. The evolution of archaeology as a scholarly field took distinctly different paths in different world regions, and its relationship with the study of religion varied accordingly.

Protohistoric archaeology

In the Near East and the Mediterranean, the nineteenth-century decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mesopotamian cuneiform, and other ancient scripts began the legitimate tradition of Old World archaeology. Classical and biblical archaeology, Egyptology, and much of Mesopotamian archaeology generally have been very concerned with the discovery of new texts, the verification and refinement of the information presented in the existing historical corpus, and the extension of an understanding of the historical periods into the immediately preceding prehistoric epochs. This aspect of archaeologyas a supplement to textual scholarshipwas, and remains, an important element in the study of religion. It is certainly the most important aspect of archaeology for exploring the origins of the major Old World religious traditions. Excavations have unearthed many of the tablets, scrolls, and inscriptions that form the corpus of textual materials on the origins and nature of the religions of the ancient Near East. This contribution of archaeology to the study of religion continues, as demonstrated by the impact on biblical studies of recent discoveries of early texts during such excavations as those at Ugarit and Ebla in Syria.

However, excavations at other sitesJericho in Palestine, Ur and Uruk in Mesopotamia, and Nimrud and Nineveh in Assyriahave also yielded the material remains of these ancient cultures and the broader context of early cult and ritual. Such excavations have provided a direct view of the material culture of religious lifetemples, shrines, images, and artifacts. The earlier levels at these sites have also revealed the evolution of religion leading into the historical periods. Structure foundations, early tombs, the strata of tells, and their associated artifacts allow researchers to trace the prehistoric development of rituals and cults, mortuary practices, and multifunctional temple complexes in ancient Palestine, Egypt, and Sumer.

Pre-Columbian archaeology

In the New World, archaeology and the study of religion also started from a historical base. The Spanish conquest and colonization of Mexico and Peru left a legacy of historical description by the conquistadors, inquisitors, and bureaucrats who administered the conquered empires, kingdoms, and tribes of the American Indians. The descriptions from contact and colonial periods throughout the Americas were rich in their coverage of pre-Columbian religion, because it was of particular concern to the missionaries and bureaucrats who were the primary historians and ethnographers of American cultures. In addition to these European texts, a number of native bark and deerskin folding books (codices) survived the colonial era and provided an indigenous perspective on the pre-Columbian culture. Scholars of this combined historical and ethnographic corpus, ethnohistorians such as Eduard Seler, began the tradition of studies of pre-Columbian religion.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the gradual and continuing decipherment of the hieroglyphs of the Maya civilization of Mexico and Central America led such scholars as Sylvanus G. Morley back into the archaeological exploration of the gods and rites of earlier periods. In the first half of the twentieth century archaeological excavations worked back from the rich ethnohistorical record to uncover the art, iconography, and glyphic texts of earlier pre-Columbian religions. Interpretations relied heavily on later ethnographical and historical records, a methodology referred to as the "direct-historical approach" to archaeology. The earlier form and context of Indian religion was elucidated by extensive excavations at the great prehistoric urban and ceremonial centers of the New World: ancient Maya centers such as Copán in Honduras and Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán, as well as imperial capitals such as that of the Aztec at Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City) and the Inca capital at Cuzco, Peru.

As pre-Columbian research progressed, it enriched the cross-cultural study of religion. The limits of previous concepts of religious behavior were stretched by consideration of the nature and scale of Aztec human sacrifice, Inca ancestor worship, and Maya fascination with astronomical lore and calendric ritual. Explorations of all these phenomena involved a combination of colonial history, epigraphic research, and direct-historical field archaeology.

Prehistoric archaeology

Because of the combination of historical and archaeological approaches, the high civilizations of the Near East, the Mediterranean, Mesoamerica, and Peru initially provided the most information of the greatest reliability for studies of cross-cultural variation in religious behavior and of the history of religious traditions. Yet it was the archaeology of less politically complex societies in North America and Europe that led to most of the methodological and theoretical insights of this century. These breakthroughs eventually allowed the discipline to transcend its dependence on textual evidence and the direct-historical approach. Perhaps it was the weakness of the historical record for these areas that led to more innovative approaches. Alternatively, it may have been that the less complex structure of many of these societiesegalitarian bands, tribes, and chiefdomsmade them more amenable to cross-cultural analogy and comparison, because most ethnographically studied societies were at these levels.

Whatever the impetus may have been, the use of ethnographic analogy and anthropological comparison was widespread in interpretations of the archaeological record in North America. By the 1940s and 1950s Walter Taylor, Julian H. Steward, and others were advocating an even closer association between anthropology and archaeology and their use in interpreting the artifactual remains of ancient societies. Steward emphasized that cultures were not just collections of traits but integrated systems adapted to their environments. He stressed that human culture, like any other system, was patterned and that these patterns were reflected in the nature and location of sites and in the distribution and types of ancient artifacts.

The ideas of Steward and "culture ecologists" like him led to new approaches to the archaeological reconstruction of ancient cultures. In the 1950s, in Peru, Gordon Willey first applied the method known as "settlement-pattern studies," that is, the analysis of site distribution and variation, to reconstruct the nature and evolution of prehistoric societies. In Europe, Graham Clarke used culture ecology to identify ancient subsistence and economic systems accurately. These new approaches to interpretation were further strengthened by technical breakthroughs such as the radiocarbon and tree-ring dating methods, and by improved field techniques, which could now recover such trace remains as preserved human feces (coprolites) and microscopic fossil pollen.

Religion, unfortunately, was initially ignored by these progressive developments in archaeology. The growing theoretical and methodological sophistication of archaeology had its roots firmly in culture ecology and other materialist approaches. Some influential thinkers, such as Leslie White, explicitly argued that religion was of no importance in cultural evolution, that it was "epiphenomenal." Others, such as Steward, felt that while religion was essential to the core of cultural behavior, it was, unfortunately, inscrutable to archaeological analysis. While many archaeologists believed that all aspects of culture left patterns in the archaeological record, they also felt that the patterning in religious behavior was too complex, idiosyncratic, or obscure to be accurately perceived. Thus, throughout the period of transformation in archaeology in the 1940s and 1950s, the archaeology of religion progressed systematically only in those regions and periods that could be related to historically known religions. Analysis of fully prehistoric ideology was left to those who were willing to apply unsystematic and subjective interpretations, often drawn from popular psychology, to ancient architecture, artifacts, or art.

The "New Archaeology"

It took a second revolution in archaeological interpretation, beginning in the 1960s, to bring modern archaeology and the study of religion together as collaborative disciplines. Lewis R. Binford in the Americas and David Clarke in Britain were among the archaeologists who began to argue that the capabilities of archaeology could be broadened through the use of analogy to ethnographic societies and, above all, through computer-assisted statistical approaches. In a series of controversial papers and texts, these self-designated New Archaeologists decried the complacency of conventional archaeological methodology, especially its reluctance to explore the nature of ancient societies beyond questions of chronology and subsistence. Binford argued that hypotheses concerning the nature of ancient social or even religious systems could be drawn from ethnographic comparisons and could then be verified or discredited by vigorous statistical examination of the patterning in the archaeological remains. These new approaches and greater ambitions for archaeology were tested, generally verified, and refined by studies of the Indians of the southwestern United States and ethnoarchaeological studies of the Inuit (Eskimo) of the Arctic, the !Kung San of southern Africa, and the Aborigines of Australia.

While there was never an explicit, universal acceptance of the new approaches, they were gradually, perhaps unconsciously, absorbed into many branches of archaeology, including research on prehistoric religion. Numerous studies of fully prehistoric ideological systems began in this period. Gerald Hawkins and Alexander Thom began computer-assisted studies of the patterning and astronomical alignments of Stonehenge and other megalithic constructions of Bronze Age and Neolithic Europe (c. 40001800 bce). These researches gave rise to the subdiscipline of archaeoastronomy, research on the ancients' concern with astronomy and astrology, and this concern's reflection in architecture and settlement patterns. Studies of the patterning and placement of markings, images, and art of the Stone Age were begun by scholars such as Alexander Marshack, André Leroi-Gourhan, and Peter J. Ucko. All of these studies drew upon statistical assessment and analogy to ethnographically known peoples in order to elucidate the structure of Stone Age religion.

Such researches demonstrated that early prehistoric religion was amenable to archaeological interpretation. Current research has continued and expanded the scrutiny of archaeological patterns for material reflections of ancient religious behavior. Studies by John Fritz, Joyce Marcus, and Evon Z. Vogt, to name a few, have examined the structure of ideological conceptions as reflected in architecture and site placement in the Anasazi culture of New Mexico (c. 6001300 ce) and the ancient Maya civilization of Guatemala (c. 300900 ce). Central-place theory and other forms of locational analysis have been used to study site placement in regional landscapes, in order to deduce how worldviews might have affected the selection and relative importance of ceremonial centers and shrines.

Religion and evolutionary theory

The ambitions of contemporary archaeological methodology to decipher ancient belief systems, though still struggling, have led to a renewed interest in the role of religion in the evolution of human culture. For the first half of the twentieth century, economic, Marxist, and ecological theory dominated studies of the prehistoric development of civilizations. In retrospect it is now clear that this materialist bias was inevitable, given the methodological limitations of archaeology. With the conviction that prehistoric religious systems were beyond scientific analysis, theoretical assessment of cultural change and development had naturally turned to other factors. However, the new methodological concerns resulted in a resurgence of interest in the role of ideology in prehistoric change. In the 1970s archaeologists from diverse theoretical backgrounds began to call for a new look at religion's impact on the rise and fall of civilizations. Archaeologists have responded in recent publications, discussing the general evolutionary role of ancient religion as well as the specific effects of ideology on the formation and reinforcement of early state polities.

This revived interest in the role of religion in the evolution of culture has led to new theoretical perspectives even in the archaeology of the great protohistoric civilizations. Most archaeologists of late prehistoric Mesopotamia, for example, no longer turn exclusively to the effects of irrigation or demographic pressure for the causes of state formation. For decades, historical and anthropological scholars, including Mircea Eliade and Paul Wheatley, have argued that the ceremonial center was the nucleus of the early city. Anthropological archaeologists have turned again to such perspectives in their examination of earlier prehistoric developments.

For example, a series of researches have examined patterns of pottery distribution of the northern Mesopotamian Halaf and Samarran cultures (c. 55004500 bce). The identified patterns of intersite similarity and difference in design-element distributions have been seen to reflect the territories of early chiefdoms. The distinctive styles of the chiefdoms are also seen as indications of the integration and communication provided by early ceremonial centers and their religious rituals. In these interpretations the early ceremonial center is related archaeologically to a presumed function of reinforcement of collective identity, a role seen as critical in the evolution of later, more complex societies. Thus, the theoretical perspectives of thinkers such as Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Eliade, too long alien to archaeology, have been returned to field research and interpretation. In the process religious behavior has been incorporated into anthropological assessments of prehistoric cultural evolution.

In discussing the later period of the formation of humankind's first civilization, ancient Sumer, archaeologists continue to emphasize the importance of irrigation, demographics, trade, and warfare in the genesis of urban society. However, they also incorporate ideology into the evolutionary equationand not merely as a Marxist, after-the-fact legitimation of political authority. For example, Robert M. Adams, in Heartland of Cities (1981), takes a holistic perspective on the origins of the state in Mesopotamia. He sees early city-states and their proto-urban antecedents as centers of security in all senses: subsistence security because of their role in irrigation, storage of surplus, and trade; defensive security provided by a large nucleated population; and spiritual security and identity in the form of the temple. The ceremonial centers of Ubaid times (45003500 bce) evolved into the urban centers of Uruk times (35003100 bce) because they became central places servicing the full range of economic, social, and spiritual needs. The temple-dominated economies of such centers were also preadapted to legitimate the state political authority that emerged in later periods.

Similarly, perspectives on cultural evolution in the New World have begun to reincorporate religion into interpretations of the rise and fall of civilizations. Kent V. Flannery and Robert Drennan have argued that religion and ritual were vital to the formation of early complex pre-Columbian societies such as the Olmec civilization of Mexico. Geoffrey W. Conrad and the author of this article have presented reinterpretations of the importance and nature of such religious phenomena as the Inca worship of royal mummies and the Aztec central cult of mass human sacrifice. These new perspectives argue that such cults helped to drive the explosive expansion of both the Inca Empire of Peru (14381532) and the Aztec hegemony in Mexico (14281519). Indeed, they contend that due to religious and political institutionalization the cults became irreversible forces that destabilized these pre-Columbian empires and predisposed them to swift disintegration.

So, in both the Old World and the Americas archaeologists have rediscovered the study of religion. Appropriate methodologies for the study of prehistoric religion have been suggested and continue to be explored. Meanwhile, theoretical models for prehistoric cultural evolution have reincorporated the study of religion into considerations of social change. In turn, these researches and interpretations in archaeology have broadened the temporal and geographic range of information available to scholars of comparative religion. The future holds even more promise as methodologies improve, theory becomes more sophisticated, and the symbiotic relationship of these two disciplines grows.

Recent Contributions

The historical development of the relationship between archaeology and religion involved a sequence of important projects, discoveries, and theoretical breakthroughs. However, there also have been many contributions by archaeology to the study of religion in particular regions and periods. Here it is only possible to cite a few of the noteworthy finds.

Paleolithic religion

The archaeology of religion in the Paleolithic period, the Old Stone Age, is one area in which new methodologies and concerns have led to surprising discoveries. It is now possible to say with certainty that homo religiosus predates Homo sapiens by a considerable period.

Humanity's ancestor of a million to a hundred thousand years ago, Homo erectus, had an average cranial capacity of about two-thirds that of modern humans. Yet Homo erectus left traces of possible religious or ritual behavior. This evidence includes finds of ocher earth pigments (perhaps for body painting) at Terra Amata in France and the discovery of Homo erectus skull remains at the Zhoukoudian cave in China that may indicate ritual cannibalism. These data can be contested, being based only on analogy to ethnographically known belief systems. There can be no question, however, about the rich spiritual life of Neanderthal humans, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. Beginning about one hundred thousand years ago, this robust early form of Homo sapiens devoted considerable energy to the burial of the dead, as shown by excavation of Neanderthal cemeteries in France, Germany, and the Near East. Ritual treatments include the use of red ocher, sometimes grave goods, and, in at least one instance, offerings of flowers.

In the Upper Paleolithic period, beginning about thirty-five thousand years ago, anatomically modern Homo sapiens appeared, and made a quantum leap in art and religious imagery. New statistical approaches to patterning in the archaeological record have been applied to generate specific hypotheses on the spectacular cave paintings, portable art, and complex, enigmatic markings characteristic of the late epoch of the Stone Age. Ucko, Andrée Rosenfeld, and other anthropologists have turned to the ethnography of contemporary hunting and gathering societies for analogies. Their interpretations emphasize hunting magic, totemism, and shamanism. Leroi-Gourhan uses statistical assessment of patterning in the forms and distributions of specific images in the caves. He has produced a structural, almost linguistic, analysis of message and meaning in Paleolithic art. Marshack also turns to statistical assessment in his work on the markings and iconographs of the Paleolithic. However, he concludes that the complex symbolic system was concerned with lunar cycles and other calendric patterns, as well as with fertility and sympathetic magic. Taken together, recent archaeological studies constitute a considerable corpus on the fully prehistoric belief systems of early humankind.

The early Near East

In the Near East, the heartland of many of the world's major religions, the contribution of archaeology to the study of the origins of these traditions extends back to the seventh and eighth millennia bce. Excavations by Kathleen M. Kenyon in preceramic Jericho and finds at related sites (e.g., Beidha, Ain Ghazal, Tell Ramad) have revealed burial practices and iconography emphasizing skull worship. James Mellaart's excavations in seventh-millennium levels at Çatal Hüyük, Anatolia, have uncovered elaborate religious imagery in shrines with plaster sculptures and artwork incorporating the skulls of bulls. Continuity of some iconographic elements, including bullhead designs, suggests that these earliest Neolithic religions may have influenced the later cults of the northern Mesopotamian Halaf and Samarran chiefdoms. In turn, excavations at ceremonial centers of these chiefdoms, such as Tell es-Sawwan, indicate that they greatly influenced the temple complexes of the Ubaid culture, the first phase of the Sumerian civilization in southern Mesopotamia. Thus, recent evidence suggests a continuous evolution of religious systems leading to the historical Near Eastern religions.

Archaeological research since the 1930s has unearthed a wealth of data on the religion of the later high civilization of Mesopotamia, and at early Sumerian centers such as Eridu, Uruk, Ur, and Tepe Gawra. This evidence has permitted detailed characterization and dating of the development of Sumerian temple architecture, art, and iconography, as well as the changing cultural context of religion and ritual. Concerning later, historical periods (after 3000 bce), the excavations at Ur in the 1930s and 1940s by C. Leonard Woolley provided a clear glimpse of Sumerian elite life and state religion in that city-state's temple complexes and royal cemetery. Twentieth-century excavations sponsored by British, French, German, and American institutions at Ur, Uruk, Mari, Babylon, Nineveh, and other Mesopotamian sites have also recovered thousands of tablets. From the recovered texts and inscriptions, the epigraphers Samuel Noah Kramer and Thorkild Jacobsen have reconstructed the nature of theology, ritual, and myth in ancient Sumer, Akkad, and Babylon. Meanwhile, the excavations and tablets of Nuzi, Susa, Mari, and other sites have provided evidence on the identity and cults of the surrounding, previously shadowy, historical peoplesthe Hurrians, the Elamites, and the kingdom of Mari.

Perhaps the most important and unexpected discovery of recent years came from excavations by an Italian team at Tell Mardikh, in Syria. In 1975 they found a royal archive of over fifteen thousand tablets, detailing the history and culture of the third-millennium kingdom of Ebla. The ongoing decipherment of the Ebla tablets is revolutionizing current understanding of early Near Eastern history and religion. These texts have provided a new perspective on the ancient Near East and promise to provide a closer view of the origins of the religious systems of later times.

Biblical archaeology

One beneficiary of these discoveries of early kingdoms in adjacent regions has been biblical archaeology. At Ras Shamra in Syria, Claude F.-A. Schaeffer directed excavations, uncovering the ancient city of Ugarit and thousands of Ugaritic tablets. These texts have had a profound impact on biblical studies, because they detail the nature of second-millennium Canaanite religion and society. Meanwhile, progress in biblical archaeology in Palestine itself has been substantial and steady. Literally hundreds of sites relating to the Old Testament period have been excavated in the past half-century, including such important sites as Jericho, Jerusalem, Megiddo, Tel Dan, Gezer, Shechem (modern-day Nablus), Lachish, and Samaria.

One should not overlook the contributions of archaeology to the historical study of religions of later times in the Near East. Archaeology has provided a richer context of material evidence to check, refine, and extend the historical record on religion in ancient Egypt, early Islam, and early Christianity. Furthermore, many of the actual historical and religious texts have been recovered by systematic archaeological excavations, including most of the Dead Sea Scrolls and numerous papyrus texts in Egypt. The recent excavations and discoveries at Nag Hammadi in Egypt illustrate the close interplay between religious textual studies and archaeology. Archaeologists returned there in the 1970s to excavate areas in a zone where Gnostic texts had been fortuitously discovered decades earlier. These ongoing excavations are establishing the material context of these important documents.

China and India

In the study of the religious systems of Asia, archaeology has been traditionally limited to a supplementary role. Excavations have recovered texts and inscriptions and have confirmed or refined the interpretations of historical scholarship. The bronzes, oracle bones, bamboo tablets, and other inscriptions so critical to the study of early Chinese religion have been recovered in large numbers by the systematic, albeit largely atheoretical, archaeology of modern China. Excavations at the Shang tombs at Anyang (c. 1400 bce) and the mortuary complex of the first emperor (200 bce) have revealed the spectacular nature of early Chinese religion and its critical role in polity and power. Indeed, new theoretical perspectives by historical scholars, such as David Keightley, have argued that the genesis of China's first states and the form of its early theology are inseparable.

Modern anthropological archaeology has only just begun in China. Yet already more methodologically rigorous approaches to prehistoric and protohistoric periods are beginning to challenge traditional interpretations. In a series of works K. C. Zhang has compared texts with archaeological evidence and datings to show that the early Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties may have been largely contemporaneous polities rather than a linear sequence of dynasties. Such broad reconsiderations of chronology and history will require parallel rethinking of the history of early state religion in China. Recent archaeological contributions to the study of early Chinese religion also include evidence on belief systems in the Neolithic Yangshao (40002500 bce) and Longshan (25001800 bce) periods. He Bingdi and other Chinese archaeologists have argued that iconography, settlement layouts, and even domestic architecture in these village societies reflect uniquely regional views on cosmology, ancestor worship, and fertility. While largely based on analogy to later religions, such interpretations show the potential of future archaeological research.

The archaeology of the Indus Valley civilization (24001800 bce) of Pakistan and India is another field in which evidence and analogy can be used to project intriguing, but still uncertain, connections with historical religions. In this case, the architecture, art, and iconography of Mohenjo-Daro, Harappa, Lothal, and other cities of the Indus Valley civilization have been carefully compared to the Vedic texts on early Hindu ritual and belief. General conceptual parallels have been inferred from the archaeological evidence, such as concerns with bathing and the ritual use of water, or the probable existence of a rigid, castelike social organization. Archaeologists and Vedic scholars have also noted many quite specific shared traits between Indus Valley artifacts, glyphs, or iconography and historical descriptions of Aryan culture in the Vedas, for example, the form of incense burners, the lotus sitting position, and possible prototypes of specific deities. Such interpretations are complicated by growing evidence that the Indus Valley civilization was created by a racially and linguistically Dravidian, rather than Aryan, people. Nonetheless, the archaeology of the region does seem to point to Indus Valley culture for the origins of many aspects of the Hindu tradition.

The Mediterranean and Europe

Archaeological research in Greece and Egypt has always been dominated by textual and historical studies. As in biblical studies the archaeologist has provided texts and inscriptions as well as evidence on the broader material context of early religion. This contribution of assistance to epigraphic research often has been of great significance. For example, the excavations of the sacred capital at Amarna, in Egypt, have uncovered iconography, architecture, and texts that vastly expand existing views on the religion of Egypt and adjacent cultures in the fourteenth century bce.

Archaeological research has also pushed back the chronological limits of the knowledge of religion in ancient Egypt and Greece. In Egypt current understanding of the antiquity and evolution of religion has been extended by the excavation of Neolithic cemeteries and of late predynastic mastaba tombs, the mudbrick antecedents of the pyramids. In the Aegean and Balkans, recent excavations have established a chronological and cultural context for the study of religion, including ample evidence concerning Mycenaean and Minoan religion and even earlier (third and fourth millennia bce) shrines, funerary practices, and religious icons. Marija Gimbutas and other archaeologists have carried interpretations on religion back to the earliest Neolithic developments in eastern Europe in the seventh millennium bce. Gimbutas has synthesized the evidence from excavations of shrines, burials, and figurine iconography to reconstruct the general form, specific deities, and development of the indigenous cults of Old Europe. While still highly speculative in nature, such contributions demonstrate the growing potential of archaeology for the study of fully prehistoric religious systems.

The prehistoric archaeology of western Europe has been transformed in recent years by new approaches, including the studies already mentioned on Paleolithic religion and on astronomical patterning in Neolithic and Bronze Age megalithic shrines. Of even greater significance has been a revolution in chronology and evolutionary interpretation led by Colin Renfrew and other British archaeologists. In the 1960s the correction of errors in the radiocarbon dating method produced new chronological alignments for all of European prehistory, redating the beginning of megaliths in northern Europe to before 3500 bce. It is now clear that these and other spectacular manifestations of early European religion can no longer be defined historically or interpreted iconographically in terms of influences or parallels with the Aegean world. As a result, the study of religion and cultural development in prehistoric Europe has turned to the new approaches and ethnographic perspectives popular in American archaeology. European and American prehistoric studies have entered an exciting period of cross-fertilization in anthropological concepts and archaeological methods.

The Americas

In the New World methodological and theoretical assessments have enriched the traditional ethnohistorical and direct-historical approaches to the study of pre-Columbian religion. Prehistoric cultures from diverse regions, such as the Mississippian peoples of the southeastern United States (c. 10001500), the Pueblo cultures of the Southwest (3001300), and the Moche civilization of Peru (200 bce600 ce), have been studied by systematic statistical analysis of patterning in their archaeological remains. In the search for patterns, settlement distribution, grave goods, architectural alignments, distribution of design elements on potsherds, and many other potential reflections of ancient social groups, political divisions, and belief systems have been examined. These studies, along with broader theoretical assessments, have led to a tremendous increase in understanding prehistoric religion in the New World and its interrelationship with the political and social evolution of pre-Columbian tribes, chiefdoms, and states.

These new approaches also hold the prospect of resolving long-standing issues in the study of pre-Columbian religion. Since the 1950s George Kubler and other scholars have warned against the general practice of simply imposing the historically known meaning of contact-period religious artifacts and art onto the evidence from earlier periods. Kubler has pointed out that, over the centuries, shifts or even complete disjunctions in the meaning of religious symbols may have occurred. Systematic approaches to patterning in the record may provide methods of testing ethnohistorically presumed meanings through study of the distribution and association of artifacts and images.

New archaeological discoveries and new approaches to interpretation are also challenging long-standing opinions on specific aspects of pre-Columbian religious studies. For example, many scholars studying the religions of the high civilizations of Mesoamerica and Peru have begun to doubt the utility of seeking specific identities or referents for individual deities. Instead, they are analyzing art and iconography for evidence of concepts and structures in pre-Columbian belief systems. The results have shown that pre-Columbian religions were as laden with sexual symbolism, manifold godheads, and structural complexities as the religions of East Asia. Archaeological research is also discovering unexpected aspects of pre-Columbian religionsfor example, the importance of ancestor worship among the ancient Classic Maya civilization of Central America (300900 ce) and the shamanistic nature of the religion of the early Olmec culture in Mexico (1300600 bce).


Beyond the small sample cited here, archaeology has contributed to the study of religion in virtually every world region and period. The archaeology of Japan, Southwest Asia, Australia, sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, and other zones has involved extensive excavation and interpretation of the material evidence of religious behavior. As archaeological research broadens in geographical range and further develops its methodological tools, it will become an even more important aspect of the study of religion. It will continue to extend the breadth and depth of scholars' search for variations, connections, structural similarities, and cognitive parallels in human religious systems.

See Also

Cities; Prehistoric Religions, article on Old Europe.


A good general history of archaeology in the Old World is Glyn E. Daniel's A Short History of Archaeology (London, 1981), and for the New World see Gordon R. Willey and Jeremy A. Sabloff's A History of American Archaeology, 2d ed. (London, 1981). An important presentation of the new, anthropological approaches to archaeology is Lewis R. Binford's An Archaeological Perspective (New York, 1972). Recent works exemplifying the integration of religion into archaeological approaches to cultural evolution are Ideology, Power, and Prehistory, edited by Daniel Miller and Christopher Tilley (Cambridge, 1984), and Religion and Empire by Geoffrey W. Conrad and myself (Cambridge, 1984). For innovative syntheses of Paleolithic archaeology and religion, see Peter J. Ucko and Andrée Rosenfeld's Palaeolithic Cave Art (New York, 1967); André Leroi-Gourhan's The Dawn of European Art (Cambridge, 1982); and Alexander Marshack's The Roots of Civilization (New York, 1972). A good regional review of archaeology in the Near East is Charles L. Redman's The Rise of Civilization (San Francisco, 1978). For later periods and biblical archaeology see Howard F. Vos's Archaeology in Bible Lands (Chicago, 1977). Kwangzhi Zhang's Shang Civilization (New Haven, 1980) includes consideration of early Chinese religion, while Zhang's The Archaeology of Ancient China, 3d ed. (New Haven, Conn., 1977), is the definitive general synthesis. A review of evidence on the Indus Valley civilization and Vedic parallels is given in the first chapters of Arun Bhattacharjee's History of Ancient India (New Delhi, 1979). The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 65003500 b.c., by Marija Gimbutas (Berkeley, Calif., 1982) is a notable study of archaeological evidence on early European religion and an excellent example of the integration of archaeology, iconographic analysis, and the study of religion. For the Americas, traditional regional syntheses of art, archaeology, and religions can be found in The Handbook of Middle American Indians, 16 vols., edited by Robert Wauchope (Austin, 19641976), and The Handbook of South American Indians, 7 vols., edited by Julian H. Steward (Washington, 19461959). For broader structural and conceptual approaches to the nature of pre-Columbian religion, see Miguel León-Portilla's Time and Reality in the Thought of the Maya (Boston, 1973); my own Viracocha (Cambridge, Mass., 1981); and especially Eva Hunt's The Transformation of the Hummingbird (Ithaca, N.Y., 1977).

Arthur Andrew Demarest (1987)