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Michael E. Smith lays down an interesting challenge at Publishing Archaeology: What are the hard problems in Archaeology? What questions haven’t archaeologists answered and aren’t likely to answer any time soon? A couple of ideas come to mind. I’ll start with the easier problem to express.

Is an ancient history or archaeology of religion a sensible project?

I’ve got an interest in ancient science, but one of the things most people researching ancient science would agree that science in the ancient world didn’t really exist. There’s something that’s a more systematic inquiry about nature, but something like natural philosophy would be a better description for the classical world. I’m not sure that the same term would work for other societies because philosophy carries a lot of baggage too. So when academics talk about ancient science, there’s this undercurrent that we’re not talking about science. Ancient science is not the same as modern science.

I’ve got an interest in ancient religion too. I’m not so interested in the content as such, more religion in a socio-political context. That’s something you can say that makes sense to modern people. If you said the same thing in the ancient world they’d think you were mad. It’d be a bit like saying you’re interested in fish, but only the ones that live in water. In the ancient world it was accepted that religion was entwined with civic life. There’s a second problem that what we call religion has developed from its ancient roots.

One (of the many) impressive posts on Phil Harland’s blog is that modern Christianity is not the religion followed by the 1st century AD followers who were called Christians. I think he’s mentioned the obvious (when you think about it) fact that the early Christians didn’t a Bible. Here he talks about the diversity of Judaism and how the Christians were a Jewish sect. It shouldn’t be a surprise that religions have adapted to the modern world, last time I checked religious people were as intelligent as atheists. Still, if there is development you have to account for that. I know plenty of people who do, but equally I also know some people who ignore changes, seeing their religion as being an eternal truth. If you have that view then acknowledging that even the idea of religion has changed since ancient times will be a problem.

It’s even more of a problem when you move out of Europe. When the conquistadores arrived in the New World and encountered the native beliefs they saw it as a religious matter. These are supernatural ideas of people who had no contact with Europe for over ten thousand years. Isn’t it odd that concepts developed to describe Abrahamic faiths can so easily be dropped onto other cultures? Are these beliefs religions, and if so how did they come to be?

I can think of two answers. One is that they had a common root. This is possible. Shiela Coulson has argued that there’s evidence of a python cult from 70,000 years ago in Africa. I think her interpretation is problematic, but there’s certainly plenty of evidence of complex thought in Stone Age Africa long before Europe. This evidence will only accumulate as the Eurocentric bias in cognitive archaeology fades. If humans had religious thought before leaving Africa, then it’s no surprise they have it around the world.

The alternative is that there is no common root, and cultures independently developed complex supernatural beliefs. If you believe there was a cognitive Great Leap Forward in Europe then this has an appeal. It could still point to a common root. It’s possible that our common biological and neurological make-up made belief in religion inevitable, but it also means that we should be wary of our cultural blinkers in examining distant peoples. For example if there was a local cognitive watershed it might seem parochial to call it a Great Leap Forward given the history of the term.

Whichever approach you take will influence who you tackle the workings of religion. Is it a cognitive structure that co-evolves with human society, or is it contingent and haphazard in its development? Depending on the scale it operates at, you can make good arguments for both, but that’s also the problem. How do you reconcile these differences of scale? For the trial of Socrates you’d deal with a moment, but is this a chance moment in history where the philosopher annoyed the wrong person, or is it a clash of social structures that are in conflict in ancient Athens? If you’re dealing with the history of ancient Greece in one sweep, an evolutionary approach is attractive, but your historic sources will be static moments preserved by accident. They’re probably not that many in number and carrying biases that we may not be equipped to understand in modern society.

To some extent the tension between change and stasis is a general archaeological problem, but I think it’s acute in studying religion as it’s usually perceived by the people doing it as static and unchanging. Yet ancient societies were all dynamic, so it would seem implausible for religious activity to be static. The question is, is it so dynamic that our concept is a hinderance to understanding supernatural belief in the past? If it is then how do we translate ancient activity, given that we live in the modern world? Is the term ‘ancient religion’ no more (or less) useful than ‘ancient science’?

I have a second problem, but that’ll have to wait till I’ve cleared the next batch of work. It’ll be more difficult to explain because historians will see it as an archaeological problem, and archaeologists as a historian’s problem.

In the meantime you can visit Michael E. Smith’s blog and leave a comment with your own thoughts.