Is ‘religion’ one of the hard historical archaeological problems?

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.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

5 Responses

  1. Ann says:

    True. We (or at least, I) even only to often for­get that it was only hun­dreds of years ago we devided reli­gion and state, and star­ted to see that as a (semi)seperate item. 😉

  2. Gary Corby says:

    On ancient sci­ence, or lack thereof…I’d agree except in the case of Archimedes. He seems to have been born with an innate instinct for sci­entific method. I can’t explain his mar­vels any other way.

    On the com­mon belief themes across cultures…I’m approach­ing this as an author…I can’t pre­tend to even the slight­est under­stand­ing of all these cog­nit­ive & social theories…

    You would be hard pressed to find a pro­fes­sional storyteller any­where who does not believe in Jungian arche­types. They’re our stock in trade.

    I can make up a story under­stand­able to people from any cul­ture — if the lan­guage bar­rier is gone — because no mat­ter where you go, all you find is people. You could go back in time to those Python people and tell them the tale of Romeo & Juliet, and they would get it. The Matrix might be a bit trick­ier though.

  3. cfeagans says:

    Shiela Coulson has argued that there’s evid­ence of a python cult from 70,000 years ago in Africa.

    I didn’t see any indic­a­tion from the link on the dat­ing meth­ods they used. How did they arrive at a date of 70 Ka? Dating pet­ro­glyphs is such a dif­fi­cult an prob­lem­atic endeavor (I’m assum­ing this might be related to what you found prob­lem­atic as well). Perhaps they used method of dat­ing the pat­ina inside the indentations?

    • Alun says:

      This art­icle sug­gests that it’s dated by the pres­ence of Middle Stone Age tools. The python is dated to the same period as the tools because among the 13,000 arte­facts found, one fit­ted mark­ings found on the python. I’ve just found this blog entry at A Very Remote Period Indeed, that sug­gests she’s not been helped by the pub­li­city. Not every­one gets to write their own press releases.

      Unfortunately I can’t tell if this is another case of pub­lic­a­tion by press release. If it does prove to be genu­ine then it’s def­in­itely a major story.

  1. April 15, 2010

    […] are the “Hard Problems in Archaeology”? (archae­ology) and Is ‘Religion’ One of the Hard Historical Archaeology Problems? […]