Archaeology is essential to the cross-cultural study of religion. Archaeologists’ focus on material evidence enables them to investigate groups not represented or underrepresented in textual traditions, including non-literate societies and non-elite members of literate societies. Accordingly, archaeology provides a broad comparative lens and longue durée perspective, as well as a means to study the practices of individuals across the social spectrum. Additionally, a disciplinary emphasis on material culture and human-thing relationships enables archaeologists to investigate the materiality of ancient religious traditions—the entanglement of ancient beliefs and practices within the material world. Because every stage of the archaeological process involves interpretation and theorization, archaeologists’ theoretical stances and methodological choices shape the data they obtain. For example, any discussion of the “archaeology of religion” will be shaped by the author’s (explicit or implicit) operational definition of “religion” itself (see Part I, “Considering ‘Religion’ and ‘Ritual’”). Modern Western constructions of “religion” involve culturally specific concepts that developed within particular historical contexts, and ancient people’s understandings of their beliefs, rituals, and objects may often have employed quite different analytical categories. Additionally, archaeological approaches to ancient religions have undergone significant transformation over the 20th and early 21st centuries (see Part II, “History of the Field”). In contrast to the “New Archaeology” of the 1960s–1970s, which portrayed religion as epiphenomenal and downplayed its significance as a primary generator of social change, late-20th-century movements brought renewed attention to ancient symbolism, ideology, and religion and encouraged scholars to seek methodologically rigorous ways to study ancient religion and ritual. The third section of the article (“Current Perspectives and Developments”) examines contemporary research on the archaeology of religion and analyzes the field’s intersections with, and importance to, broader interdisciplinary debates. Today, a proliferation of new scholarship on the archaeology of ancient religions explores the complex interactions between people, objects, and ideas in antiquity. Within the resulting range of new and ongoing developments, this article emphasizes (1) a productive engagement with the broader “material turn” in the humanities and social sciences; (2) a renewed emphasis on religion as a causal force for social change; and (3) an increasing focus on religion’s embeddedness within daily life, entailing the reconsideration of analytical categories such as “domestic cult,” “personal religion,” and “magic.” The contemporary archaeological study of ancient religions is a deeply multidisciplinary endeavor, frequently requiring archaeologists to engage with theories, methods, and specialists from fields that may include anthropology, religious studies, archaeometry, art history, philology, and more. Archaeologists not only generate empirical data about specific sites or cultures, but also investigate broader intellectual questions concerning the role of religion in society, the importance of material culture to religious experience, and the forms of agency wielded by both humans and objects. The archaeology of religion thus has important contributions to make to numerous subjects and debates throughout the humanities and social sciences.
Caitlín E. Barrett
“Lived ancient religion” offers a new perspective on ancient religion. It shares the priority on ritual of many studies from the late 19th century onward but reconstructs ancient religion not as a set of rules or coherent system but a dynamic field of change and tradition. The central notion is taken from contemporary religious studies. The concept of “lived religion” was developed in the late 1990s and has gained a growing reception ever since. Rather than analyzing expert theologies, dogma, or the institutional setting and history of organized religion, the focus of lived religion is on what people actually do: the everyday experience, practices, expressions, and interactions that are related to and constitute religion. In this way, religion is understood as a spectrum of experiences, actions, beliefs, and communications hinging on human interaction with super-human or even transcendent agent(s), usually conceptualized by the ancient Mediterraneans as gods. Material symbols, elaborate forms of representation, and ritualization are called upon for the success of communication with these addressees. The concept of lived religion has only recently been applied to the analysis of ancient religion. With a view to the dynamics of religion in the making, research based on this new concept critically engages with the notions of civic religion and (elective) cults as clearly defined rule- or belief-based systems. It stresses the similarity of practices and techniques of creating meaning and knowledge across a whole range of addressees of religious communication and in light of a high degree of local innovation. The emphasis is not on competing religions or cults but on symbols that are assuming ever-new configurations within a broad cultural space. The central notion of religious agency offers extended possibilities of imagination and intervention—of imagined, invoked, and even experienced divine support in real situations. In this way, the attribution of agency to divine actors provides appropriately creative strategies for the human agents (and sometimes even their audiences) to transcend the situation in question, whether by leading a ritual, casting a person as possessed, invoking means not yet available (as through a vow), or bolstering one’s own party with the favor of divine members. Religions, as seen from below, are the attempt—often by just a few individuals—to at least occasionally create order and boundaries through means other than a normative system imperfectly reproduced by humans. Such boundaries would include the notions of sacred and profane, pure and impure, public and private, as well as gendered conceptions of deities. Institutions such as professional priesthoods and the reformulation of religion as knowledge that is kept and elaborated by such professionals could constitute further features of crucial importance for sketching a history of such systems. This is religion in the making, though it casts itself as religion made forever. Acknowledging the individual appropriation and the production of meaning at play in these situations excludes the employment of only cultural interpretations, drawing on other parts of a dense and coherent web of meaning.
Scott A. Mitchell
Many approaches to the study of Buddhism and media overlap with traditional Buddhist studies methods such as textual analysis, art theory, ethnography, and ritual studies, as well as studies of material culture. Media studies may concern itself with contemporary media messages and forms, but it need not be limited to the realms of mass media and popular culture. In foregrounding media and material cultural, scholars can trace the development and flow of Buddhism as a global religion and cultural phenomenon. Such studies also invariably draw attention to the lived aspects of the religion: How do Buddhists enact or perform Buddhism? How do Buddhists communicate ideas about Buddhism both to other Buddhists as well as to outsiders? And how do these communicative acts change one’s understanding of Buddhism? Such questions go beyond the merely textual, historical, or philosophical and call us to answer deeper questions about the nature of Buddhism in the contemporary, global age.
Ryan P. Bonfiglio
With respect to the study of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, the term iconography refers to the visual images produced in the ancient Near Eastern world. Various types of ancient Near East (ANE) images are attested in the archaeological record, including monumental reliefs, freestanding statues and figurines, picture-bearing coins and ivories, terracottas, amulets, and seals and their impressions. These artistic materials, which constitute an important component of ancient material culture more broadly, display a wide variety of subject matter, ranging from simple depictions of human figures, deities, divine symbols, animals, and vegetation to more complex visual portrayals of worship scenes, battles, and tribute processions. Despite the presence of legal texts in the Old Testament (OT) that ban the production of divine images, ancient Israel produced, imported, and circulated a wealth of images, mostly in the form of seals, scarabs, and amulets. The study of ANE iconography focuses primarily on the subject matter of images, as opposed to issues pertaining to materiality, technique, style, aesthetics, and provenance. Thus the goal of iconographic investigations is to describe the content of a given image and to interpret the message(s) and ideas it was intended to convey. This process often entails analyzing the development of certain motifs over time and how they were deployed in various historical, religious, and social contexts. In this sense, the study of ancient iconography approaches images not so much as decorative pieces that reflect the creative expressions of individual artists, though stylistic creativity of this sort is sometimes possible to discern. Rather, the study of ancient iconography approaches images as forms of communication that were intentionally commissioned, often by the king, to publicly disseminate specific messages, be they political or religious. At a more basic level, the study of ancient iconography can also enhance the reader’s understanding of what objects and places would have looked like in the ancient world. The relationship between ANE iconography and the OT is complex. With few exceptions (cf. Ezek 23:13), the image-text relation is not simply a matter of biblical authors describing a visual image that they had seen. Neither is it a matter of images being created to depict biblical stories or events. Rather, the connection between ANE iconography and the OT is best understood to operate at a conceptual level. Specifically, literary imagery in the OT often reflects motifs and themes that are also present in the iconographic repertoire of the ancient world. The use of ANE iconography in the study of the OT is most commonly referred to as iconographic exegesis. This method of analysis first surfaced in the early 1970s through the pioneering work of Othmar Keel, at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, and has since been furthered through the work of loose network of scholars known as the “Fribourg School.” Much of this research has focused on aspects of the canon that are especially rich in literary imagery, such as the Psalms and the Prophets. ANE iconography has also proven to be a valuable primary source in the study of the history of Israelite religion. Of particular interest is the nature and development of ancient Israel’s ban on divine images and the resulting tradition of aniconism—the notion that Yahweh was not to be represented in visual or material form and/or that any divine image was an impermissible idol.