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Archaeology of Ancient Religions  

Caitlín E. Barrett

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.


History of Ancient Israel  

H. G. M. Williamson

The history of ancient Israel is best known to most people from the narratives in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. There, however, the name “Israel” covers a wide diversity of social and political entities over the course of many centuries. The first attestation of the name outside the Bible (on the Egyptian stela of Merneptah, c. 1208 bce) seems to refer at most to some ill-defined tribal federation. It then served for at least two different monarchies and later again as a social or religious title for the people who inhabited the Achaemenid (Persian) province of Yehud. The value of the biblical written records varies considerably with regard to historical content, and this must further be evaluated on the basis of internal literary analysis and in the light of evidence that comes from archaeological research, including in particular from epigraphic sources both from Israel itself and from many near and more distant nations. How to combine these differing forms of evidence has been the topic of lively and sometimes rancorous debate, which varies in its detail from one period to another, often depending on the extent to which external sources are immediately available. Solutions are not always available, but exploration into the nature of these problems and misunderstandings in the application of appropriate methods reveal where the problems lie and, in some cases, what are plausible solutions. Until the 19th century, the history of ancient Israel was, for most people, coterminous with the familiar narrative of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. No relevant external sources were known, and there was no reason to doubt its essential historical reliability, allowance made, of course, for those who could not accept the miraculous as historically factual. Archaeological and epigraphical discoveries over the last two centuries or so, together with the introduction more recently of new and different historical methods, have led to aspects of this topic being fiercely contested in current scholarship. Taking a general familiarity with the outline “story” for granted, the following analysis will present some of the major topics on which new data have become available and on which opinion remains divided.


Approaches to Ancient Religions  

István Czachesz

Ancient religions can be defined as the religions of Mediterranean antiquity, with important connections to the neighboring Ancient Near East. While different approaches to these religions formed throughout European intellectual history, proper academic theories and methods of their study started to emerge in the nineteenth century, with a proliferation of new approaches beginning with the 1990s. Historical approaches reconstruct the development of religions through time and discuss the problems of such reconstructions. Textual criticism studies manuscript traditions and attempts to reconstruct the original text. Various philological methods developed and used especially in biblical studies include the analysis of written and oral sources behind the text, the examination of editorial processes, and reasoning about the original context of the text. Archaeology studies built structures and artifacts from antiquity, employs a variety of dating methods, connects artifacts to social, economic, and environmental conditions, and explores the size, distribution and interconnectedness of archaeological sites. Texts and artifacts might tell different stories and interpretation is needed to gain information from both types of historical evidence. Literary theory approaches texts as finished artifacts instead of looking at the history behind the text. Text-centered approaches include rhetorical, narrative, and typological analysis. Reader-response criticism emphasizes the role of the reader in establishing the meaning of the text. Psychological approaches include traditional psychoanalysis and depth-psychology, as well as historical psychology that uses insights and models from contemporary personality psychology and social psychology. Among social scientific approaches, memory studies look at the formation of textual traditions, including oral composition, transmission, and performance. Models of cultural memory also gained currency. Sociology, social history, and economic history shed light on the socioeconomic background of ancient religions. Religious studies had an intimate connection with anthropology especially in its early period, while models borrowed from cultural and structural anthropology influenced the study of Mediterranean values and social interactions more recently. Gender studies and feminist approaches initially focused on the reinterpretation of women’s roles in ancient religions and especially since the 1990s they addressed gender as a socially constructed category. Work on voluntary associations in the Greco-Roman world sheds light on the social context of private cults. Among new developments, postcolonial criticism both examines the colonial history of ancient cultures and addresses the colonial origins and inclinations of scholarship on religious antiquity. The approach of lived religion focusses on how individuals experience religion in their everyday lives. Cognitive science approaches study the evolutionary and psychological foundations of ancient religious thought and behavior, drawing especially on insights from neuroscience, experimental psychology, and evolutionary theory. Ritual studies employ models of individual and collective ritual behavior to understand cultic practices in religious antiquity. New approaches to magic move beyond cultural constructivism and use the concept as an analytical tool to understand a set of behaviors and attitudes. Insights from cognitive neuroscience have been applied to the study of religious experience. Cultural evolutionary theory has been employed to explain the success of particular religious movements and the development of oral and written traditions. Digital humanities include the computer-assisted collection and analysis of historical evidence and computer modeling tools, such as agent-based models. Finally, network science sheds new light on geographical, social, and textual patterns and dynamics in ancient religions.