Anth 301: Anthropology of Sacred Sites: Exploring the Roots of Religion
Our course will address the question, “How can archaeologists use science to recover symbolic worlds of the past, and the mythic and ritual settings that defined them?”
- Brian Fagan, From Black Land to Fifth Sun (course textbook)
“Archaeology of Sacred Sites” is a course that will give students the opportunity to study religions through the material remains of past cultures, which have been excavated, conserved and interpreted by archaeologists. These remains may be as minute as the organic residues of funeral beverages on the inner surfaces of clay or metal cups from tombs, or a large as entire sacred landscapes. The archaeological record makes it clear that religious experiences were a vital component of all pre-modern cultures, and that the religious impulse has been a driving force in the creation of artifacts and monuments from the Paleolithic era to the present. Although religion is traditionally studied from the perspective of theology, creeds, and iconography, the mute material record of ancient religious practices offers many insights into forms of ritual, vision and belief that appear in widely scattered parts of the world, and widely separated in time.
The sites that will be studied in this course include some of the most famous in the world, ranging from Stonehenge and Easter Island to Giza and Machu Picchu. They include places of initiation, temples for communal worship, gathering places communities of the faithful, depositories of religious offerings, graves of the dead, oracle sites used by prophets, and monumental complexes that gave order to the cosmos. Throughout the course, it will be the goal of our study and discussions to reconstruct the religious beliefs that lie encoded within these sites, and to consider the extent to which the experiences and rituals of long-lost religions still have an impact on the “world religions” of our own time, such as Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.