Online Review: Book

The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion

Thomas E. Emerson


Edited by Timothy Insoll (Oxford Handbooks). Pp. xxvi + 1108, figs. 149, tables 3. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2011. $150. ISBN 978-0-19-923244-44 (cloth).

The Oxford University Press adds yet another handbook to its ever-growing series, this time encompassing the archaeology of ritual and religion. As is to be expected under the guidance of Insoll, a leading scholar in the archaeology of religion, the treatment is both profoundly encyclopedic and intellectually challenging in nature. Insoll gathered 65 researchers to produce 67 chapters that comprehensively scrutinize the diverse field implied in the volume title. The work is thoroughly indexed, with more than 3,500 entries, and each chapter is followed by a short bibliographic essay identifying key works that will serve to broaden the reader's understanding of the topic, as well as a section for references cited. These stand-alone characteristics facilitate the handbook's utility for casual readers who want to dip into articles as they strike their fancy.

Insoll has organized these articles into six sections that sometimes privilege themes, sometimes chronology, geography, or form. The sections include "Elements and Expression" (e.g., monumentality, landscape, death, personhood), "Prehistoric European Ritual and Religion" (the Paleolithic through Iron Age), "Religion and Ritual in World Prehistory" and "Religion and Cult of the Old World" (e.g., Chinese, Egyptian, Roman, Germanic, and Old Norse religions), "Archaeology of World Religions" (e.g., Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism), and "Archaeology of Indigenous and New Religions" (e.g., shamanism, neo-paganism, ancestor cults). Insoll considers the section groupings to be self-evident—I did not find that to be necessarily true. It might have been useful to preface each section with a brief discussion of the theoretical and conceptual commonalities and variations in the grouped contributions.

Religion has increasingly entered the mainstream interpretive repertoire of archaeologists, although not to the extent that Insoll advocates. In an earlier work (Archaeology, Ritual, Religion [London and New York 2004] 12, 23), Insoll centrally positions religion as the "superstructure into which all other aspects of life can be placed." Rather than an adjunct to politics, death, or economics, it should be seen as the structuring principle of life. While not all the authors adopt such an all-encompassing perspective, their contributions demonstrate that few practitioners today ascribe to Hawkes' ("Archeological Theory and Method: Some Suggestions from the Old World," American Anthropologist 56 [1954] 155–68) pessimistic assessment of religion's peripheral position in his "Ladder of Inference."

The contributors to this volume do not debate the feasibility of studying prehistoric religion—the archaeology of religion is essentially part and parcel of their interpretive toolkits. In large part, this may be due, as Insoll observes (ch. 1), to a discipline-wide shift toward a concern for materiality, agency, practice, memory, movement, and performance. If a work this extensive and diverse can be said to have a central tenant, it is materiality and the agency of objects. Insoll especially favors approaches that stress materiality as encoding residues of nonstatic movement and performance—a focus I can empathize with, having long contended that people live their religion.

No part of this collection so embodies Insoll's vision of religion as a structuring force of human activities as the first 20 chapters, which encompass a full third of the book's length. Each chapter focuses on a theme. Some deal with elemental entities (e.g., monumentality, earth [landscape], water, fire) or concepts (e.g., cosmogony, taboo, ritual, sacrifice, myth), while others stress life-changing events such as rites of passage or death, and some explore new research directions such as personhood, gender, senses, or ideology. While the presumed objective of such treatments might be broadly comparative, few achieve that status. Rather, they represent a set of mini case studies, each drawing on the specific archaeological expertise of the author. However, for readers, each contribution is a fascinating challenge that pushes them to reconsider their own areas of research in similar terms.

Parts 2 and 3 contain 21 contributions tied to geographical locations around the world, but the New World and Europe dominate the examples. The western European set of six papers stretches chronologically from the Lower Paleolithic to the Iron Age and are a fascinating read, reprising and encapsulating as they do many of the major research questions in the archaeology of religion. Here, an array of historical and current deliberations are considered, extending from the likely irresolvable question of the correlation between human biological evolution and religious cognition, the uncertainties of links between Paleolithic art, ritual, and religion, the credibility of religion among hunter-gatherer societies, the disciplinary tension in Neolithic megalithic studies over the role of practice in ritual vs. religion, the ritual vs. secular identifications in interpreting material residues, the quandary of balancing historical records and material evidence, as well as attempts to recognize diversity of beliefs in earlier societies. While the contributions can be read individually and in any order, the chapters dealing with Europe in part 2 are best read as a sequential, integrated set.

The following 19 chapters cover what traditionalists might consider to be "real" religions. Such well-known religious observations as those of the high civilizations (e.g., Greece, Egypt, the Etruscans, Mesopotamia, Rome, and the tribal Germanic and Anglo-Saxon peoples) are covered in part 4, while the world religions (Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam) make up part 5. These chapters, none longer than 19 pages, are remarkably concise—certainly a challenge for a scholar summarizing Judaism or Christianity, with their extensive historical records, abundant archaeological research, and more than 2,000-year antiquity. But even with this difference in scale between articles covering rituals, cults, beliefs, and world religion, the volume remains true to a concentration on the materiality of religion. In that characteristic, the focus on the study of world religions, more than anything, is dominated by themes of power, elites, monumental architecture, and political complexity—forces that are often hinted at in studies of earlier periods but never so clearly demonstrated.

The final section of the volume includes six contributions ranging from such classic anthropological categories as shamanism and animism to druidism and neo-shamanism. This potpourri of belief systems seems an incongruous assemblage until one considers that indigenous belief systems often serve as sources of inspiration for the practices of New Agers. Again, the material residues of practice dominate the discussions.

Whether this volume is approached as an encyclopedic compendium, a casual read to be dipped into from time to time, an archaeological treasure trove, or even as a challenge to some belief system, it is most assuredly an intellectual feast. It is a foundational contribution that brings together the essential thinking on the materiality of religion not just for the fields of archaeology and anthropology but also for fellow scholars in religious, cultural, and historical studies, as well as more broadly across the humanities and social sciences and the reading public. This is a truly impressive work of scholarship that will have a very long shelf life.

Thomas E. Emerson
Illinois State Archaeological Survey
University of Illinois
Champaign, Illinois 61820

Book Review of The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion, edited by Timothy Insoll
Reviewed by Thomas E. Emerson
American Journal of Archaeology Volume 117 Number 2 (April 2013), published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1172.Emerson

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Use [fn]...[/fn] (or <fn>...</fn>) to insert automatically numbered footnotes.
  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Click "Save" to submit your comment. Please allow some time for your post to be moderated.