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Defining the Sacred: Approaches to the Archaeology of Religion in the Near East

Defining the Sacred: Approaches to the Archaeology of Religion in the Near East

Edited by Nicola Laneri. Pp. ix + 186, figs. 78, tables 3. Oxbow Books, Oxford 2015. $50. ISBN 978-1-78297-679-0 (paper).

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This volume brings together and expands on a series of papers presented at a workshop organized by the editor at the 8th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East held in Warsaw in 2012. It addresses important questions faced by archaeologists trying to identify and define religious structures or thought in periods that lack significant textual information. This basic problem is approached by linking the material evidence provided by archaeology with the textual evidence of philology and religious studies and the theoretical approaches of cognitive science in order to connect religious belief and ritual practice.

The book presents a series of case studies that cover the greater ancient Near East from the Neolithic period in Anatolia and the Levant to the second millennium in Turkmenistan and that deal with topics ranging from the definition of sacred space to animal burials. In an excellent introduction, Laneri offers a brief overview of the current state of scholarship on the study of religion in various fields, including religious studies, philology, and archaeology. He then proceeds to explain the organization of the volume, which is divided into three sections that explore the themes of sacred nature, housing the god, and the materialization of sacred spaces and beliefs.

These three sections focus, respectively, on the ways in which religion is developed as a means of mastering or explaining the natural world, the creation of specific interior or exterior locations for the worship of the numinous, and the relationship between the physical and the sacred. They provide a basic framing for the volume that is clearly laid out in the introduction and does not need further exploration here. In this review, I concentrate on significant trends and novel approaches in the study of the archaeology of religion.

Three trends in particular stand out. The first, which is addressed primarily by the papers in the second section, is the growing realization of the need to widen the discussion of sacred space beyond the temple walls and consider factors of natural location, access, private and community ritual, audience, and extramural sacred space. The idea that ritual activities could take place at different types of sites in the same period is clearly addressed by Andersson’s chapter on the diversity of standing stone monuments in the Early Bronze Age southern Levant, as well as by Nakhai’s paper exploring the forms of national, community, and personal worship in Iron Age II Israel and Judah. The question of whether it is possible to distinguish between official and private religious practice is also addressed by Battini in her chapter on understanding ritual practice. Rosen’s paper on the cult centers of the Negev examines the questions of strategically placed extramural sanctuaries that serve to extend cult practice (and religious belief) beyond settlement walls, while Mazzoni’s contribution explores the role that the open spaces around the temple itself can play in ritual. Catagnoti’s essay, which catalogues the evidence for cultic circumambulations in third- and second-millennium cuneiform texts, also highlights the fact that these rituals could be performed “within a settlement, around the temples…outside the city, around the walls, in the countryside, around fields or political borders” (134).

The second trend is an increasing focus on identifying ritual practice in the physical remains of ancient societies. While the difficulty of reconstructing ritual without the benefit of textual sources or any of the associated perishable materials (e.g., textiles, foodstuffs) or ephemeral activities (e.g., performance, sound, gesture) needs to be acknowledged, increasingly refined techniques of excavation and analysis have allowed scholars to propose detailed reconstructions of rituals. Romana’s discussion of the Temple of the Rock at Ebla, for example, uses the contents of two favissae found in the destruction levels of the temple to reconstruct a purification ritual associated with its final destruction at the hands of the Akkadians. Gošić and Gilead’s study of the metallurgy of the late Ghassulian period in the southern Levant, on the other hand, combines archaeological material and ethnographic comparisons to argue that the production of fine copper objects in this period was purely a ritual practice meant to reflect human mastery over the physical. Dubova’s paper on the animal burials at Gonur Depe, Recht’s chapter on the identification of figural depictions of sacrifice in ancient Near Eastern iconography, and Catagnoti’s paper on circumambulation also reflect different approaches to identifying and reconstructing ritual. Perhaps the most interesting approach to ritual is that taken by Watkins, who uses cognitive theory to support his distinction between social and religious ritual.

Watkins’ chapter is also indicative of a third trend, the attempt to use cognitive and social theory to fit religious ritual and practice into the development of human society. For Watkins, the primary purpose of ritual in the Early Neolithic period was to bind together groups of people as they began to live in larger settlements, where preexisting social ties lost meaning as the number of people with whom one was associated grew beyond the number that one could know personally. Rosen also links the development of extramural sanctuaries in the Negev desert to the adoption of goat pastoralism, while Butterlin uses the construction and reconstruction of massive temples and ritual spaces at Uruk over the course of the fourth millennium as evidence for changing social and religious organization in the earliest phases of urban life. Dietrich and Notroff’s chapter defending the identification of the structures at Gobekli Tepe as cultic also addresses the beginnings of cultic architecture in the Neolithic, but most importantly it brings us back to the original question asked by the volume: how do we identify ritual in an archaeological context?

Like the other authors, Dietrich and Notroff struggle with this question, bringing to the forefront both the difficulty and the necessity of this volume. As with all such collections, it includes stronger and weaker contributions, and the overall editing could have been sharper, both from a stylistic and from an organizational point of view. Many of the papers cover similar materials from similar periods, yet, while the introduction serves to tie the papers together to some degree, it would have been useful to see the authors react to the other papers in the volume. That said, the approaches presented by the papers are varied and often innovative, sometimes raising as many questions as they answer, and they offer significant insights into the archaeology of religion in the ancient Near East.

Marta Ameri
Colby College

Book Review of Defining the Sacred: Approaches to the Archaeology of Religion in the Near East, edited by Nicola Laneri

Reviewed by Marta Ameri

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 1 (January 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1211.Ameri


Geographical definition of Near East as mentioned in the Bible has been misinterpreted by biblical scholars. East always stands for Jerusalem and North for Greece ; please, refer to Ptolemy's peripheral Map of the 'inhabited world'.

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