Analyses of big datasets signal important directions for the archaeology of religion in the Archaic to Mississippian Native North America
Across North America, huge data accumulations derived from decades of cultural resource management studies, combined with old museum collections, provide archaeologists with unparalleled opportunities to explore new questions about the lives of ancient native peoples. For many years the topics of technology, economy, and political organization have received the most research attention, while ritual, religion, and symbolic expression have largely been ignored. This was often the case because researchers considered such topics beyond reach of their methods and data.
In Archaeology and Ancient Religion in the American Midcontinent, editors Brad H. Koldehoff and Timothy R. Pauketat and their contributors demonstrate that this notion is outdated through their analyses of a series of large datasets from the midcontinent, ranging from tiny charred seeds to the cosmic alignments of mounds, they consider new questions about the religious practices and lives of native peoples. At the core of this volume are case studies that explore religious practices from the Cahokia area and surrounding Illinois uplands. Additional chapters explore these topics using data collected from sites and landscapes scattered along the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys.
This innovative work facilitates a greater appreciation for, and understanding of, ancient native religious practices, especially their seamless connections to everyday life and livelihood. The contributors do not advocate for a reduced emphasis on technology, economy, and political organization; rather, they recommend expanding the scope of such studies to include considerations of how religious practices shaped the locations of sites, the character of artifacts, and the content and arrangement of sites and features. They also highlight analytical approaches that are applicable to archaeological datasets from across the Americas and beyond.
Ritual Matters interrupts the anachronistic binaries of religious practice and belief, the material and the theological, by taking a new approach to the study of archaeological remains of ancient religions. Focusing on the materiality of ritual—inherent in everything from monumental temples and altars, to votive offerings and codices, to sanctioned inscriptions and reliefs—allows for a novel vantage point from which to consider ancient religious practices, as well as an important counterbalance to more traditional conceptual perspectives often privileged in the field.
Material remains of religious practices may reveal striking local continuity, but they also highlight points of change, as distinct moments of manufacture and use transformed both sites and objects. Yet not every religious practice leaves a trace: the embodied use of imperial statuary, the rationale for the design of particular sacred books or the ephemeral “magical” implements designed by local religious experts leave few traces, if any, and are therefore less amenable to material investigation. What does remain, however, challenges any neat association between representation and reality or literary claim and practical application.
This volume represents a significant contribution to the material approach of studying the ancient Mediterranean’s diverse religious practices. In addition to volume editors Claudia Moser and Jennifer Knust, contributors include Henri Duday, Gunnel Ekroth, David Frankfurter, Richard Gordon, Valérie Huet, William Van Andringa, and Zsuzsanna Várhelyi. Topics covered include funerary remains, sacrificial practices, “magic,” Roman altars, imperial reliefs and statuary, and the role of sacred books.